NEW YORK – It is known as New York City's greenest borough — and also as its forgotten borough. But beyond the ferry, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and maybe the Fresh Kills landfill, few people outside Staten Island know of its rich history as a strategic site in New York Harbor, a farming center, a recreational haven and a suburban retreat.
A new exhibition aims to rectify that. "From Farm to City: Staten Island 1661-2012" opened at the Museum of the City of New York on Thursday and runs through Jan. 21.
"There are a lot of surprises about Staten Island for people who don't know Staten Island very well, and for Staten Islanders as well," said chief curator and deputy director Sarah Henry.
The exhibition looks at the land uses that shaped the 59-square-mile island once known as Richmond County over a 350-year period: farming, recreation, suburban and urban mixed-use development.
"We chose case studies for each of the typologies, going through the island in space and time," said Liz McEnaney, the exhibition's guest curator.
Through archival and contemporary maps, photographs and objects, the show highlights the debates that were central throughout Staten Island's history. The exhibition tells visitors of the challenge facing residents "to strike a balance between natural and urban landscapes, between density and open space, between development and preservation, between providing infrastructure and protecting its distinctive landscape and sense of place."
Among the highlights are maps from the 18th through the 20th centuries that are geo-rectified so they lay properly on contemporary maps.
"You can zoom in very, very far in, you can go to block level so you can pick any part of Staten Island and watch it change over time," said Henry.
Visitors will learn that despite its rocky and marshy landscape, half of Staten Island was devoted to agriculture by the 1840s because of its location on the harbor, which provided farmers easy access to Manhattan's growing markets. Today, only three farms remain.
Manhattanites in turn came to Staten Island to hunt foxes, play at cricket and tennis clubs and visit its beachfront resorts. The wealthy, including Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, build elegant mansions there.
Staten Island is the only borough without a subway line, and the issue of transportation runs throughout the exhibition, which chronicles unrealized proposals over the years to connect Staten Island by subway or tunnel to the rest of the city.
Ferries connected Staten Island to Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey early on, and the exhibit shows how the construction of the Verrazano in 1964 had one of the most transformative effects on the island, opening it up and making it more accessible.
Similar in size to Atlanta or Sacramento, today the island is a car-driven borough whose residents contend with the longest commute times in the city.
But it is also the greenest of all five boroughs. The former Fresh Kills landfill, perhaps best known as the temporary site where debris from the World Trade Center site was brought and sorted, is being transformed into a park and will be three times the size of Central Park when completed soon.
The exhibition also drives the theme of the tension between development and preservation. Photographs show construction of roads, homes and bridges but the exhibit also highlights Staten Islanders' opposition to a Robert Moses proposal to build an expressway that would have cut through the middle of the island.
The last section of the exhibition raises an open-ended question about Staten Island's future: "Who will shape the landscape for the future? And what will it look like?"
Asked about the impetus for the exhibition, McEnaney said, "Staten Island has been the forgotten borough for a long period of time. ... It's the fastest-growing borough in terms of population and with the reinvention of Fresh Kill," the timing was right.
The exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Staten Island Museum and the Staten Island Historical Society.
If You Go...
MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK: 1220 Fifth Ave., near 104th Street, in Manhattan; http://www.mcny.org or 212-534-1672. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. "From Farm to City, Staten Island, 1661-2012" through Jan. 21, 2013.