Chemical Lane, Staten Island

January 31, 2012 -

The Arthur Kill - a tidal strait dividing Staten Island and New Jersey - is one of the most abused waterways in New York City. Its salt water marshes and fresh water wetlands have been used for over a century as an enormous dumping ground, and it has been poisoned by raw sewage and oil spills. After decades of heavy use, its shoreline in western Staten Island is now a series of post-industrial wastelands. Traveling south down the Arthur Kill, these include the demapped streets of Bloomfield's oil tanker fields, the unnatural hills of the Fresh Kills Landfill, the moldering wrecks of the Rossville boat graveyard, and the abandoned LNG gas tanks at Chemical Lane. All of these wastelands face New Jersey's infamous Chemical Coast, located just across the Kill.

Today, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC) is planning to redevelop a section of Staten Island's polluted, abandoned coastline. It is offering up "the largest New York City-owned property available for maritime development," according to the Staten Island Advance, with "2,000 linear feet of shoreline along the Arthur Kill." This 33-acre lot is located at the foot of Chemical Lane, a desolate half-paved road that dead-ends in the Kill. The property is an overgrown wilderness, with dirt paths leading to several collapsing piers, and is part of a much larger abandoned industrial complex which includes the LNG gas tanks, a neighborhood landmark still considered to be "Staten Island’s most complex and ambitious project," according to the Staten Island Advance. These tanks have sat empty for over 30 years while nature has reclaimed the area, and in many ways, the clash between haphazard development and encroaching wilderness on Chemical Lane illustrates the troubled relationship that Staten Island has with the Arthur Kill.

Chemical Lane Paved

Chemical Lane Unpaved

The neighborhood around Chemical Lane was once a rural wilderness. "Twenty years ago, it was like upstate around here,” one neighborhood resident told the NY Times. “It was all woods. The old guys tell me they used to walk down the road with a gun and hunt." Today, much of that wilderness has been paved over by development or put to unnatural use. Chemical Lane currently houses a random assortment of businesses that are bluntly at odds with nature, including a golf range where you can tee off into the Arthur Kill, a topsoil company piled onto a muddy open plain, and a paintball field set up in a plastic-coated forest. Bordering these businesses are a prison which was built in 1976 and closed down this year, and a maritime scrapyard.

Chemical Lane's most visible structures, its towering gas tanks, were completed in 1975. "The 10-story tanks, which are 250 feet in diameter, have steel roofs and concrete walls 10 feet thick," according to the NY Daily News, and "were built to store liquefied natural gas safely, even if they were struck by a 747." Upon completion, they were "heralded as the world’s largest" liquefied natural gas (LNG) containers, according to the Staten Island Advance. But despite their monumental size and cost, the tanks were never used, due to safety concerns from the nearby community. They now sit abandoned, slowly rusting, covered in graffiti, and ringed by a dark forest littered with mattresses, boats, and abandoned buildings.

Forest Mattress

LNG Tank and Boat

Over the years, wildlife displaced from new development near Chemical Lane has found a home at the abandoned LNG gas tank property. A herd of deer wanders freely through the new-growth woods and hawks soar overhead. The property is also home to woodchucks, an owl and a muskrat, according to Puma Ghostwalker, a naturalist who works in the area. Puma, who recently rescued a baby deer stranded in the oil tanks' overgrown concrete canal system, is raising a bee colony nearby and has planted billions of wildflowers at the end of Chemical Lane, in an attempt to encourage the return of nature to this blighted area.

In spite of the abundant presence of wildlife on Chemical Lane, the Arthur Kill continues to be one of the most polluted bodies of water in New York City. "Thirty years ago, it was considered little more than an open sewer – dirtier at times than sewage flowing to treatment plants," according to the Staten Island Advance, and "was taking in 6 million gallons a day of raw sewage." An ongoing series of disastrous oil spills has mixed in with this human waste. In 1990 alone, the NY Times reported that the Arthur Kill suffered a 567,000 gallon oil leak from an Exxon pipeline, a 100,000 gallon oil spill from a barge explosion, a 37,000 gallon oil spill from a barge collision, a leaking gas barge, and a ruptured natural gas pipeline. Oil spills are still a regular occurrence, including a 2006 incident that dumped 31,000 gallons of Chevron crude oil into the water, killing a least one porpoise. "For people who live nearby," reported the NY Times, "it seemed business as usual."

Abandoned Pier on the Arthur Kill

Chemical Coast View

The NYEDC is now evaluating the proposals it has received for its property near Chemical Lane. Despite the looming reminder of the abandoned LNG oil tanks, it is "particularly eager to expand industrial maritime activity along the Arthur Kill," according to the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, as part of "a long-range plan called Working West Shore 2030" which calls for "20,000 new jobs in the West Shore over the next 20 years." There is no mention of deer, muskrat, bees or wildflowers in the West Shore plan, raising serious questions about what the ideal future for Chemical Lane should be. The city's main hope for the property, according to the NY Times, is to build "a new home for the sanitation department’s garage."

For more photo essays from the Arthur Kill, please visit Bloomfield, Staten Island (2011) and Fresh Kills (2009).

Tank Staircase

Leap House

View to the Kill

Platform Edge

Rusted Base

Foundation Collapse

Empty Boat

Paint Ball Forest

Ghost Tree

Target Wheel

Hollow Building

Sewage Flow

Canal System

To The Arthur Kill

Walkway Over The Kill

On The Kill

Fresh Kills Landfill

Samuel R. Smith Infirmary

January 25, 2012 -

An abandoned castle sits on a hill in Staten Island. Its windows are boarded up. Its roof is collapsing. Inside, its interior has been gutted by arson and decay. Graffiti artists have covered the walls with anonymous tags and several floors are missing. Rain, snow and wind flow through the empty space. Once, this 122-year-old ruin was "like a fairy-tale palace," according to the Staten Island Advance, and a "spectacular Neo-medieval style brick structure," according to Staten Island Treasures. Named the Frost Memorial Tower, it was the cornerstone of the Samuel R. Smith Infirmary, Staten Island's first non-profit volunteer hospital. This 6-acre complex opened its doors in 1890, and was renamed the Staten Island Hospital in 1916. "Generations of Staten Islanders were born at the former Staten Island Hospital site," according to the Staten Island Advance, but that was before the hospital moved in 1979, leaving their old campus to rot.

Today, the city is planning to demolish the Frost Memorial Tower, unless the building first collapses under the weight of this winter's snow. Yet despite the destruction caused by three decades of abandonment, the Frost tower has remained an iconic neighborhood presence. "Activists say the building is one of the most important, beloved, and beautiful buildings on Staten Island," according to the Staten Island Advance, and several Staten Island groups have worked towards preserving the building. These include the Coalition to Save the SI Castle and the Preservation League of Staten Island, which has led rallies, organized a petition, and started a "Save the Castle" Facebook group. The New York Landmarks Conservancy has placed the Frost Memorial Tower on its Endangered Buildings Initiative list, but notes that "despite repeated requests for evaluation, the building has not been heard by the Landmarks Commission."

Frost Tower and Main Hospital Building

Over the years, the abandoned Samuel R. Smith Infirmary complex has also attracted the attention of several more destructive groups. "Homeless, drug addicts and vandals have made it their playground," according to the Staten Island Advance, and "the Fire Department has to pay regular visits there to extinguish fires." The most recent fire was a March 2011 blaze in the Frost tower, and "emergency responders were bracing for squatters in the structure... but thus far initial searches have turned up negative," according to the Staten Island Advance. The decline of the hospital complex began almost immediately after it was closed, according to a Staten Island resident called The Wasp, who wrote that in 1980 - over the course of less than one year - the abandoned campus went from a place where "guard dogs were being allowed to patrol the [main] building at will" to a space where "anything left behind by the hospital move had since been stolen if it had any value. Copper wire and light fixtures had been ripped out and removed. Door knobs, switch panels and sink fixtures were all gone."

Kitchen, Main Hospital Building (2007)

The main hospital building, which stands next to the the Frost Memorial Tower, bore the brunt of the damage. "There was plan in the mid-eighties to turn them into condos," according to The Wasp, "but that was a money laundering scheme that left dozens of tenants ripped off and in debt. Over the years a few con men set themselves as the rightful owners and let people rent the apartments from them but they were eventually evicted by the city and the lower floors of the buildings sealed with cement." By 2005, the entire campus was half-demolished and rotting, according to the Urban Exploration website Opacity: "Clambering through the rubble of the bulldozed infirmary wing and into the large six story building, we were greeted with a few inches of standing water and air so stagnant that the mold was tangible in our noses and mouths." A visit to the main building in 2007 revealed abandoned apartments with kitchens and living rooms destroyed by vandals, while the Frost building was a gutted ruin overgrown with trees. By 2009, the Urban Exploration website The Kingston Lounge predicted that the campus would "either be demolished by the hand of man, or just left to demolition by neglect."

Living Room, Main Hospital Building (2007)

In November 2011, the city began taking steps to tear down the remaining hospital buildings. "The city Buildings Department issued an emergency declaration in June to demolish what formerly was Staten Island’s first voluntary hospital," according to the Staten Island Advance. "The HPD has hired a demolition company, and site preparation work started earlier this week to clear a safety zone." The overgrown land around the hospital campus has since been bulldozed, removing trees and rubble. Some residents remain hopeful that they may still find a reprieve for the Frost building, but, as the Staten Island Advance pointed out in a 2009 editorial, "If the long-abandoned Frost Memorial Tower is landmarked, then what? Landmarking, in and of itself, saves nothing. It prevents the owners of landmarked properties from making changes perhaps. But it does nothing to protect abandoned buildings."

Examples of this can be seen throughout New York City, where many officially landmarked buildings have been left to rot, including Staten Island's abandoned Farm Colony complex and collapsing Physician-in-Chief's residence at Bayley-Seton Hospital, and Brooklyn's hollowed-out 68th Police Precinct and crumbling Domino Sugar Refinery. Even if the supporters of the Frost Memorial Tower are somehow successful in defending the castle, it would take millions of dollars and many years to stabilize and repair this long-neglected structure. In the meantime, the tower slowly collapses, its dark interior empty and bitterly cold. These photographs take a last look inside.

For photo essays on abandoned New York City landmarks, please visit The New York City Farm Colony (2011), The 68th Police Precinct (2011), Victim Services (2008) and The Domino Sugar Refinery (2007).

Frost Tower Ground Floor

Dark Turret

Empty Room

Frost Tower Lobby

Grand Staircase

Upper Floor Landing

Demolished Hallway

Third Floor Steps

Respect Nature

Collapsed Roof

Open Turret

Wooden Roof Beams


Staten Island View