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FINDING NUMINA IN A REMOTE CORNER OF NEW YORK CITY

By: Michael Vigorito Ph.D.

April 14, 2008

In the southwestern corner of NYC there is a noteworthy divide.  It takes the form of the West Shore Expressway.  North (and West) of this Staten Island roadway in the area known as Rossville are ruins and what many would describe as the squalor of  urban decay, but modernity is manifest immediately South (and East) ofthis divide primarily in the form of predictable and, to some, dispiriting  tract  housing. 1

Looking south you can see people living their lives within a safe suburban neighborhood with the conveniences of strip malls and easy access to the highway.  Looking north there is a very different view. The best vista is achieved by standing near the southwest corner of the intersection of Rossville Avenue and Arthur Kill Road.  (go to http://maps.google.com/ and enter  40.555569, -74.213581).  On both sides of Rossville Avenue along the south side of Arthur Kill Road are the kinds of businesses that people desire but prefer tucked away from residential areas- automotive repair shops, a night club, a car wash.  In this area the Arthur Kill Road forms a shore road along the Arthur Kill tidal strait between Staten Island and the industrial shore of New Jersey.  North of Arthur Kill Road, east of Rossville Avenue is a very small abandoned cemetery.  Behind this tiny plot of land, noticeable in the distance as it emerges from the Arthur Kill, is a man-made mountain known as the former Fresh Kills Landfill. Looking past two buildings west of Rossville Avenue stretching about 900 ft is a fence of corrugated sheet metal. Marked with graffiti at unpredictable intervals it effectively hides the marine scrap yard that lies beyond it.  Across from the scrap yard entrance is an Inn and a tavern conducting business in restored century-old architecture.  Looming further in the distance is another massive man-made structure– the concrete outer shells of twin liquid nitrogen gas tanks, never used and abandoned 30 plus years ago as a result of public opposition.

Between the scrap yard and the abandoned cemetery, at the foot of Rossville Avenue, is a small frame house.  It is someone’s home. It appears to have been recently re-sided.  Potted flowers adorn the front entrance and an American Flag is proudly displayed.  Passersby may wonder who would want to live in this location.  I do not know who calls this place home but whenever I drive by I think to myself…  I would enjoy owning this house.  The relative seclusion of this area and the bit of history that I know about this small corner of NYC brings me closer to the sublime experience.

Ask people where they would live in Rossville- north or south of the expressway – and undoubtedly the majority would respond  “ south “ where modern and affordable housing has sprouted over the past 40 years. But progress and modernity can be heartbreaking.  Only a few decades past this area consisted mostly of scattered houses on remnants of farmland and woodland. Some former inhabitants look at present day Rossville not with pride or nostalgia but with deep sadness. The change in the landscape – from bucolic farmland and woodland to suburban sprawl – is complete and is experienced by some former inhabitants as a profound sense of loss2 But the construction of affordable homes, notwithstanding the problems that overdevelopment brings, has allowed many working class Americans the opportunity to realize their dream of living a suburban life. There is nothing wrong with that.  If decades past the Rossville farmers had looked at what had become of their farms they may have experienced the same sense of loss.  Indeed, some of their descendents still live in Rossville in a community called Sandy Ground. Although it is only a tiny fraction of what it once was, extant at the western edge of Rossville, Sandy Ground is still the longest surviving community in North America that was established by freed slaves.  Many of the farmers working the sandy soil of Rossville in the early 1900s were Sandy Ground community oystermen turned strawberry farmers when the waters became too polluted for harvesting.  However all evidence of the Rossville farms has been obliterated.  The members of the Sandy Ground Historical Museum and community have resigned themselves to the relentless march of progress, instead concentrating their efforts on promoting its history and preserving the spirit of place.3 But this place south of the expressway looks too familiar. It is just like the places where we live and in the absence of any tangible evidence of historic Rossville even those who appreciate the local history may have difficulty invoking the spirits of earlier days.

The North side of the expressway is less familiar. It is not like the places where we live.  It can be eerie.  Some say that it is a sad place. But some find value in what exists here.  Daring urban explorers discover aesthetics in the abandoned sinking boats that are decaying in the waters beyond the corrugated metal fence and wood frame house. 4 The boat graveyard that emerged from the marine salvage activities of the Donjon Marine Company evokes an odd mixture of sadness and tranquility.  The good people of “Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries” find value and comfort in caring for the abandoned Old Blazing Star Burial Ground. 5 Even believers in the paranormal find the graveyards in this remote place – and the purportedly haunted  Old Bermuda Inn across from the marine scrap yard – alluring,  a place to encounter disembodied spirits.  But there is more to appreciate here. There is significant history here.  And yes, there are spirits.

Nonetheless, ghost hunters can put away their EMF meters and other gear.  The tools needed to uncover the spirits of Rossville come from the toolbox of professional and local historians.  I prefer the less familiar term “numina” rather than the hackneyed terms of ghosts or spirits.  By numina I do not mean spirits inhabiting objects and places as believed by the ancient Romans, nor of the experience of the Holy as conceptualized by the theologian Rudolf Otto, but closer to how the pioneering psychologist Carl Jung defined it.  Numina exist, but as products (constructions) of the human brain. These mental constructs result in strong subjective experiences. Not always the powerful experience of spiritual elevation or religious fanaticism that Jung described as “numinous”, but a more subtle sense of awe.   To discover numina accurate historical knowledge is required. (In its absence the mental constructs that effect forceful subjective experiences are non-rational, abstract and approach mysticism).  To discover numina it helps to have physical and geographical evidence.  Evidence made tangible by historical signs and landmark designation of buildings and places help.  Unfortunately, no historical markers exist at this historic corner of NYC.  But if you look carefully some material evidence can be found.

Look at some old maps and you will find that the meandering Arthur Kill Road has followed the same path for 300 years. 6 In the stage coach era travelers encountered a toll located near the intersection of Rossville Avenue and Arthur Kill Road as they journeyed through the area1. The place behind the corrugated metal fence, where the Donjon Marine Company salvages metal from dead boats and barges, is the site of the Old Blazing Star Ferry crossing. During colonial days Rossville was known as Blazing Star, named after a tavern; one of several taverns along this roadway that linked the great cities of colonial New York and colonial Philadelphia. 7 The boat graveyard with the decaying remnants of a wood pier is a reminder that a ferry crossing existed here as far back as pre-revolutionary America.  But for me, to find numina more historical detail is needed. Especially useful is information about specific individuals and events associated with a place.  One need not look long in historical documents to find evidence related to this place.

On  November 9 , 1771 a young man on his way to New York  from Philadelphia walked off the ferry at Old Blazing Star and traveled  to an old Dutch house about 1 ½ miles on Woodrow Road. The next day he returned to the house of Justice Hezekiah Wright on the shore road across from the Blazing Star Ferry. In both houses the man, Francis Asbury (of whom Asbury Park is named), gathered with the locals to preach the principals of Methodism taught to him by its founder, John Wesley. 8 On these two November days American Methodism took hold on Staten Island. 9 (Judge Wright’s house was replaced in the mid 1800s by the former St Luke’s Episcopal Church; some of St. Luke’s buildings are still standing, restored by the Old Bermuda Inn & Wedding Cottage 10 and Big Nose Kate’s Saloon and Eatery. 11

A few years later on August 22, 1777 in the midst of the American Revolution, General John Sullivan directed about 1000 continental soldiers under his command to cross at the Old Blazing Star Ferry to New Jersey as the British army punctuated their departure off the island with cannonade. 12 Historians and history buffs with a penchant for the American Revolution characteristically describe Sullivan’s raid of Staten Island as a minor skirmish.  But to understand an event like the American Revolution it is not enough to analyze major battles (that is for military enthusiasts).  The revolution was about the struggle among people. The battle of Staten Island was primarily a battle of Americans (Patriots) against Americans (British Loyalists).  The revolution was a civil war as much as it was a revolutionary war and no study makes a better case for this as does the study of revolutionary war Staten Island. 13 Moreover, as Sullivan escaped across the Arthur Kill tidal strait to New Jersey he carried with him papers that were discovered among the plunder. 14 The seditious papers (most likely forgeries) implicated the Quakers – staunch pacifists refusing to take sides in the conflict – as potential enemies of the glorious cause of American independence. 15 As a result, the Continental Congress ordered the arrest and exile of the Quaker leaders to Virginia. 16 Although they were released well before the war’s end, this action set a precedent for how America reacts toward specific groups on American soil during a time of war. This reaction was witnessed again with the internment of Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants during WW II and more recently, in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, with the “Special Registration” of visiting nationals of Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Arab countries. 17

More history can be found in the surviving inscriptions in the Rossville graveyards. In the boat graveyard a faded  ”Abram S. Hewitt” appears on the bow of a century-old fireboat. 18 Named after a NYC mayor, this relic is connected with one of the worst maritime accidents in NYC history- the General Slocum Steamship disaster of 1904. 19 In the Blazing Star graveyard the inscriptions on the tombstones dating back to the mid 1700s reveal the names of some founding families of Staten Island.

There is history in this remote corner of NYC.  Perhaps it would help others to find numina here if the area was more pleasing, but not made too familiar. Not too much like home.  The restoration and conversion of one of the buildings on the former St. Luke’s property into the charming Wedding Cottage Bed & Breakfast is a start10. The clean up and care of the Blazing Star graveyard helps too. A large mural on the fence of the marine yard depicting the old Blazing Star Ferry in colonial times would be nice.   Perhaps more people will come here to find numina when the transformation occurring in the distance behind the graveyard is complete.  The conversion of the former landfill to public park land is underway and will include a September 11 memorial to commemorate not only the tragedy, but also the ashes of human remains that were interred there after the sorting and processing of the World Trade Center debris ended.20

1 The End of New York: The ruins of Rossville.
http://www.forgotten-ny.com/YOU’D%20NEVER%20BELIEVE/rossville/rossville.html

2 My Father’s House
http://hometown.aol.com/jinnie123/staten.htm

3 Fossella: Designate Sandy Ground an Underground Railroad stop.  Staten Island Advance, June 12, 2007.
http://www.silive.com/news/advance/index.ssf?/base/news/118164963687580.xml&coll=1

4 The Boatyard
http://oboylephoto.com/boatyard/index2.htm

5 Friends of abandoned cemeteries
http://www.rootsweb.com/~nyrichmo/facsi.shtml

6 The Library of Congress: American Memory, Plan of New York and Staten Island with part of Long Island.
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/h?ammem/gmd:@field(NUMBER+@band(g3804n+ar109900))

7 Morris’s Memorial History of Staten Island Vol. 1 & 2 (1898).  Available for download at
http://books.google.com/bkshp?hl=en&tab=wp

8 Kimmerer, G. (1976).  A History of Faith Methodist Church.
http://bgsohm.tripod.com/faithumchurch/id1.html

9 James Bowden (1854). The History of the Society of Friends in America. Available for download at
http://books.google.com/bkshp?hl=en&tab=wp

10 Wedding Cottage at the Old Bermuda Inn.
http://www.weddingcottage.com/index.htm

11 Big Nose Kate’s, Staten Island Advance June 6, 2004.
http://www.silive.com/dining/reviews_advance.ssf?1360?1360
12 John Scribner Jenness (1889) Transcripts from Ancient Documents in the English Archives in London. Includes the transcripts of the investigation of General Sullivan’s conduct during the attack on Staten Island. Available for download at
http://books.google.com/bkshp?hl=en&tab=wp (images of documents also available at Footnote.com)

13 Papas, Phillip (2007) That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution, New York University Press.

14 Gilpin, Thomas (1848). Exiles in Virginia: With Observations on the Conduct of the Society of Friends During the Revolutionary War. [see  page 61-63.] Available for download at
http://books.google.com/bkshp?hl=en&tab=wp

15 One of the papers found on Staten Island during Sullivan’s raid allegedly was written at a “Society of Friends” (Quaker) meeting in Spanktown (NJ). The note suggested that the Quakers were supplying the British with information on the location of Washington’s army. The Continental Congress already suspected the Quakers and this note finally forced their hand. The note can be seen at
http://www.footnote.com/searchdocuments.php?query=spanktown&collection=-1#183968

16 The Library of Congress American Memory: Journals of the American Congress from 1774 to 1789, Thursday August 28, 1777, pp. 694-695.
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00885)):

17 Special Registration by Chaleampon Ritthichai, Gotham Gazette, March 24, 2003.
http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/issueoftheweek/20030324/200/324

18 The Abram Hewitt
http://www.opacity.us/image2999_the_abram_hewitt.htm

19 Forgotten New York: Brother Islands.
http://www.forgotten-ny.com/YOU’D%20NEVER%20BELIEVE/brothers/brothers.html

20 Fresh Kills Park
http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_your_park/fresh_kills_park/html/fresh_kills_park.html