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courtesy of Sandra Serrano

Riding Around the Ballfield

Spanish Camp, Annadale, Staten Island, NY

Sandra Serrano and Teresa Gonzales... The white car in the back is a 1957 Ford Thunderbird Convertible!


Panel on Staten Island’s ‘Spanish Camp’ set for Nov. 29

On Thursday, Nov. 29 at 7 p.m., Wagner College will host a panel discussion about historic preservation and the meaning of “cultural worth.” The discussion, entitled “Spanish Camp: Place Matters,” will take place in Spiro Hall, Room 2. The public is invited to attend.
Moderated by Wagner College history professor Mark Elliott, the panelists will be Steve Zeitlin, folklorist and executive director of City Lore; Jim O’Grady, co-curator of a Staten Island Museum exhibition on Spanish Camp called "This Was Our Paradise" and research director for the Center for an Urban Future; David Goldfarb, past chairman of the Historic Districts Council; and Patricia M. Salmon, curator of history at the Staten Island Museum.

The program will also include a visual introduction by award-winning photojournalist Michael Falco.

* * * * *

“Spanish Camp: Place Matters” is the final special event planned to complement the Staten Island Museum’s exhibition, “This Was Our Paradise: Spanish Camp, 1929 to Today,” which runs from Oct. 12 through Jan. 13. Curated by Jim O’Grady and Diane Matyas, “This Was Our Paradise” is the story of a unique South Shore summer bungalow community: its founding, flourishing and, finally, its end. Oral history and vintage photos are supplemented with a poignant photo essay by Michael Falco.

The exhibit marks the 10th anniversary of the demise of one of New York’s most unusual communities. Spanish Camp was an oasis of nature that survived from the 1930s until the late 1990s, even as the borough around it succumbed to rapid development. It was a haven for generations of the original founders’ offspring and, later, the working class and new immigrant families who rented and bought bungalows there. In the 1970s, the camp was frequently visited by writer and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, whose organization owned three bungalows.

The exhibit features vintage photos, objects, oral remembrances, and a powerful photo essay by photographer Michael Falco about the camp’s final, heartwrenching year, when dozens of resident families were evicted to make way for a luxury housing development that was never built.

“The exhibit quickly expanded from an art exhibition of documentary photos to include the larger story of the of Spanish-American immigrants,” said Diane Matyas, the museum’s director of exhibitions. “We found that the families of original members were eager to share memories of their distinctive community. We received calls, e-mails, items, and visits from people all over the tri-state area, not to mention Florida, California and Arizona.”

Founded in 1929 by Spanish immigrants, Spanish Camp was a beachside haven for families escaping their hot and crowded concrete city neighborhoods. They pooled their resources to acquire 17 acres in Annadale and put up canvas tents on platforms that, over the years, became bungalows. These modest homes lined narrow lanes, threaded among the trees surrounding a grassy commons, or perched on a bluff overlooking Raritan Bay. The “campers” lived in nature, enjoying the pleasures of their tight-knit community: swimming and fishing, building campfires on the beach and, on special occasions, crowding into a covered hall at the center of the camp (la Salon), to attend dances and concerts that went late into the night.

The exhibit tells the history of Spanish Camp in five sections:

The Founding / Early Days introduces La Sociedad Natura Hispana, begun in 1929 in the Spanish neighborhood around 14th Street in Manhattan. It will feature a member payment book, posters advertising events at la Salon, an official book of rules expressing the residents’ desire to give their families a place to live with nature, exercise, eat vegetarian meals, enjoy (gender-segregated) nude sunbathing and the freedom to play and discover the world beyond 14th Street.

Halcyon Days includes images and stories about Spanish Camp staples, such as the Rock, la Salon, the Swamp, Labor Day Fiesta and costume parade, grandmothers making fires and men fishing from the boats, baseball games with rivals, and the smells of fried fish, churros, and warm tomatoes on the vine. These are all memories found in the photographs and oral histories from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Bungalow is an installation of a section of the typical beach habitat by designer and camp member Irene Burgos that re-creates the rustic lifestyle of Spanish Camp. In the early days, families carried only necessities from the city: a pot for rice and beans, some forks, various tools, a pillow and 78-rpm records of Spanish music. City clothes gave way to bathing suits and sandals, which Ms. Burgos said were “virtually all you wore till Labor Day, when the Grand Fiesta costume parade with guitars marked the end of the season.”

Dorothy Day, the remarkable leader of the Catholic Worker Movement, was one of the later residents who found spiritual sustenance in a waterfront cottage at Spanish Camp. Her typewriter, once again at the museum, is shown courtesy of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

The Final Year features photographer Michael Falco’s color images of the residents during their last days at the camp. These images tell the dramatic story of the residents’ fight to stay and their controversial eviction. Falco was intrigued by the camp, which brought back boyhood memories of his own family’s beach cottage: “The magic of the place attracted me, but the photographs reflect the bitter beauty of that final year and include images of the evictions and of the bulldozing of the camp.”

The Sale. In the mid-1990s, La Sociedad Natura Hispana, the group that controlled the land trust, sold Spanish Camp to a luxury home developer. The 45 resident families, who either owned a cottage or rented from a descendant of the founders, banded together to preserve the camp and its way of life — but lost in a high-profile court case.

Jim O’Grady — co-curator, writer, and former camp resident — reflected on the camp’s fate: “For more than a decade, Staten Island has been the fastest growing county in the state. And now, in the aftermath of all that development, many Islanders are asking, ‘What have we lost?’ and ‘What is worth preserving?’ Maybe Spanish Camp could not or should not have been saved — that can certainly be debated. But the way of life it embodied — simple, neighborly and as close to nature as you’ll ever get in the city — suggests some answers to those questions. There could be no better time for this exhibit.”

The Spanish Camp controversy was fraught with strong emotion on every side, which still permeates conversations about the place. Still, everyone who lived there can agree with Burgos when she says of the camp’s best days: “This was our paradise!”

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Mercedes (Barbara) 07-Aug-2011 00:56
Hi, I also spent my summers at Spanish camp from around 1957 to 1961. My best friends were Terry (Teresa)Gonzales and Millie (Milagros) Ferrer. Millie had a sister named Louise and Terry had a brother named Johnny Boy who married a girl named Phyllis. We also hung out with Gary Cahill, Kenny Chaves (Kennys cousin, sorry can't remember his name) and a boy named Mousie, Gary and Mousie did not live in Spanish Camp but lived nearby. I also remember Diana Diaz, Gerry and Estrelle, they were just a couple of years older than us but we all seemed to hang out together from time to time. I especially remember that they would curl our hair with those big mesh rollers, they were like big sisters to us. Saturday nights the saloon would open up and they would play 45s and we would dance. I also remember the final baseball game held on Labor day, one year we even became cheerleaders and if I recall correctly, Diana Diaz was our coach. The canteen was the little grocery store in the middle of camp and since it would close at night, it became the official meeting place. It was true about our bathing suits, they were the go to wear for during the day. We never tired of the beach, at high tide we would swim to the Rock and dive off and when it was low we would just sit on the beach or draw on the wet sand with a branch or seashell. We didn't own a bungalow but my mom, Margarita Espineira would rent one for the entire summer, for me, my sister Margie and my cousin Joe(Pepe). I also remember the Beachcomber, which was situated right outside Spanish Camp. I remember Richie Anderson, Yvonne or Ivan(last name unknown and a very big guy named Terry who played on the baseball team. I loved my summers at Spanish camp, it was a place where children were safe, and parents didn't worry. Doors were always kept unlocked and everybody knew their neighbor. One more thing I remember was going to Sunday mass at Mount Loretto with Terry Gonzales and her family.