Mariners Marsh - Staten Island
Snake Omelets, psychics and superfunds, the park that has it all. Plus the return of Biagio
I’ve been out of town this week and thought rather than document a neighborhood, I would instead take a deeper look at Mariners Marsh Park. Mariners Marsh borders Mariners Harbor and is in the running for best (and most dangerous) park in the city. If you missed the Mariners Harbor newsletter, you can catch up here:
The Milliken Brothers' iron foundry was built in 1903 on what is today Mariners Marsh Park. Milliken Brothers Inc. was one of the largest steel manufacturers in the country and one of the first to export new steel frame construction materials and techniques to other countries, like Cuba, South Africa, and Costa Rica. Their newly constructed mill in Mariners Harbor also functioned as an advertisement for their expertise.
In 1917, the Downey Shipbuilding Corporation purchased the whole operation, adapting the existing infrastructure to the demands of steamship construction and adding 5,000 workers to the 600 already employed at the plant. Just one later, in an eerie parallel to recent history, activity at Downing’s and every other shipyard in Staten Island ground to a halt with the emergence of the influenza pandemic in 1918. Staten Island Borough President Calvin D. Van Name pressed the NYC health commissioner to close theaters, restaurants, saloons, and dance halls to slow the spread saying,
this is a National disaster and nothing must be left undone to curb the ravages of the disease on Staten Island.1
Hospitals were overwhelmed, and employees were out sick in large numbers as the shipyards struggled to keep up with the demand for WWI vessels. Eventually, the pandemic subsided, and regular activity resumed.
The Sand Bar
Some of that activity included the illegal distribution of rum. The Volstead Act was passed in 1920, banning all manufacture and sale of alcohol, creating a shadow industry in the process. In 1927, close to 2 AM on a hot August night, policeman Ferdinand Dauria noticed a large contingent of men and trucks idling by the Downing docks, the telltale indications of a clandestine rum delivery. Ferdinand called for backup and was soon joined by “half a hundred” of Staten Island’s finest who descended upon the bootleggers. In the confusion, the steamship Ansonia, loaded with illicit cargo, cut ropes and made for the open sea. The boat rammed into two sand barges, splitting one in half, but it was a sandbar that proved the Ansonia’s undoing. She ran aground within spitting distance of the Statue of Liberty. The Ansonia’s cargo of liquor was estimated to be worth $1,000,000, or $17,478,563.22 in today’s money.
Watching the Psychic Detectives
In 1976, teenager Susan Jacobson was murdered in Mariners Marsh by her boyfriend who hid her body in an oil drum. Her bones were found by a boy who was muskrat hunting in the marsh two years later. Interestingly, Dorothy Allison, self-proclaimed psychic detective, had told the police two years prior that the body “could be found in a marshy area, in sight of two bridges and an abandoned car, and near the letters M, A, and R.” 2 The oil drum was in a location that closely matched Allison's description. About 200 feet away, high on a rock, were the red-painted letters MAR. You may be a psychic skeptic, but this intensely narrated “Psychic Profile” of Dorthoy Allison may just change your mind.
Today, Mariners Marsh is a beautiful 107-acre parcel of land, full of wildlife, dotted with ponds and native grasses, and almost always empty. In my three visits there, I’ve only seen one other person, a park worker doing trail maintenance (you can hear a little from him in this week’s field recording). It’s technically a superfund site with traces of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cyanide, coal-tar residue, and benzene contaminants, so that might explain the lack of foot traffic.
The park is only accessible through an awkwardly latched gate hidden in the back of this tiny community garden.
Once you get in, there are signs pointing you to several trails, but after that, you’re pretty much on your own. The terrain is littered with ruins: large, toppled-over trapezoidal blocks of concrete, crumbling underground passageways, and overgrown, rusted tracks running to nowhere, vestiges of its industrial past. With its lush vegetation, abundant wildlife, and Last of Us-esque topography, the landscape is a fascinating cross between post-apocalyptic and idyllic. Post Apocidyllic?
For a look at what’s in store for Mariners Marsh, here is the NYC Parks Departments master plan for the park. In 2022, Govenor Hochul approved one million dollars for planning and development purposes. That is about 6% of the value of the rum seized on the Ansonia in 1927.
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SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
In this week’s field recording, you can learn how a snake makes an omelet. And listen to some birds.
I really love these uncredited photos taken from the Milliken Brothers 1905 Catalog. I would buy a book of them.
Biagio is back
I wanted to post a quick follow-up on Biagio Pergolizzi, the latest owner of the Captain Barnes House I wrote about last week. A subscriber to The Neighborhoods, whose name I am redacting for obvious reasons, reached out to me and said that he had stayed in the Barnes house several years ago as a guest of Mr. Pergolizzi. What follows is his account of that experience.
Dude was (is?) just outsized. Maybe in the mob. A pirate. I think a DJ? A union worker. Think he worked on the Holland Tunnel or maybe one of the bridges . Could definitely handle heavy machinery. (editors note: he was working at Ground Zero at the time)
The house was grand. Run down in parts but pretty well maintained in others. The basement when I was there was filled with theatrical lighting equipment - and audio-visual displays of the kind you might see in a department store. But it seemed to be there temporarily. Like maybe from a heist? About to be sold off?
Last week I casually suggested that this “student of sustainable architecture, bohemian world-traveler, and restorer of classic cars” was a contender for the most interesting man alive. After reading this vivid first-hand account, I think we can safely say that was not hyperbole. Further research corroborated my source’s descriptions. This Village Voice write-up from 2011 documents a tour of the house given by Biagio, including the following description of the first two floors of the house:
Ground floor: The front dining room, which includes a sponge bust of Neptune, will stay the same. What’s now the kitchen will be a bar, just for the house, because “that’s how we roll.” A gilded California King–size bed-platform that’s loosely modeled after Louis XIV’s last sleeping quarters will probably get a dance pole and become a stage. “I’m not kidding—these are things that not only am I capable of doing but possibly will do,” Biagio insists. “Most homeowners like this are 50 to 60 years old and they pay a contractor to do this stuff. Me, there’s nothing that I can’t do. And if I can’t do it, I’ll figure it out.”
Basement: The brick oven is already installed. In addition, Biagio envisions a smoking room, a wine cellar, a gym, an aquarium with something exotic. (“Maybe like octopus, jellyfish, or a seahorse?”) A hot tub done in white marble dust, with a map of the world engraved on the bottom. “And I will just be sitting here, with my feet on the world.”
Biagio's past plans for the house have included an oyster speakeasy (yes), a celebrity rehab center (I think Malibu may be more of a draw), and what was described as an inverted concept bed and breakfast (couch and dinner?). Needless to say, the house is in excellent hands.
Finally, I asked a 16-year-old subscriber to the newsletter for some help on making a video promoting last week’s dispatch from Mariners Harbor. This is the stunning result.
Girl's Skeleton Found At Site Psychic Described, The Windsor Star Mar 28, 1978