Over 100 years ago, the 59-mile square island rising up over New York harbor was the epitome of chic, cool sport – fantastic beaches, sunny farmland through which the well-heeled could enjoy an energetic fox hunt, and where one could witness the latest in tennis and cricket gear, to say nothing of the first tennis tournament in the United States.
It was all happening on Staten Island, playground to the upper, upper middle class, as chronicled in the Museum of the City of New York’s show, From Farm to City: Staten Island, 1661-2012. The shows covers the recent history of bridge-building and suburban development, but among the most fascinating parts of the show are those chronicling how our sometimes-forgotten borough gave the birth to modern sporting culture.
The Dutch bought it all from the Lenape in 1657, and SI thrived for centuries as the food supplier to Manhattan and the home of the overland stage service, operating between Philadelphia and Manhattan.
But in the late 1870s, the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club became the epicenter of the lawn tennis craze (imported from England via Bermuda), and by the 1890s, the edge of the island had boardwalks and amusements to rival Coney Island.
Victorian sporting culture was well documented by Staten Island photography pioneer Alice Austen, whose photos have been enlarged to wall murals by the curators to convey the sense of fun, sun, and cachet in the exhibition. The historic home where she grew up has recently posted her work online, an incomparable look at everyday life here in the 1890s.
If you want to compare the past with today on Staten Island, MNCY has done a spectacular job of taking its historic maps and putting them into digital overlay of today’s world. Check out this great online resource to view the view in 1750 or 1829 compares to today. Click on the blue dots to see images of what used to be.