Greenpoint, October, 2015

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Serious Ladies of Staten Island - Part IV

Dorothy Day on Staten Island
In her diary, just about two years before her death, Dorothy Day recorded reports of a "mini earthquake" in Brooklyn, S.I., N.J., and Westchester: Why was not Manhattan Island affected? What a thought! Unimaginable to think of those fantastic World Trade Towers swaying with a sudden jarring of what we have come to think of as solid earth beneath our feet! 

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
In 1950, at Day's urging, the Catholic Worker purchased a small, disused farm on Bloomingdale Road, a mile or so from the Spanish Camp (and just under a mile away was the farm where Jane and Paul Bowles lived a decade earlier). They named it the Peter Maurin Farm for Day's cofounder of the Catholic Worker. In a CW article a few years later, Day wrote: When we came to Peter Maurin farm three years ago this coming St. Augustine's Day, August 28, the place had not been farmed for fifteen years. The fields were full of witchgrass, and saplings. Trees and grape vines had not been pruned for years and the soil had not felt the touch of spade or plough. 

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
Today, the site is populated by tidy suburban homes (like the one below). Here is Day's description, in her diary from September 1950, of the first days on Peter Maurin Farm: Deborah, Eileen and I moved into the Peter Maurin Farm (on S.I.) August 30. The place was purchased on the feast of St. Augustine... Visited neighbors with bread and got vegetables next door. Fish man comes Tues and Friday to door. We got a 5-lb codfish for a dollar which we are baking. We are begging and he said he would bring us cutting from filets for chowder. We are all happy and comfortable after a first night of great misery. Eileen is a great help, cleaning, baking.

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.


  1. I'm not familiar with "The Beach Experience" statement. Where did you find it?

    Peter Maurin Farm closed in 1964.

    1. Phil, Thanks for your comment. DD's "beach experience" is described in William Miller's All Is Grace: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day.