Each of New York City’s boroughs has its own Broadway. Likewise, Manhattan has a famous Canal Street, and there is also one in the South Bronx and another in Coney Island, Brooklyn. It’s no surprise then that Staten Island has a Canal Street of its own in the neighborhood of Stapleton.
It’s a street with plenty of history but nothing to suggest that a stream once flowed along its path.
Prior to its annexation by New York City, Staten Island was also known as Richmond County, comprised of the towns of Castleton, Northfield, Westfield, Southfield, and Middletown. Within each Town were villages that had a fierce sense of identity, many with their own distinctive Village Halls that served as local seats of government.In 1866, the Village of Edgewater was formed around the present-day neighborhood of Stapleton. At this time, a brook that ran through the heart of the village was covered up. Atop its course, the village center was built. In its first half century, Stapleton was a lively port and ferry dock. Canal Street, Bay Street and Water Street were its main commercial strips. The neighborhood was also a center for beer brewing, with local springs and brooks tapped by the breweries for use.
Among the architectural treasures of Canal Street are a Carnegie donated library and a landmarked bank building.
The historic library dates to 1907. Its entrance faces Edgewater Village Hall and Tappen Park.
In 1867, the village purchased properties along the brook between Wright and Bay streets. Canal Street was designated for the southern side of the park while Water Street formed its northern boundary. Initially known as Washington Park and renamed in 1934 for local resident James J. Tappen (1891-1918) who was killed in combat on September 29, 1918, at Binarville, France, in the Battle of Argonne. The park has the appearance of a small-town village square, completed less than a decade after Manhattan’s Central Park.
At the park’s eastern side, the Edgewater Village Hall dates to 1889, designed in the Victorian Romanesque Revival style. Following the village’s incorporation into New York City, it functioned as a magistrate’s court and a Health Department office. It was designated a city landmark in 1966, soon after the landmarks law was passed.
Both the park and the former village hall are maintained by the city together with Historic Tappen Park Community Partnership (HTCP), a group founded in 2012 with the goal of revitalizing the neighborhood around the park, as well as the beautification of the park, which is the second oldest in the borough. The park’s octagonal bandshell and comfort station were built after 1898, matching the style of the village hall.
Canal on the map
To find traces of the unnamed canal that lent itself to Water Street and Canal Street, old maps offer clues.
In the 1874 F. W. Beers atlas, a brook emerges near the intersection of Targee and Ruoff Streets, flowing north towards Broad Street. Like the Broad Street of Manhattan, its name and width are the result of a stream that flowed down its center. highlighted above with Canal Street, Broad Street begins at the foot of the Dongan Hills range, marked by Van Duzer Street. It descents down towards the waterfront, carrying the brook with it.
Relying on the 1891 Julius Bien atlas for details, there is a brook originating near Waverly Place that is flowing north towards Broad Street. A pond lies nearly on the campus of what was then the Marine Society of New York, a home for former sailors. That property was redeveloped for public housing in 1962.
The final map where I marked the stream is the 1907 Elisha Robinson atlas, where a crooked property line and an alley were all that remained of the brook. On the shoreline of the harbor a lengthy pier indicates a busy port. Large properties on the western edge of the map belonged to industrialists who watched their enterprises from above. Canal Streeti s highlighted.
Decline and revival
Between and during the world wars, Stapleton’s piers served as a military port that shipped materials and personnel to the front lines. With the containerization of ports and the arrival of larger vessels that did not fit at Stapleton’s docks, the neighborhood’s role as a port greatly declined. The piers rotted away, the population declined even as the rest of the island was booming following the construction of the Verrazano Bridge in 1964.
Although I could not find the date, at some point, the sidewalks of Canal Street and Water Street were covered with red bricks to match the Village Hall and provide a historical appearance to these streets. After many failed attempts at reviving the port, including a brief stint as the navy’s “homeport,” it is now being redeveloped for residential use in a cute project titled Urby. It even has its own mascot and resident farmer (this is not an ad banner)
Looking back at the recommendations from the Mayor’s Task Force on Homeport Redevelopment, Urby is part of a vision for a waterfront community that includes some commercial use, a shoreline esplanade, and a “The Cove” at the exact site where the unnamed brook drained into New York Harbor.
Although Urby is separated from the historic core of Stapleton and Tappen Park by the elevated Staten Island Railway, creating a contrast between the old and new, Canal Street connects them and serves as a permanent reminder of an unnamed brook around which a village had formed.
For more information on Tappen Park, visit the Historic Tappen Park Community Partnership.
For more details on local history, visit the Mud Lane Society.
The stream ran through the shallow basements of commercial buildings among them 76 Canal St. When it rained heavily the basement would flood. Father once also rented 82 Canal St until expanding Earls in the 1960s.