Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"The waves' rippling song": South Beach, Staten Island

This article originally appeared here at 100 Years in America on June 1, 2008. I've reposted it here in honor of Geography Awareness Week. It is also one of my favorite contributions to the Carnival of Genealogy, whose participants (including myself) have been reminiscing this week.

The move to Staten Island's South Beach in 1921 must have felt a little bit like going home to Frank and Helen Ujlaky. Emigrating from Hungary more than twelve years earlier, they had settled in the Hungarian district of Manhattan, a bustling, busy, crowded part of the city. It was a far cry from their rural home village of Legrad, where the Drava and Mura Rivers flowed past family farms and vineyards.

In 1921, Frank resettled his family across the bay to Staten Island's South Beach. (On the 1941 map below, you can find South Beach just under the easternmost point of Staten Island.)

Frank built his family's new home on Nugent Avenue, putting up the frame and doing much of the work himself.

The house still stands today.

At the time of their move to South Beach in 1921, the children of the Ujlaky family included five siblings. The youngest, a baby brother, would be born into the family later that year. Kas was the first of Helen's children to be born in a hospital. (Helen told her grown daughters years later that she much prefered birthing her babies at home.)

After the family's move to South Beach, Frank's work continued in Manhattan. For many years his long work days included ferry rides across the bay and then an additional part of the commute to Upper Manhattan. According to one of his daughters he once fell asleep on his way home after a long day's work and missed his opportunity to get off the ferry!

Life on Staten Island was good for the Ujlaky family in the decade prior to the Great Depression. They had a new home, Frank had steady work, and the children were growing up. Before the move from Manhattan, Frank had received his Certificate of Naturalization. He (and his wife by default) were officially United States citizens.

In the 1920s, South Beach was still a fairly rural area, although Staten Island had been incorporated into New York City in 1898 along with the other three outlying boroughs of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. (Staten Island was officially the Borough of Richmond until its name was changed to the Borough of Staten Island in 1975.)

The Ujlaky family owned a horse at one point and enjoyed recreation at the nearby beach for many years, including fun at the amusement rides that dotted the island.

Here are a few photos of family and friends enjoying time at the beach a decade later in 1936.

Ethel Ujlaky, Mary Kis and Helene Ujlaky
(I'm not sure of the identity of the young woman at the left)

Ethel Ujlaky with Mary Kis

Staten Island is no longer the rural arm of New York City that it was in the early 20th-century. Much of the world that the Ujlaky children enjoyed has changed.

Construction on the famous Verrazano-Narrows Bridge began in 1959 and was completed in 1964, providing easy access to Manhattan. (Until 1981, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.) The amusement rides that the Ujlaky children knew no longer flourish at South Beach. There is, however, a current drive to bring them back and restore South Beach to its former self as a center of family fun.

Visitors today may have difficulty visualizing Staten Island the way that Frank and Helen Ujlaky saw it when they first brought their family to live in South Beach back in 1921, or when thirty years earlier, a Staten Island native named William T. Davis wrote a poetic tribute to the island:

In Memory of Staten Island

~ William Thompson Davis, 1892

How pleasant were the green woods
and the fields where we did stray,

Where grey the thorny cactus
and the sunflower spread its ray;

Where we sat beneath the tree
and watched the quiet blue Kill

And the haze softly settling
o'er the distant Jersey hill;

We saw the diamonds sparkle
on the little rippling waves,

Purely did they sparkle
and brightly shone their rays.

I see then now they glitter
though the warm sunshine is gone,

And I hear the gentle murmur -
'tis the waves' rippling song.

On the wall the ivy climbed,
so dark and so green,

And with the bending goldenrod
twined the purple bean.

We saw a chipmunk running
o'er the dead and rustling leaves,

And we heard a constant buzzing -
'twas the buzzing of the bees.

Sang a bunting low and sadly
in the old orchard tree,

He sang so faint and sadly
and his song was sweet to me.

I hear him now a-singing,
though warm sunshine is gone,

And I hear that gentle murmur -
'tis the waves' rippling song.

For more on Staten Island, see The New York Public Library's Staten Island Bibliography 1821-2004.

You might also enjoy viewing the New York Public Library's Digital Image Gallery collection of South Beach, Staten Island postcard images. Included are some great images of local landmarks and fashionable "bathing costumes" of days gone by.

Sources of images:

Other sources:

  • "In Memory of Staten Island" from Days Afield on Staten Island by William Thompson Davis, 1892, 3rd printing 1937, reprinted 1994 by Staten Island Institute of Arts & Sciences

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