At the center of Staten Island lies a bucolic expanse of ancient forest, a city-owned amalgam of parks, scout camps, and overgrown lots collectively termed the Greenbelt. It’s an area known for its natural beauty, its murders, and its ruins—on the southern rim, off Brielle Avenue, there’s not one but two historic hospitals that are crumbling to oblivion. The grounds of Sea View Hospital and the New York City Farm Colony may be the most forgotten quarter of the forgotten borough, representing New Yorks’ highest concentration of derelict buildings, with over two dozen scattered through 300 acres of mostly wooded land.
What’s left of the Farm Colony only comes out in the winter—from May to November, thick greenery conceals the battered rubblestone facades of its twelve remaining structures—over forty years of neglect, trees have reclaimed the grounds. The forest bends when the wind gusts, groaning like a legion of creaky doors. In areas that had once been cleared for farmland, thorns amass in undulating hillocks, hooking and scoring the flesh of any who dare to trudge through the overgrowth. Some of the vines have adhered to the ruins of the oldest buildings, whose interiors have almost completely collapsed, leaving only a tangle of splintered beams and nail-studded boards. If you peek through the window of one of these wrecks, there’s a German Expressionist nightmare of canted doorways and lurching walls.
These dormitories replaced the charmless farmhouses of the Richmond County Poor Farm, which had operated on the spot since 1829 to house and rehabilitate New York City’s aging poor. By the time Staten Island was incorporated as a borough of New York City, the Poor Farm was renamed the Farm Colony. With distinctive gambrel roofs modeled in the Dutch Colonial Style, the buildings constructed in this period were designed to evoke the ease of rural living, avoiding an institutional design to reflect changing attitudes in the treatment of the poor.
In colonial times, poverty was equated with deviancy, and the care of dependents was traditionally left to the Church, but by the 19th Century, governments across the United States began constructing state-run institutions to house the poor, infirm, mentally ill, and developmentally disabled. This was the era of the farm colonies, when able-bodied inmates were expected to work in exchange for their room and board.
200 residents could grow enough vegetables to feed 3,000, which was more than enough to share with other institutions across the city, including City Hospital on Blackwell’s Island. With the construction of several new dormitories in the 30s, the population quickly expanded to over 1,000, and started to exhibit a perplexing problem. As early as 1910, 75% of the residents were over 50, a quarter over 70, and the majority were unfit for manual labor.
By 1925, farm work was no longer mandatory, but many residents enjoyed the perks of voluntary farming and maintenance jobs. Tokens could be exchanged for tobacco, pipes, and candy, and those who worked got first priority in the dining hall. Anecdotes from the simple lives of this isolated community scatter the archives of the New York Times. Heated horseshoe rivalries, band performances, and handicraft sales were among the most prominent events of a life lived at the Farm Colony.
The Farm Colony was in many ways idyllic, but not without its controversies. Like all institutions in this period, the facility was guilty of overcrowding at times. In 1934, a hospitals commissioner was shocked to discover that many of the Colony’s 200 employees were habitually intoxicated, resulting in the resignation of the superintendent and his second in command. By the 1950s, the facility had become a geriatric hospital. The second half of the 20th Century marked a steady decline in residency. Increased prosperity nationwide and the introduction of social security further depleted the population, and the property was abandoned in 1975.
Though the area was designated a historic district in 1985, next to nothing has been done to protect the buildings. Thought to be hazardous to children playing at a nearby ballfield, a morgue was demolished in 1999, ruffling the feathers of the borough’s preservationists. The city has been trying to drum up interest in the site over the last decade, briefly considering it as the site of a new police academy, and shortlisting the Farm Colony as a possible location for a school of engineering, but they’ve repeatedly been unable to attract an interested party. City council member James Oddo, who called the Farm Colony the “bane of his existence”, made another appeal in 2012 for expressions of interest. Lack of access to mass transit may be partially to blame for the lack of response. As another piece of Staten Island’s architectural legacy falls to its knees, it serves as a reminder that a bureaucratic designation is less than half the battle.
Generations of vandalism have eviscerated the interiors of the Farm Colony’s remaining buildings. Inside, little has been left to catch the eye. Floors are strewn with rubble. Plaster dust accrues in drifts, exposing a patchwork of masonry. Wintry details complement the desolation—a broken windowpane bearded with icicles, hallways inundated with frozen pools. Juvenile graffiti covers every surface, except on the ground floors, where the building has been sealed off with cinderblocks in an unsuccessful attempt to keep out intruders. These corridors are intensely, eerily dark, and all but untraveled. Featherweight vines dangle from the ceilings of the blackest chambers like some alien weed. A single breath seems to cloud these rooms with fog, otherwise they’re empty. To find any artifacts one must head underground. Barely visible in the basement gloom, piles of old laundry bloom with mold, chairs are devoured by rust.
The Farm Colony may be decrepit, but don’t call it desolate. Even with temperatures below freezing, the grounds experience a weekend rush. If you plan to visit, be prepared to dodge a few paintballs, it’s one of the most popular pastimes here at the Colony. (Visitors have equipped the grounds with an elaborate field of obstacles pilfered from the buildings.) Elsewhere, the grounds are littered with all the tokens of a high school hangout. Beer cans, cigarette stubs, and junk food wrappers pave the walkways. At night, these lanes are crowded with teenagers, who’ve come to escape their parents and affirm their friendships by way of getting scared. Fearing boredom above all, they enter the Greenbelt ruins in spite of the warning of a cautionary tale.
Legends of a serial killer called Cropsey have spread through this part of Staten Island for as long as anyone can remember; it’s a fiction intwined with truth. The land surrounding the Farm Colony is haunted by a history of real-life horrors, starting in the 1920s with the abduction and murder of a seven-year-old boy, who some had seen walking into the woods with an elderly man on the day of his disappearance. (The crime prompted an investigation of Farm Colony residents and staff, but nothing turned up that could implicate anyone in the crime.)
Later, sinister abuses at the nearby Willowbrook State School for the developmentally disabled cast a pall over the area. Andre Rand, a former orderly at the facility, is thought to be responsible for a series of child murders that shocked the borough in the 70s and 80s. Rumor has it he lived in the tunnels under the abandoned hospital, and it’s confirmed that he set up camp on the grounds. In 1987, the body of Jennifer Shweiger was found buried in a shallow grave not far from his campsite. Most of Willowbrook was renovated and incorporated into the College of Staten Island in the 1990s. In the intervening years, the Farm Colony has taken its place in the collective imagination as the site most associated with the Cropsey legend.
The Farm Colony has never been open to the public, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a shared space. Though some would call it useless, ugly, or appalling, the youth of Staten Island has somehow endowed this place with meaning and mystique. Its value is written in the dust, just count the footprints. Through fogbanked mornings, orange autumns, and torrid summer nights, the Colony beckons—a wilderness in which to be wild, a victim to bear our destructive instincts, a place to harbor our fears, and face them.
For a closer look at the legends surrounding the Farm Colony and the case of Andre Rand, watch the documentary Cropsey, available on Netflix.
For more on New York City’s abandoned institutions, check out Letchworth Village: