Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Other Island

NEW YORK—(Feb.15, 2009) The two postcard sculptures of the 9/11 memorial in St. George on Staten Island stand as a window to where the Twin Towers once stood and are engraved with the names of the 274 islanders killed in the terrorist attack.

By Margaret DeJesus (

NEW YORK—Staten Island is the middle child who craves more attention. Of the five boroughs in the New York City family, it’s often forgotten and overlooked as it sits in the shadow of siblings like Manhattan and Brooklyn.

And it had to put up with a lot of their garbage too. The Fresh Kills Landfill, which opened in 1948 and closed in 2001, was at one time the world’s largest garbage dump and was even visible from outer space. But I assure you, the smell did not attack the nose half as aggressively as a trip over the Goethals Bridge to New Jersey would.

Then, there’s the identity crisis. When I tell people I’m from Staten Island, N.Y., their response tends to be, “I didn’t know Long Island was part of New York City.” Apparently Staten Island never crossed their radar.

A record high of 46 million tourists visited New York City in 2007 according to a report by NYC and Company, the city’s official marketing and tourism firm. Millions of people, whether for work or tourist fun, ride the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan every year and enjoy the scenic route featuring the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. But I bet most never think twice about venturing out of the ferry terminal and exploring this island.

And they should because they’re missing out.

For starters, it has the best pizza in the city. Even Food Network’s Emeril Lagasse thinks so. Joe and Pat’s Pizzeria in Castleton Corners was featured on the best regional pizza styles episode of his show. It’s hard to resist a piping hot thin crust pizza with a perfect distribution of mozzarella cheese and fresh tomato sauce.

Staten Island is also home to the original Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices in Port Richmond. Lines stretch down the street on hot summer days for refreshing treats like a cool lemon ice or a light, creamy vanilla chip. Once you have a Ralph’s ice dripping down your hand, you know it’s summer.

Nicknamed the “Borough of Parks,” Staten Island is not a jungle of steel, glass high rises and yellow taxi cabs, but rather a flat forest of trees and homes. Silver Lake Park and Clove Lakes Park are just two of the borough’s green gems. The possibilities are endless: playing basketball, soccer or football; bike riding; rollerblading; picnicking; jogging or just plain walking.

Not to mention the scenery. During the twilight of a winter’s day, Silver Lake appears to shine.

Conference House Park, located at Staten Island’s southern tip, was the site of a 1776 Revolutionary War peace conference attended by a British commander and American dignitaries like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. The old fashioned cobble stone house near the water built in the 1600s is both a New York City and national landmark.

Traffic is a nightmare though. According to a 2006 estimate, the borough’s population stands at 477, 377 and is expected to keep growing. For an island that is only 13.9 miles long and 7.3 miles wide, it could easily take an hour to go from one shore to the other. Outmaneuvering school buses, soccer moms and workers during rush hour on a weekday is no easy feat.

The beaches are worth checking out too. Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking a swim in the water, unless of course you don’t mind sharing it with the occasional floating Coca Cola can, plastic bag, and shatters of broken sea shells.

Walking along the 2.5 mile long FDR Boardwalk, sunbathing on the sand, or fishing on the pier at Midland Beach to the soundtrack of seagulls also gets you an up close view of the Verrazano Bridge which connects Staten Island to Brooklyn.

It may not be the big time like Manhattan’s MET, but the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art hidden on Lighthouse Hill is certainly a cultural attraction. The collection features 17th to 19th century bronze figurines and Buddhist sculptures. The medicine Buddha sand mandala on the mock altar is a rarity since mandalas are usually dismantled and dispersed into water. The circular pattern of sand representing wholeness explodes in color, especially with shades of red, purple and yellow. The meditation garden carved within the steep hill outside has a wide view of the world below and wrought iron furniture for sitting to take it all in.

Richmond Town, once the center of commerce and government in the 1700s, is now a window to colonial history with 28 preserved buildings that date back centuries. Faded and cracked tombstones line the cemetery outside the stone Church of Saint Andrew founded in 1708. The family burial plot of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American born saint, is situated there.

Just outside the ferry terminal in Saint George, two postcard sculptures stretched like wings honor the 274 victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and serve as one of the city’s few memorials of the tragedy. Gazing across the water to where the Twin Towers once stood, they represent messages to lost loved ones.

Just before dusk on a cold February day, I notice that the sun rests just a little longer on Manhattan.

Visit the Borough President James Molinaro’s website for a list of island parks, cultural attractions and news at:

For a list of famous people who called Staten Island home at one time or another visit:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Financial Crisis Drains Wallets but Not Faith

By Margaret DeJesus (

BOSTON--(Feb.10, 2009) The Rev. Peter Grover (left) greets parishioners after Sunday morning mass outside of Saint Clement Eucharistic Shrine on Boylston Street.
BOSTON—Peter Grover depends on a little extra to make ends meet: faith.
The pastor at Saint Clement Shrine on Boylston Street relies on his congregation to fill up four wicker baskets passed from pew to pew each Sunday morning.
Bunches of singles and five dollar bills float on the surface, a handful of spare change clinks below, and a few folded checks and a twenty or two hide within the typical basket.
“It’s just enough to get by,” said Grover in an interview at the church.
Through the generous donations of parishioners, churches and synagogues are able to operate. But as thousands of Americans lose their jobs, housing markets flounder and stock prices continue to plunge, contributions may not be as easy to come by. Some religious institutions are feeling the effects of the financial crisis while others are still stable.
Grover was always a cost cutter spending only on the “essentials,” air conditioning not being one of them. And if the roof needs fixing, he’s more than happy to “go up there and work on it myself.”
“My staff consists of me, a part time secretary and a noisy bird,” he said while Buddy, his grey and white cockatiel given to him as a birthday gift, chirped wildly in the background.
His parish along with Saint Cecilia, another Roman Catholic church in the Back Bay are holding steady.
“I think people in tough economic times give to the things that are most meaningful to them. To many of our folks, their relationship with the church is most meaningful,” said Mark Lippolt, a member of Saint Cecilia’s finance council in a telephone interview.
The parish finances are primarily raised through pledged annual or monthly donations by parishioners through the offertory commitment program. Lippolt said the level of contributions has remained the same.
“When we had our giving tree this past Christmas, there were a lot more needy people but everyone one of them was taken care of thanks to the donations we got. There’s a lot of spirit here,” said Marge Boyce, who’s been going to the parish for three years and hasn’t changed her giving habits.
According to Bruce Watson, an economics professor at Boston University, it’s still too early to tell.
“Everything tends to work on a lag in economics,” said Watson adding that a church’s location could also determine how it’s affected.
At Our Lady of Lourdes in Jamaica Plain, the economic downturn propelled more immediate effects. The parish’s Catholic school, located in a working class neighborhood, is scheduled to close this June with a current budget deficit of $240,000 according to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston’s website.
“We don’t have enough money in the bank,” said Brendan Buckley, a friar and the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Buckley has already had to let go of a custodian and cut back on part time workers in order to avoid “asking people to donate more money.” But he made it clear that since a parish is a “family of families,” people should be informed of its fiscal position so they can help maintain it.
“We have to educate people so they are not in the dark about our (the parish) financial realities,” he said in an interview outside of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.
Although he hasn’t noticed a drop in Sunday collection money, Buckley said he has talked with several parishioners who have lost jobs in the restaurant and hotel industries. He also noticed food pantry donations are down and requests are up.
The 56-year-old who spent years working with youth in rough neighborhoods in East Harlem and Brooklyn said he’s optimistic of his church’s future.
“Faith doesn’t pay the bills.” Buckley nodded in a momentary flash of defeatism. “But it gives us (people) the inspiration to overcome the struggles we have,” he said.
Synagogues and private Jewish schools also aren’t immune to the recession. According to Rabbi Avi Heller of Boston University’s Hillel House, many synagogues have expensive membership dues that could cost as much as $1000 annually.
“Synagogues don't turn people away who don't pay dues, but there is a level of expectation that if you are a regular you will contribute to keep the institution afloat,” said Heller in an email.
“I’m sure that requests for financial aid from schools and from synagogues asking for reduced dues will go way up. But the schools will be hard pressed to meet those demands because so many of them will suffer on the donation and investment side,” he said.
“I haven't seen a drop in our overall collections but I know people are worried. Some have lost jobs and some are giving less. It's important to be aware of what's happening around us and tune in to how people are dealing with all the changes,” said Eugene Lee, pastor of Cornerstone, an Evangelical church on Newbury Street geared toward college students.
Sitting in a worn out armchair in a back room of Saint Clement Shrine, the Rev. Grover reminisced how his father lived through the Great Depression and survived on a cup of oil for heating.
“If the economy falls apart people can gain strength in other ways. You learn a lot when you have a little,” he said.

To view the complete financial report of the Archdiocese of Boston on the web from the fiscal year ending in June 2007, the most recent records posted, or the previous two years visit:

To view a recent financial report of Saint Cecilia Roman Catholic Church visit: