Projects and enterprises that reinforce local knowledge networks and common cause in a community are the beating heart of a regenerative economy. They build trust as they create local communities of practice and idea exchanges, nurturing the collaborative skills critical to any self-sustaining community that can respond nimbly and adapts to changing circumstances.
Drawing on Tottenville’s rich historical and natural assets, we can begin to think about what projects might help catalyze new knowledge networks and revive old ones. Here we imagine a few possibilities.
Tottenville's shoreline once bustled with ship-building, docks, ferry lines, fishing, and tourism. Now the Living Breakwaters Project and aquaculture farming (and the last surviving ship repair yard) could help the community reconnect with its marine past.
Tottenville is home to Conference House Park where American history was made. Many other houses and structures of architectural distinction are waiting to be restored or repurposed.
Main Street grew organically out of the local marine economy of Tottenville. Can we imagine a Main Street of interconnected businesses that supports a new economy and reweaves the community fabric?
Farming was Tottenville's first industry. Could Tottenville and neighboring South Shore communities be leaders in NYC's growing regenerative urban farming movement?
Rebuilding a Marine Economy
John Garners' Shipyard and Accidental Museum
"When I bought the marina property in 1977, I had a lot to do. It was completely overgrown. A wasteland. It was all woods, derilect cars, wrecks.” Having spent years as a dockbuilder for others, Mr. Garner was well qualified to design and construct his own. Located ideally at a confluence of waterways, Tottenville Marina seemed destined for success once it got going."—from “What’s In John Garner’s Pocket,” by Don Sutherland, Marinelink
Fifty percent of Tottenville is bounded by water and its waterways are its most prized natural asset. The shoreline supported Tottenville's early maritime economy, including the ship-building, oystering, clamming, and tourism industries that flourished in its economic heyday. A vestige of that economy is alive and well today at John Garner's shipyard, although few, even in Tottenville, know about it, let alone recognize its value.
Known officially as Garpo Marine Services, the shipyard is located on the Arthur Kill at the foot of Ellis Avenue. Garner repairs and restores boats at a cost that boat-owners and preservationists can afford—everything from South Street Seaport's historic schooners to the working tugboats that ply the regional waterways, to Staten Island ferryboats.
In his eloquent paean to this unique 5-acre pocket shipyard, the southernmost in New York, Sutherland invites us to see it not just as a place where boats are repaired but as an accidental museum where, if you are lucky to arrive at the right moment, you can view a slice of maritime history:
…“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, the Garpo Traveling Impromptu Museum sets it out before you.”
Living Breakwaters Partnerships
Can we imagine the planned Living Breakwaters storm mitigation and marine stewardship project serving as a modern day “college by the Tottenville shoreline,” incubating marine careers for a new generation of locals, just as in an earlier day Nassau Smelting served as "the college by the creek"? Scape Landscape Architects, the lead design consultant for Living Breakwaters, hopes it will. The project is designed to create a living laboratory for students and teachers of both Governors Island Harbor School and local south shore schools as they study and nurture the marine life that will help reinforce the man-made breakwaters. The city's Billion Oyster Project is a key collaborator.
Currently few local residents qualify for jobs in New York City’s marine economy because they lack the requisite skills and training. The Living Breakwaters project will not only cultivate marine biodiversity. It will also engage in workforce development to enable a new generation of New Yorkers to earn their livelihood in the city's $7 billion maritime economy.
Tottenville is a possible location for a pilot underwater community kelp farm. The farm, which might operate as a Community Supported Fishery or CSF, could provide collaborative skill-building opportunities for all generations of Tottenvillians and could help jumpstart a 21st century marine industry in the town. “There are over 10,000 edible plants in the sea, and these can be used for everything from food, to fertilizers, to fuel,”says Bren Smith a former fisherman who now operates the not-for-profit Greenwave, an organization promoting aquaculture including kelp farming. “This is the beginning of a 100-year journey into restorative ocean farming.”
The waters off the South Shore of Staten Island do not currently meet the standards that would permit kelp harvesting for human consumption. But because of its ability to extract nutrients from polluted waters, thus returning them over time to economic productivity, kelp is poised to play a central role in a nascent industry called extractive aquaculture. In the near-term, kelp farming on Staten Island could help purify the local waters, enabling the regeneration of the marine economy over the long term. And in the near term, the purifying properties of kelp may soon be monetized as the market for ecosystem services matures. “We can move into our oceans and create vibrant farms and eventually businesses that people can own and have agency over,” says Smith.
Renewing the Built Environment
With its deep inventory of homes and buildings of both historic and architectural distinction—a number located in Conference House Park--Tottenville has enough built assets to draw history and architectural preservation buffs in significant numbers. Many local residents and business owners have resisted landmarking efforts and more than a few historic structures have been demolished to make way for new development. Yet many remain standing. Among them is The James L. and Lucinda Bedell House (see above), situated a short stretch from the intersection of Main Street and Amboy Road. Built in the late 19th century it is the only Second Empire frame house in Tottenville that retains most its historic character. Left vacant by its former owner for many years and defaced by graffiti, it was recently purchased and restored by Thomas Kocian, a Staten Island attorney, to house his practice. His efforts may inspire others in the community to follow suit.
Celebrating Tottenville's Industrial Arts Legacy
The facade of Manhattan's Woolworth Building is constructed entirely of the terra cotta fashioned by highly skilled immigrant artisans at Tottenville's Atlantic Terra Cotta. The factory closed in 1943 but its output continues to grace the facades of countless buildings in the New York City area.
A collection of ornamental terra cottage objects manufactured by Atlantic Terra Cotta were bequeathed to the Tottenville Historical Society, including the "W" that was to be used in the Worth Street subway station in Manhattan (pictured above.) These objects are now part of an outdoor sculpture garden outside the historic H.H. Biddle House, a New York City designated landmark, located on the grounds of historic Conference House Park.
A NETWORKED 21ST CENTURY MAIN STREET
Main Street experienced steep decline as both Tottenville's marine and industrial economies disappeared. Commercial activity has moved to strip-mall-lined Page Avenue a few blocks away, which, designed for cars not walking, eliminates the chance encounters that build community ties and pride of place.
Still, a handful of small businesses along Amboy Road around the corner from Main Street could help seed the rebirth of that once thriving commercial district--a new bike shop, a family- owned bakery, an art gallery and crafts store, and an Italian restaurant opened by a Manhattan Mulberry Street restaurateur.
But is it possible to imagine a new generation of truly interconnected enterprises reviving Main Street? Our science advisor Sally Goerner thinks it is: “Jane Jacobs talked about this a lot,” she reports. “You don’t just want to build a restaurant over here and one-off enterprises there. You want to build a whole network of mutually supportive endeavors. These relationships among local businesses and (perhaps, one day) local farmers will help keep money circulating locally, which helps keep good jobs, good schools, and general economic vitality local as well."
Watch this space for news of Main Street reimaginings, coming soon.
Reviving Urban Farming
Reviving Urban Farming
Laura Adrian Wilton spent her early years on Staten Island's South Shore. She is the owner of Brooklyn-based Living Restoration, which recently constructed a pop-up vertical vegetable garden on the West Shore Green Zone site and a Living Roof on the roof of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. She wanted to demonstrate the potential for vertical farming on Staten Island. Adrian's long-term goal is to jumpstart a renaissance of urban farming on an island where a number of working farms were operating as recently as the mid-twentieth century.
"My number one mission is job creation through farming," she notes, "and Tottenville could be the perfect opportunity, one of the few places in New York City that both doesn’t have contaminated soil and has a lot of young people with nothing to do."
drian has a special dream to see some of the acreage of the Mt. Loretto Unique Area— currently managed by the NYC Department of Environmental Conservation, and the site of a former orphanage and farm contiguous to Tottenville's Conference House Park—restored to an urban farm. "Mt. Loretto and the Conference House Park are areas where there wasn’t as much industrial business as on the north shore of Staten Island," she reports, "So the land didn’t get exposed to contaminants."