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Little-Known Lemon Creek Winds Through Staten Island History

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As part of the Staten Island Bluebelt, Lemon Creek winds its way through the historic communities of Staten Island's South Shore. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger examines Lemon Creek as part of a mini series exploring NYC's lesser-known bodies of water.

Winter has come to Lemon Creek. The boats have been hauled from the water and the bald eagles are in their nests. Horses bed down inside warm stables, while peacocks roam the quiet streets, exploring the holiday lights. Down at Lily Red's, a watering hole near the creek's edge, fishermen end the workday by trading stories of giant sea tortoises and whale sightings. Along the riverbank, a herd of feral cats emerges for its evening feeding from a ruined boathouse, empty since Hurricane Sandy.

Like many river deltas, the mouth of Lemon Creek is home to a fecund stew of diverse wildlife and human history. Once known as Skunk's Misery and now called Prince's Bay, the Staten Island community where this waterway meets the Atlantic Ocean is centuries old. It made and lost its fortune on oysters, and still retains the artifacts of its nautical roots. Discarded oyster shells and flotsam line its shores. Two remaining private boat clubs from the 1930s control its marinas. And looking out over the creek are the majestic grounds of the 1838 Seguine Mansionbuilt from the proceeds of oyster beds and salt hay farms, and the abandoned 1670 Abraham Manee House, the sixth-oldest building in New York City, which was once a seaside inn. "This is New York's best kept secret," said local resident Nick Gentile, while feeding the neighborhood's feral cats. "Being right out on the water."

As Lemon Creek travels inland from the sea, however, its path and history become increasingly obscured by dense thickets, rows of newly constructed houses, and the shrouds of time. Like many New York residents, those living along the upper stretches of the creek have forgotten about the water in their own backyards. "This goes all the way down to Prince's Bay? I didn't know that," said an incredulous neighbor living next to Porzio's Pond, near the northern end of the creek. "Where does it start?"

From Prince's Bay, Lemon Creek follows a twisted path through tidal wetlands, forests, and parks, crossing underneath streets, train tracks, and a highway. Overgrown with reeds and briars, its banks are lined with thick, sucking mud, and in summer months its course would be impossible to navigate. Bushwhacking along the creek in winter is a painfully thorny journey, but hidden vistas are revealed through the leafless trees. Here is an abandoned boat, there a quiet herd of deer, further along an elaborate campsite with a homemade cooking stove, and near the headwaters, an anarchist hideout under a stone bridge, with a sign dubbing the creek "Satan's Asshole."

Although Lemon Creek appears to flow freely through this "wilderness," it has actually been reshaped by environmental engineers and landscape architects as part of the Staten Island Bluebelt, a well-disguised and massive stormwater management system. Today, Lemon Creek is one of the best managed and most controlled waterways in the city. In the section run by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, the forests of the Lemon Creek Bluebelt hide enormous catch basins and dams, while its ponds are regulated by outlet structures and micro pools. To the south, the creek's well-groomed tidal wetlands are maintained by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, while its marinas and mouth are managed by the Parks Department. "The DEP tends the creek," said Nick Gentile. "They make basins, ripple effect areas so the mosquitos can't breed. They really cultivate the creek." 

In a different and more wild era, the neighborhoods bordering Lemon Creek were a favorite haunt of Joseph Mitchell, the great scribe of New York's obscure corners, who would often wander up from Prince's Bay along oystershell roads, picking wild pears in fields of poison ivy and exploring the area's crumbling cemeteries. His writings on the area include "The Bottom of The Harbor," about the death of the oyster, lobster and clam industries in Prince's Bay, and "Mr. Hunter's Grave," which dug into the history of Sandy Ground, a fading community of African-American oystermen living near the upper reaches of Lemon Creek. In 1956, Sandy Ground was undeveloped and forgotten, and according to Mr. Hunter, "away down here in the woods in this part of Staten Island, you might think you were 15 miles on the other side of nowhere."

Joseph Mitchell would have difficulty recognizing these same streets today. They have "metamorphosed from a rural enclave complete with truck crops and farm animals to a thoroughly boring suburban enclave with cookie cutter houses," according to Kevin Walsh, who chronicled a recent visit to Sandy Ground at his website, Forgotten New York. The dirt roads of the community are now well paved and lined with rows of new homes, hemming Lemon Creek in on all sides. Pushing through brambles and backyards into the northernmost section of the bluebelt, the creek's headwaters disappear somewhere beyond the 13th hole of the South Shore Golf Course. Scuffling at the muddy ground in the woods here reveals pooling evidence of the creek's original source, but nearby residents are not convinced. "Lemon Creek?  I've never heard of it," said one neighbor, whose new back porch looked out over the headwaters. "There's no water back here. I've never seen any water back here."

The northernmost section of the Lemon Creek Bluebelt lies in Rossville, where pooling water comes up into new backyards near Covington Circle.

The creek's waters gradually gather and flow through a city golf course and patches of forest, hemmed in by homes and roads. Lemon Creek has numerous tributaries and branches.

Under Rossville Avenue, a clogged control structure filters the water out of a small pond. This tunnel has been marked by anarchists and satanists.

The Rossville Avenue bridge. "You can tell where the creek is because of the stone walls," said Nick Gentile. "All the stone walls are made with rocks from the island. Those walls are beautiful."

The creek fills numerous ponds as it flows south, which are controlled by riser boxes and micro pools. At Porzio's Pond, "it freezes over and the kids go ice skating," said one neighbor. "They've got these lights they set up, so that they can skate at night."

Deer wander freely along the creek's manmade paths, with little fear of humans.

Near Porzio's Pond, the crumbling cemetery of the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Baptist Church, from Joseph Mitchell's story "Mr. Hunter's Grave," is now hemmed in by rows and rows of new houses.

Further south, in the Lemon Creek Tidal Wetlands Area, the waterway widens and runs through thick fields of phragmites.

The DEC has created a system of trails and overlooks here, wandering through backyards and out into the marshland.

New mansions with backyard pools are built up the wetlands edge, with the creek waters still flowing clear and shallow.

South of Hylan Boulevard, the creek widens into a navigable stream and enters Lemon Creek Park. Its banks are lined with discarded oyster shells.

The Lemon Creek Boatmen's Association is one of the last remaining boat clubs on Lemon Creek, part of a vanishing tradition. Access to the creek's marina is controlled by these groups, which lease them from the Parks Department.

During Hurricane Sandy, numerous boats were pushed ashore or sunk, and more than four hundred feet of bulkhead destroyed, according to the Princess Bay Boatmen's Association (PBBA).

Bayview Avenue was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, and "tens of thousands of cubic yards of mud, sand and silt were dumped into the channel and creek," according to the PBBA.

On the cliffs above the creek, the Seguine Equestrian Center looks out over the ships in Raritan Bay. It is one of Staten Island's last horse stables. "The borough's rich equine history is fading," according to the Staten Island Advance. "A few South Shore stables are all that remain of the borough's rich horse tradition."

At the mouth of Lemon Creek, the old headquarters of the PBBA were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, and are now home to a feral cat population. "They are supposed to tear it down soon," said Nick Gentile. "The storm did a number on this place."
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· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]