|Dorothy Day on Staten Island|
Day was writing from her room in Maryhouse, the Catholic Worker community house on East 3rd St. (overlooking the Hells Angels clubhouse), but the event recalled a time much earlier on Staten Island: ... I sat one day in a rocking chair 50 years ago, nursing my tiny daughter in front of a large mirror which hung from my wall in my beach bungalow in S.I. and suddenly saw that mirror begin to quiver as tho a train or truck, neither of which could be within miles of us, had suddenly passed the little house, making it tremble.
Dorothy Day had moved to Staten Island in 1925 with Forster Batterham. There she gave birth to their daughter, Tamar. She converted to Catholicism and was baptized Our Lady Help of Christians in Tottenville. She died at Maryhouse, in the East Village, but is buried in Cemetery of the Resurrection in Pleasant Plains. Up until her last few years, she spent summers in one of the Catholic Worker bungalows in the Spanish Camp on the west end of the island overlooking Raritan Bay.
Day's first cottage, where she lived with Batterham and then Tamar, was purchased with royalties from her first novel, was a "tin-roofed fisherman's shack" on a 25 by 50 foot lot between Huguenot and Arbutus avenues. It is still a beautiful stretch of beach, long ago given over to mini-mansions (below).
The shack was not far from the Spanish Camp, which was established in the 1920s as a summer refuge for Spanish immigrant workers. The Catholic Worker eventually bought three bungalows in the Camp. The Spanish Camp survived until 1997, when a developer bought the property to create "Central Park East": McMansions on the shore. The three CW bungalows were being considered for landmarks designation when the developer illegally razed them along with many others (Times story here). Only a few of the new houses have been completed. About a dozen bungalows remain, mostly in ruins (below), but a few still inhabited. (Taking photos of the beach, a man appeared on a back porch of one. Shirtless despite the 40-degree temperature. A survivor!)
|Model home for Central Park East|
Day describes the surrounding area: Next door to us Mr. Prasse has a fine goat farm, a registered herd, and a milk route, and he has several heavy fields of alfalfa. All around us there are examples of how the little farms of Staten Island were once worked and can still be made to work for man and beast. (Perhaps it was Mr. Prasse's goats that Dawn Powell encountered on her rambles with Joe.)
|Peter Maurin Farm, Staten Island|
The farm lasted until 1960, when the CW sold it and purchased property in Tivoli, on the Hudson just above Rhinebeck. But it was always the beach that drew Day to Staten Island. In her diary entries, like this one from October, 1973, one hears echoes of another convert, Gerard Manley Hopkins: It is 7:30 and I have been up since 5:30. So beautiful down here. I am trying to persuade F. to get a little house down here near us. I am sitting up on a cupboard so I can look out the high windows at the Bay and tide going out and hundreds of gulls, wheeling and circling, almost dancing in the air, settling on the rocky seaweed-covered rocks, finding a delicious breakfast evidently. We cam after dark last night so I must enjoy today, going in tonight. There looks like a harbor seal on the big rock!
And from September, 1977: A beautiful sunrise. Gulls on the big rock offshore. Low tide. Sometimes one wakes depressed in September. Problems on every side. One cannot help but share them. The human condition. St. Paul wrote, "Rejoice! Again I say rejoice." Clean a room, a desk, clean oneself up!
Day's faith was, in very physical ways, forged on Staten Island's South Shore. From a statement titled "The Beach Experience," which Day wrote in 1925 and used on a number of occasions:
I was 'born by the word of the Spirit,' contemplating the beauty of the sea and the shore, wind and waves, the tides. The mighty and minute, the stores and peace, wave and the wavelets of receding tides, sea gulls, and seaweed and shells, all gave testimony of a Creator, a Father almighty, made known to us through His Son. Jesus always seemed to have preferred following the seashore or the banks of some stream... When in a strange land... [the apostles] had to procure their food somehow and... [they] undoubtedly supplied their wants from the produce of their fishing.
For Dorothy Day and her compatriots, the "produce of their fishing" was a 5-pound codfish purchased for a dollar or scraps from filets to be used for chowder.