Sublime “Downtown Doors” Series Photo-Documents Staten Island Trees & Homes from 1940 to Today

This towering black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) in Staten Island’s West New Brighton neighborhood (at left, in 1940; at right, in 2020) really caught my attention this season. Although black tupelo generally occupies wet woods habitats, it can thrive under a variety of soil conditions. I’m gratified to see this eastern U.S. native tree species being planted more in cities. The fall color is spectacular. —John Kilcullen

One of my favorite urban forestry-related Instagram accounts belongs to John Kilcullen, an ISA Certified Arborist and Municipal Specialist and Director of NYC Parks-managed Conference House Park in Tottenville, Staten Island. In his free time, John prolifically and affectionately photographs the landscapes and architectural gems of the New York City borough of Staten Island, including its doors (hence the major theme of his Instagram, “Downtown Doors.”) This artistic focus of John’s will come as no surprise given that he is also the President of the Preservation League of Staten Island.

In the waterfront community of Midland Beach (formerly known as Woodland Beach) on the east-central coast of Staten Island, you can find this pin oak (Quercus palustris) standing tall and proud. A tree species that is native to wet growing conditions, this specimen has thrived and survived the many obstacles a shorefront environment can present: hurricanes, flooding, salt spray, and sandy, nutrient-poor soil. This octogenarian shelters a circa-1930s bungalow constructed in the shoreline resort community of Midland Beach. At the turn of the 20th century, the east and south shores of Staten Island had many summer communities. Woodland Beach and its immediate neighbor Midland Beach were a true study in contrast: Midland Beach had its casinos with its day-tripper “glitz and glamor” while Woodland Beach billed itself as a family beachfront retreat. In the late 1940s, the community began to change from a summer to a year-round population. In 1940, the house was occupied, and then owned, by Irish immigrant Patrick J. Rigney and his wife Elizabeth along with their three children (Elizabeth and her three year old daughter, Elizabeth, are believed to be shown in the 1940 photo.) —John Kilcullen

One sub-series within “Downtown Doors” is a phenomenal suite of posts that juxtapose pictures of homes—and the trees in front of them—from 1940 and from today. The historical images are tax photos from the NYC Records & Information Services Historical Records Department; they meet John at his nexus of interests perfectly, providing architectural documentation as well as evidence of trees that were small in the 1940s but that now are, in many cases, mature focal points of their own.

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