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New Exhibit Tracks the History of Staten Island

By Nicholas Rizzi | September 20, 2012 4:42pm

MANHATTAN — New York City used to be mostly open farmland once, and the agricutural background of one of its boroughs is on display in a new museum exhibit.

"From Farm to City: Staten Island, 1661-2012," opened last week at the Museum of the City of New York in East Harlem and tracks the development of land use in the borough in the last 351 years.

"It's a compelling story in its own right," said Sarah Henry, chief curator for the museum. "It's a very interesting lens through which to view these kinds of broader issues of planning, preservation and land use that every borough and every community faces."

The exhibit focuses on the shift of farmland on the island to more suburban and urban uses of today, and aims to give non-Staten Islanders a better understanding of the borough, Henry said.

"There's things that we think will be interesting and surprising to those people, and hope to encourage them to visit Staten Island to discover the place if they're not well versed in it," she said.

The exhibit features maps, photographs and artifacts from the history of Staten Island, as well as recent photographs by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao to give visitors a sense of the current landscape of the borough.

"It's all about this dialogue between the past and present," Henry said.

The museum also set up a companion website, "Mapping Staten Island," where users can click through and view historic maps from 1750 to 1969.

Henry said that non-Staten Islanders who have toured the display have gained a newfound appreciation for the borough.

"People are kind of berating themselves that they haven't spent much time on Staten Island and now how they intend to do so," Henry said.

She added that Staten Islanders too have also enjoyed the in-depth look at their home's history.

The exhibit tracks the history of the many parks developed on Staten Island, including the upcoming Fresh Kills Park, and how the borough used to be a popular getaway for city residents.

"Staten Island was the Hampton's of the 19th century," Henry said. "It was a place to get away from it all. Developers created the amusements park, boardwalks."

After the island was known as a place of recreation, land began shifting to more suburban and urban use in different parts of the borough, Henry said.

In a section called City, the display also highlights the changing waterfront of the North Shore, and what could happen in the future for those neighborhoods.

"City is about how a more typically urban lifestyle is also available on Staten Island and how that has changed over time," said Henry. "This de-urbanization that happened and how they are evolving and coming back and being revived by immigrants and arts."

Henry has long been interested on giving space to Staten Island in the museum, and was given the chance when Richmond County Savings Fund sponsored the exhibit.

It took nearly two years of research and gathering to put together "From Farm to City," with help from the Staten Island Historical Society at Historic Richmond Town, and the Staten Island Museum.

"From Farm to City," will run at the Museum of the City of New York until January 21.