Playing Telephone with History
I spent the summer of 2012 exploring Staten Island’s North Shore, where four generations of my family lived from the late 1800s until 1965. Working off of a list of addresses that were significant to my family, I abandoned the idea of recreating history and instead photographed whatever or whomever currently occupies those spaces. From Chinese restaurants to Baptist churches, the juxtaposition of historical and contemporary photos allowed me to play telephone with history, revealing the area’s nuanced shifts in religion, economics and ethnicity over the past century.
Moses and Lena Cohen, my great-great-grandparents, owned Cohen’s Boot Shoppe on Jersey Street, which was once a thriving Jewish community.
They lived above the store with their thirteen children, including my great-grandfather Artie. The family belonged to the Jersey Street Shul, a synagogue located up the block from their home.
The neighborhood began to decay rapidly around the 1960s and only a few of the buildings from that era remain.
The building that was once the Shul still stands and is now the home of the New Direction Baptist Church.
The building that once was
home to the Cohen family was demolished and replaced by townhouse apartments in
1984, where James Lee (top) has lived his entire life. His father found this Star of David in the backyard years ago.
* * *
My grandfather, Herb Israel, was five years old when his parents, Anna and Morris, moved from the Lower East Side to Staten Island.
They lived above the candy shop they ran at 854 Bay Street. The store was open from seven am to midnight every day.
Morris worked from opening to closing, except for an hour in the afternoon when Anna would cover while he took a break. Anna could also be found at Quinn’s, the bar next door.
A Chinese restaurant stands where Quinn's once was. Lenny Vosbrink’s company, Mentor Mechanical, now occupies the storefront where the candy shop had been. His daughter, Melanie, works for him part-time while working on her college degree.
* * *
My grandmother Claire Israel (née Cohen) was born to Artie and Julia Cohen when they lived on Scarboro Road.
They moved around a number of times but this is the home that she refers to as her childhood home.
There is a large rosebush growing in the backyard. The type of rose was popular in the 1920s, and based on the size of the bush I suspect that it was planted during the time that my family lived in the home.
Abe Nakeeb and his mother currently live in the house.
* * *
When my grandparents, Herb and Claire Israel, were young parents, they lived in the same Hart Boulevard apartment building as my great-grandparents, Julia and Artie Cohen.
When they had their third child, my Aunt Robin Maxson, they moved to a house on Northern Boulevard. They lived there until they moved from Staten Island in 1965. The house was in a short row of identical buildings. While their home has been significantly remodeled, the neighboring houses remain the same.
* * *
My grandparents were members of Temple Israel, which was originally located on Victory Boulevard.
In 1959 a fire destroyed the synagogue, and for one year services were held at the Unitarian Church of Staten Island until the congregation found a permanent home on Forest Avenue.
It was in this gap year at the Unitarian Church that my father, Michael Israel, had his Bar Mitzvah.
The reception was held at the Staaten on Forest Avenue.
* * *
I asked my father and my aunt to tell me some of their most vivid childhood memories of Staten Island. I was told about my great-grandparents taking them to the amusement parks at South Beach.
I was told that they would save up all week to buy bologna sandwiches and Drake’s cakes at Mauro’s Market, located across the street from PS 29.
I was told about putting pennies on the train tracks. I was told about taking the train to the end of the line and back “just because.”
* * *
My grandfather Herb was the running back at Curtis High School. It is something he still talks about whenever I see him. However, I have never seen a photo of him in uniform.
My father Michael also played football, but the family moved from Staten Island before he was able to play for Curtis. He remembers playing at Hy Turkin field because it was the only place that had lights so the team could practice at night.
My great-grandfather Artie was an amateur boxer, and I have been told that he trained at the Jewish Community Center, which is where my father and his two sisters would play sports after school.
* * *
This body of work is based on following a list of addresses that have historical significance to my family. In the process of trying to align our past with present-day Staten Island I generated a “B-reel”—images capturing parts of the North Shore that sparked my interest along the way.
There was the salvaged piece of a Coney Island amusement park I found behind a building.
There was a mechanic named Alan that stores a camper he hasn’t used in years next to the garage he works at.
There was a house in Port Richmond I couldn’t stop staring at. There was more. There will always be more.
* * *
Tara Israel is Narratively’s photo editor, born and raised among the local fishermen and seasonal Manhattanites of East Hampton and currently residing in New York City. She recently completed a two-month artist residency at Snug Harbor on Staten Island.