In 1956, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell published his now legendary story, “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” about one of the oldest survivors of a 19th-century village of black oystermen on Staten Island. That world was endangered back then. Sixty-two years later, that world is mostly gone.
For Curbed, photographeer Nathan Kensinger travels to Staten Island to document Sharrotts Shoreline, a patch of land he calls “a remote wilderness” that’s threatened by development. It’s hard to imagine any place in the five boroughs qualifying as remote wilderness, but this section of southern Staten Island is highly inaccessible, and neglect has allowed native plants and animals to thrive among the dumped cars and old spare tires.
As it wanders through a forested area, the creek cuts through an old oyster midden, where discarded oyster shells are stacked up into a high pile. These sites are often of great archaeological interest, with other artifacts often mixed in to the oyster shells. The midden is one of several in the area, and could date back to either the colonial era or to earlier Native American settlements. “You can still see Native American artifacts around Charleston,” says Matarazzo, who has extensively explored this section of Tappen’s Creek.
Further inland along its route, the creek passes through a wetlands area situated alongside Ellis Road. According to maps, the flow of the creek here is much the same as it was over 100 years ago.
Kenigner hikes with the Protectors of Pine Oak Woods, photographing as they go. As they walk, they discuss whether they can save the land’s old burial grounds and oyster middens, and they talk with neighors to gauge the potential loss to the community.
A portion of this property is currently maintained by neighbors, who have installed birdhouses for a purple martin colony. “The inky, iridescent birds winter in Brazil and migrate some 4,000 miles to return to their digs,” according to the Staten Island Advance. “It would be a shame if they sell that land. It’s so full of wildlife,” says one neighbor, who lives across the street from the Sharrotts Road development property. “It doesn’t make any sense, because just down the hill, you are on protected State land.”