For this installment of The City Concealed, I ventured to the southern tip of Staten Island, near the ruins of the old Raritan Bay clamming industry. There, a lifelong Staten Islander, Doug Schwartz, has been creating rock sculptures on the beaches of Mount Loretto State Park for over a decade.
I first heard about Doug and his work via Forgotten NY in the fall of 2007. One Saturday I decided to take a trip out there to see it for myself. After a two-hour journey — by subway, ferry, Staten Island Railway, and bus — I reached the site. The scale of Doug’s sculptures blew me away. They extended nearly a half-mile down the beach, and where they were most dense, thousands of rocks were stacked in intricate towers and mounds, like the ruins of an ancient temple.
Doug’s rock project had made brief blips in local newspapers (when Doug first began, The Staten Island Advance published an article about his rocks titled, “Sophomoric Prank or Cult Activity?”) and The New York Times, but I wanted to sit down with Doug to pick his brain about his decade-long devotion to piling rocks on a lonely beach, and then film him doing it. Tracking him down wasn’t hard. It turned out Doug isn’t a stranger to media attention. In fact, every February, he’s in the news: he’s the zookeeper at the Staten Island Zoo responsible for Staten Island Chuck, the famous groundhog. I phoned him at the zoo and we arranged to meet.
A couple of weeks later, early one Saturday morning, Doug and I made a trip to his beach. Instead of explaining to me why he toils week in and week out, year after year, Doug simply asked me to help him build a sculpture. It was a foggy morning, and the ships out on Raritan Bay occasionally sounded their horns. The waves broke gently against the rocks, and the gulls called from their perches in the cliffs above the shore. An hour passed, and eventually the stack of rocks we had erected took shape. Doug wedged a handful of broken branches into it, and the sculpture began to resemble a tentacled scarecrow (similar to the sculpture you see Doug create in the video above). Right then I realized exactly why Doug has been doing this so long. I was on a deserted beach, breathing salty air, nearly a mile away from paved roads, and still within city limits. Despite the heavy lifting and the early hours, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more relaxed anywhere in New York City.
–Daniel Ross, Producer