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Neighborhoods New York – Tottenville, Staten Island

I had a friendly competition with one of my childhood playmates as we were growing up – we kept a running tally of who had been the furthest north, south, east, and/or west of our little street.  First she claimed the “west” trophy because she’d been to Chicago; then I took it when my family went to Tucson.  We both went to Florida so we had a big debate about “south”, and she claimed the “north” trophy with a trip to Boston until I took it with a trip to Maine.  Then I claimed “south” with a high school trip to Puerto Rico.  But then when she went on an honors club trip to Moscow, and nabbed north, east, and west all in one fell swoop, I called the game quits.

But that’s always put me in mind of those kind of cardinal extremes like that – the furthest fringes of a place.  And Tottenville also holds three trophies in one fell swoop – it’s not only New York City’s westernmost point, it’s also the city’s southernmost point – as well as being the southernmost point of New York State.  Worth a visit yeah?

…Well, kinda.  The fringes of a place also can be a bit…sleepy. The public transit can be nil, the big attractions and businesses are closer to the center, and usually all you find is a whole lot of houses and not a whole lot of people.

In Tottenville, though, they’ve at least tried to spin the houses.  Just a block from the train station, someone had set out a basket full of walking-tour maps, free to anyone who wanted to explore some of the Historic Houses Of Amboy Avenue.  Even though an old man stood in the doorway of the house watching me suspiciously, I took one.  The house wasn’t on Amboy Avenue yet – but it still sported a small sign on the lawn reading that it was part of the Tottenville Historic Society’s “Neighborhood Pride” program.  The part of the Amboy Avenue Tour I followed was short – only the last few blocks west to the water.  Most of the houses pointed out were older things, from the early 19th Century; little two-story buildings, lovingly kept up by their owners.  A surprising number belonged to former ship captains or boatmen – not surprising given given Tottenville’s history and marina, but surprising that a shipbuilder could have bought himself anything so fine as the brick Victorian house I passed towards the end of my tour, all gingerbread trim and stately porches.

The more recent houses along the water looked to be all McMansions, sadly; huge towering sprawling houses with huge garages and big columns, fake marble statues in the birdbaths.  One house was so grand that I mistook it for the Conference House, a historic landmark that was supposed to be right by the water.  I followed the long driveway towards the house, looking at the towering three-story white building with the grand porch ahead of me; it wasn’t until I was nearly at the front porch that I realized that a historic house most likely wouldn’t have pink flowered plastic upholstery on the porch furniture, or a hibachi over on the side lawn.

Oops.  I started backing away, then saw a plaque on a stone in the garden declaring that it was a memorial garden kept by the Raritan Women’s Committee.  So…maybe this was a public place anyway.  I still played it safe and stuck to the grounds, following a stone staircase through the woods and down the steep hillside to Raritan Bay, just behind the house.

I lingered a bit at the water’s edge, watching a huge ferry boat trying to do a three-point turn in the channel. Perth-Amboy was just across from me, no more than 150 yards; if the bay were to freeze, I could have walked it easily.  Instead I wandered the water’s edge a bit, looking for another path up and away from shore.  I didn’t find one – but I did find some sort of outsider-art lounge, a little clearing right where the tree line ended where someone had lashed together logs to make a rustic fence complete with gate.  Another framework of logs stood beside it making a sort of wall which was hung all over with bottles dangling from strings – water bottles, baby bottles, pint-size Jack Daniels bottles.  A tree next to the fence was also covered with bottles, all of them spray-painted neon colors and hung up on the tree like demented Christmas ornaments.  A couple of big logs lay under the tree, huddled near a fire ring.  I mentally saluted the creators as I turned to go.

I did eventually find the Conference House, which turned out to be a much more modest stone house in a big bayside park.  The house stood at the top of a hill and had a wonderfully sweeping view of Raritan Bay, and a few couples dotted the hill, their lawn chairs set up under trees so they could watch the water.  A lively older guy sat on the steps as I walked up, talking to a taller guy dressed all in black; he stopped when he saw me coming.  “Hi, can I help you?” he asked.

“Yeah, can I…go in?”

“Well, I can give you a guided tour,” he offered.  “You want a tour?”  I hesitated for a second – I usually like to explore places on my own.  But the taller guy piped up and said sure, he’d go on the tour, so I shrugged and said I’d join them – at least I wouldn’t be the only one.

And fortunately, Dennis – for he introduced himself then – was a heck of a fun guide; a really lively and animated volunteer, who took pride in the place and about how much there was to know about it.  The Conference House, as Dennis explained, used to belong to one Captain Billop, who ran the surrounding land as his plantation – “and I mean a plantation in every sense of the word,” Dennis added.  But in the very beginning of the Revolutionary War, it was the site of an early peace conference between two British military leaders, the Howe brothers, who met with Benjamin Franklin, Sam Adams, and Edward Rutledge to imply that the Colonial forces were vastly outnumbered and should pack it in.  Dennis was visibly having fun acting out the Continental representatives’ approach to the house – gesturing out at the lawn before us, telling us to imagine the field covered with British and Hessian soldiers jeering at Franklin and Adams – “and here was Howe standing here in the door,” he chuckled, folding his arms and trying to act smug, “standing right like this, just watching them…”

The whole house took up only about four or five rooms; two on the ground floor, three on the second, a cramped attic for the servants’ quarters and a basement he called “the factory”.  He had great sympathy for the servants, telling us about the heat or the cold they had to face in the attic and how they had to work to produce all the family’s goods, sometimes running down to flag down the ships entering the bay to trade with them directly. One of those servant girls, he said, may have eventually betrayed Billop to the Union Army towards the end of the war – he was just arrived home after a long night and gone to sleep when the Union Army came to take him away to a prison for several months.  The thing was, Dennis said, that right when he got home and collapsed into his room, one of the servant girls inexplicably got up herself and lit a candle in the front room on the second floor; and the Union Army came soon thereafter.  “So it was probably a signal,” he said.  That story has spawned a further story, he added, that Billop cornered that servant girl when he was finally released from prison and beat her to death, and that her ghost now haunts the house.  “But that’s just on Tuesday nights,” Dennis said wryly; he talked about the Ghost Hunters shows coming to investigate the house, but it seems he takes a dim view of the haunting claims.

A whole big family was waiting at the door when Dennis brought us back to the start, so I left him to his next guests and went wandering a bit in the park.  Conference House Park is far enough away from most roads and the JFK approach path that all I could hear was crickets, and the occasional fishing boat, as I followed one of the paths through the woods and out to the water’s edge again.  I think I ran into maybe two people while I was on the paths – a younger guy, camera in hand, striding purposefully back to the park away from the water, and a woman walking her dog.  More people seemed interested in just sitting out on the hill surveying the water; it was a good place to just loll, I’ll admit.

Instead of lolling, I head back to the train, stopping for a candy bar at the one deli I saw open, a scruffy place manned by two younger guys.  One wordlessly took my money for the candy bar and then went back to the movie he was watching on his iPad by the register; the other guy manned the sandwich counter, but the entire time I was there he was huddled over his iPhone playing Candy Crush.

One other place seemed open, and I’m actually tempted to go in another time – an Italian restaurant that seemed like the “fancy dress” place in Tottenville.  It was right by the train station, and I actually accidentally stumbled into their lawn when I first got out of the train; two kids dressed in valet uniforms sat at the driveway’s edge, looking bored, and I wandered around, confused, looking at their series of oddball lawn sculptures, a bocce court and a prop swing, with a big sign on it labelled “Just for pictures”.  A gazebo festooned with ribbons overlooked the bay, and a drift of rose petals still lay on the ground around it.  A big tent lay behind the house, already set up for some kind of big party, and a cluster of older men in three piece suits hovered around one couple dining on a side porch, every so often giving me odd looks.  When I went to turn back up to the main road I nearly tripped over a live chicken, one of two that were inexplicably wandering loose on the grounds.  The place seemed a bit more lively when I got back to the train station again; a few more couples strolled in the lawn, a cluster of people were by the bocce courts, and the valets seemed to finally have something to do.  The chickens, however, were nowhere to be seen.

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