During a one-hour loop, Patricia McGann offered Staten Island facts and trivia. Many people just come for the view of Manhattan.
SUZANNE DECHILLO / THE NEW YORK TIMES
By APRIL DEMBOSKY
JULY 31, 2008
When the ferry docked at Staten Island, a wave of tourists funneled down the ramp and made a U-turn to board the same boat they had just gotten off.
Few seemed to have heard of anything worth sticking around for in New York City’s southernmost borough. Only a handful ventured over to the makeshift tourist kiosk at the ferry terminal.
“Yes, can you tell me where is Alcatraz?” one woman asked.
Andrew Yuen, 22, who was on duty at the kiosk, maintained a chipper demeanor in the face of such demoralizing questions. He cheerfully handed out maps and brochures, and directed a few people to the red faux trolley outside.
“There’s a tour bus that just opened three weeks ago,” he told one couple from England.
A man in a red vest picked up on Mr. Yuen’s cue and rushed to hand out a flier that begged, “Don’t hurry back on the ferry! New! Discover Staten Island Tour.” The salesman pointed to three small photos of unrecognizable tourist destinations and promised, “You’ll see this, this and this.”
The tour, Staten Island’s newest year-round attraction, is operated by Gray Line New York Sightseeing, which also runs bus tours of Manhattan and Brooklyn. In an hour, visitors get an overview of the island’s north shore. The $15 tour stops at places like the Snug Harbor Cultural Center; the house of Alice Austen, a pioneering photographer in the 19th century; and the Staten Island Zoo. Riders have the option of getting off at any of these places and catching the next trolley an hour later, but one tour guide said that most choose to stay in the bus.
“We’ll just wait to see the Bronx Zoo,” Karim Pacheco said.
Ms. Pacheco, 24, who is from Peru and studying English in Manhattan, brought two visitors from home — her mother and her mother’s friend — on the ferry. They happened upon the tourist kiosk and decided to take the tour.
“There’s an episode of ‘Sex and the City’ where Carrie takes the ferry to Staten Island,” Ms. Pacheco said. “I thought, since Carrie did it, I should do it.”
The bus rumbled along Davis Avenue, through a residential neighborhood of Cape Cod houses, then turned into the business district, a strip of single-story nail salons and pharmacies and a McDonald’s.
“Does this feel like New York City?” the tour guide, Patricia McGann, asked.
“Noooooooo,” the five passengers responded.
What Staten Island may lack in breathtaking skyscrapers, it makes up for in historical tidbits, most of them involving celebrities. The tour drove by the cream-colored stucco building of the Mandolin Brothers guitar shop, which has been visited by the likes of Jimmy Buffett, George Harrison and Suzanne Vega.
“Joni Mitchell wrote a song called ‘Song for Sharon’ that starts, ‘I went to Staten Island, Sharon, to buy myself a mandolin,’ ” Ms. McGann said into the microphone.
After passing Wagner College, where Joan Baez’s father taught, the bus merged onto the Staten Island Expressway. Later, Ms. McGann pointed out the Stapleton station of the Staten Island Railway.
“That’s where Madonna filmed her music video for ‘Papa Don’t Preach,’ ” she said.
The more striking points on the tour are its architectural highlights. The Staten Island 9/11 Memorial displays on two wing-shaped walls portraits of the nearly 270 Staten Islanders who died in the terrorist attack. Visitors standing between the walls look directly at the spot where the towers once stood.
Zach Moore, 17, came to the island specifically to see the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Staten Island and Brooklyn. The tour stops underneath it for eight minutes so passengers can get off the bus and take photos. “When we were at the Empire State Building, it was getting dark and we could see the green lights on the bridge,” Zach said. “We said, ‘Oh, we should go see it.’ ”
The Staten Island Ferry is one of the most popular tourist attractions in New York City, drawing 1.5 million visitors every year, according to the borough president, James P. Molinaro.
Gray Line declined to say how many people had taken the tour so far, saying it often takes up to five years before a new tour catches on. But the company is optimistic that the numbers will grow as Staten Island — once reputed for its enormous Fresh Kills landfill, which has closed — earns some credibility in the tour books.
“It’s a huge market,” said Eva Lee, Gray Line’s tour guide manager. “And they should be educated that Staten Island is important.”
Though the borough does not support the tour financially, it has been investing resources in developing its tourism potential. With the help of foundation grants, Mr. Molinaro’s office recently printed brochures, installed a wide-screen high-definition television in the Manhattan ferry terminal advertising the island’s attractions, and plans to build a permanent tourist gazebo in the Staten Island terminal to replace the kiosk where Mr. Yuen, an intern in Mr. Molinaro’s office, was stationed.
“We’re no longer the home of the largest dump in the world,” he said.