Capt. Cornelius Corsen, born in 1645, was justice of the peace and captain of the militia on Staten Island. He was also my ninth great-grandfather, and for seven generations after him, his descendants lived, worked, played, and died on Staten Island. They were mariners: oystermen, ferryboat captains, and shipbuilders.
It was not until the late 1950’s – three hundred years later – that some of us in the ninth generation were born somewhere other than the Island. I was one of those.
But it’s funny how memory is stored in your DNA. When I was two, my family made a trip to attend my uncle’s college graduation ceremony, held at Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island. This group of stately, beautiful buildings had a wide lawn that ran straight up to a concrete seawall, past which enormous ships were berthed, with the whole of New York Harbor beyond.
I could smell the sea; hear the clanks and groans of rusting metal as ships rocked in their berths; watched the seagulls diving for fish and bread scraps from people. I remember the dress I was wearing and the tiny toddler patent leather shoes. I remember my mother cautioning me not to go to close to the water: there was no fence, just the edge of the wall and then a drop-off into the harbor.
But I was not afraid at Snug Harbor. Instead, there came over me a strange sense of comfort. I was only starting to talk then, and had no words. But from the vantage point of time, I know the word for that feeling was recognition. It was cellular memory. In that place I’d never been before, I heard the whisperings of other old boats, creaking against wooden docks, the day’s catch being unloaded, salty men going home to their wives, one more load of passengers to Bergen before quitting for the night. My fathers and their fathers and their fathers.
At Snug Harbor I knew: Staten Island was my home place.
Since then I have lived in four other states, but always, always Staten Island calls to me. The graves of my ancestors and some of their homes still stand. I grow more, not less, attached to it the longer I am away.
Staten Island is a great undiscovered American story. It been a community of farmers; it has been a beach resort for the wealthy; it was a center of British loyalism during the War of Independence; it was a hideaway for slaves on the Underground Railroad. It has been an engine of industry; it has seen an industrial rust belt decline. It has been a center of seafood production; it produces seafood no more. It has had an insular island culture; it has been a magnet for immigrants. It was isolated from the rest of New York City; it is now connected. It is geographically part of New Jersey; it is politically part of New York. It was the first piece of land sighted by Hendrik Hudson and Verrazanno; it was the last piece developed. It is world famous for its ferry; it is the least well-known borough by virtue of needing one.
Every home place has its story.