Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dodging Cropsey at the New York Farm Colony

Over the years, you become an accidental conglomeration composed of every personal interaction, every story you've told and have been told, and give some tangible connection to the infinite loose threads that every soul, every place, and every idea holds. You take these experiences and keep them, like little gifts, little secrets, that can surprise and resurface years later. This occurrence has not been a stranger in my personal life, with many stories, films, and off-hand conversations suddenly finding themselves boldly relevant in the contemporary.

One of the most recent iterations of this involves a piece of local lore, a portion of land in New York, and a documentary bearing an ending that inspired a sense of awe, curiosity, and existential discomfort, even long after the credits rolled. This film is Cropsey, and we found the since maintained, decaying grounds and hospital buildings in which the namesake of the documentary was said to (and perhaps, did) stalk, dwell, and hide his victims.

Our story is not to serve wholly as a replacement of the urban legend and legitimate crimes that haunted Staten Island in the decades past. The documentary is absolutely worth a watch for anyone interested in crime and even horror. It presents an objective record of the crimes involving the abuse, kidnapping, disappearances, and more, against both children and members of the former facility’s residents. It also, excellently, leaves enough loose ends (per the historical facts) that leave plenty of questions unanswered. The ending is exclusively the reason for my “existential discomfort” as noted above, but I shall not risk spoiling the experience for potential future viewers. The only information necessary for appreciating this account is as such: “Cropsey” was the name of the boogeyman of Staten Island, and the general region, from New York State and even into portions of New England. I am sure that the image of such a being is prominent across the country and even the world. Boy Scout Troops would scare one another on camping trips, citing the man or monster awaiting singled-out scouts in the woods at night. Mothers would caution their children not to travel alone when coming home from school or a friend’s house, with warnings of this entity stealing you away. He was your classic “bump in the night” – man or monster, it did not matter. It enjoyed kidnapping children away from home. Unfortunately, as in any society, we know that it does not require a fantastical setting to realize that such horrible creatures exist.

That is where the story told in the documentary picks up. Who was responsible for a string of (very) real-life abductions and murders and where did the urban legend end and reality begin? Regardless of the narrative, these stories and cases all revolved around the area known as the “Staten Island Greenbelt,” notably, the New York City Farm Colony. The Colony was a home to a number of residents throughout its existence and was prominently run as a poorhouse.  It was used as a means of treating tuberculosis patients after merging with Seaview Hospital in 1915, but was then transferred to the city’s Homes for Dependents agency in 1924. With many elderly patients taking up residence, the typical work-requirements were lifted. Residents (up until that point, mandatorily) would work on the farm portions of the property and would help to serve the facility itself, as well as other local programs. With many social programs and reforms coming over the next few decades, the institution finally closed in 1975 and was designated as a city landmark in 1985. Since then, two baseball fields were built on the outer portions of the 70-acre piece of land, but many of the buildings still stand, silent in the woods, mere yards away from the busy streets of modern life.

Nestled between little league fields, a hospital, and a dense residential area, more than seventy acres of history remain, far from untouched, yet far from maintained. A reanimated, battered body of the past sits, silently breathing and hidden from society, and we sought her out.

There exists a long, winding road that runs throughout the property and stands in surprisingly good condition. Weeds shoot up through cracks, of course, but some portions seem brand new – (if they are currently maintained, it is unknown to me, but would not be a surprise). Of course, depending on how one visits, you may traverse relatively dense portions of woods and growth before finding the road. It was, after all, a farm colony. 

We traced our way around knee-high vegetation and followed a path that seemed to lead straight into the heart of the beast. On circling the woods from the main streets, it is possible to see standing structures literally feet from the road, so we were curious how difficult (or easy…) it was going to be to actually find any additional buildings. Of all the trips that led in disappointment, whether due to irrational expectations (a la Centralia) or just the passing of time, the Farm Colony certainly was not in this same category.  Of course, graffiti artists of varying levels of skill and intent have all but covered the entirety of any accessible surface, but with the structures being in limbo for the last twenty-plus years, it is almost expected. There is much beauty to found in the spontaneous canvasses that the brick buildings provide (as well as an infinite supply of crude language and genitalia…), but that was still to come.
After winding our way through the apparent growing fields, we found a small utility shack. We spent an absurd amount of time at the relatively unimpressive structure, purely due to the diminished expectations I highlighted above. We had first visited this location in a documentary; of course it was going to be demolished, or incredibly lackluster in comparison, or whichever brand of disappointment fortune was going to throw our way. We found the main road and immediately were confronted with the open maw of one of the many abandoned hospital administration buildings.

There are probably at least a dozen buildings that we encountered, and perhaps, three varieties of layouts. The first we encountered seemed more like an administrative or even school building, and we learned that the majority of its core and upper stories were blown open, whether by fire, or simply time. The second and third stories lead to an open expanse, dropping even below the first floor, in a mess of material and organic growth. There was a destroyed elevator shaft, as well as plenty of footfalls similar to the gigantic one in the center. From the de facto balconies, and looking into the densely overgrown surroundings, it is incredibly difficult to imagine that you are in one of the boroughs of New York City.

The second variety of building we encountered was the most foreboding, but simultaneously, the most rewarding. Many of the buildings have easily accessible front entrances (apparently, from vandalism past), but still maintain the boarded up windows and gates, previously meant to deter first or even second floor access. If you managed to ascend the first two, almost entirely pitch-black, stairwells, the windows usually were uncovered and let in a beautiful, glowing, and entirely surprising aura of natural sunlight. We were to find plenty of the buildings in this format, with wings branching from wings, bearing slots that we deduced were used for resident / patient care. Some of the best photographs that exist of this property are from these buildings, with seemingly infinite depth and unending rows of bed allocations. It very much feels and is designed like a hospital, but coupled with the decaying walls and organic reclamation, it is impossible to not feel odd in such a place.

The next buildings we found seemed to be entirely made of concrete. They lacked many more windows and lesser structures, and there did not seem to have ever been any attempt at keeping out vandals. They most wholly looked like “shells” of buildings past, lacking any amenities beyond concrete window frames and perhaps the chipped tiling of impersonal and shared bathrooms. While these buildings were the most dirty and less decorated, one was located adjacent to a rather interesting find.

As noted in the documentary and on various other sites, even though there have been no municipal or official plans for the property in years, that has not kept the public from visiting (as if you needed any more indication of such from the clouds of street art…) – in an area that we nicknamed the “Greenhouse,” there are plenty of artifacts of recent youthful pastimes. We found plenty of paintball and airsoft detritus, snack and beverage waste of all sorts, and even more spontaneous creations of art. The courtyard that seemed to develop around these concrete buildings was certainly home to many a paintball siege, with barricades and faded paint all around.

Further, another building seemed to simply be a combined version of the administrative design, branching off in a large “U” shape. In order to access the top floor, we had to get a tad creative. The ladies easily slid under a large, metal barricade at the top of a flight of stairs. I, gritting my teeth and momentarily ruing my lanky demeanor, finally got my legs out from under the exposed metal and personification of tetanus and up the rubble-laden concrete stairs. Once again, we realized how far up we were and also how hidden and far away from civilization we actually felt.

We saw a few other buildings and had traversed a large portion of the roadway when we decided to visit one more and then turn back. It was like the other hospital buildings, but had a large metal grate on the front door, half open. The majority of the windows were also still covered. We peeked in, and at this point, I was the only one with an accessible cellphone, and activated my flashlight. Immediately, this felt different.

The party slowly, and uncharacteristically, chose down instead of up, and descended into a basement level. The design felt the same, with the wings going off in the three directions before us, and we stopped in the center. In our sphere of light, we remained close, and looked down as far as we could in either direction. We continued on, straight, and were about halfway through when we stopped. Again, it felt very different from the previous interiors. While the other buildings held an uncanny nature about them, it was all abundantly clear that you were in a structure built by man, which was slowly being reclaimed by nature. This, this felt like we were in the cave of an unknown creature. This was unsettling.

The ground had felt chalky since we left the stairs and at this point we realized something else that we had not yet experienced. Along the metal and concrete debris throughout the hospital bed stalls, was a lot more waste of an organic kind. Without having time (or knowledge, really) to properly identify it, we realized that there were copious amounts of an animal’s droppings around the room. Even if it were a band of squirrels, we were underground with one source of light, enclosed with wild animals. We immediately decided that we had seen enough and turned to exit.

The relief was instant upon resurfacing. We comfortably made our way back, retracing our steps, and enjoyed it as though it was a pleasant stroll through the park. I would love to see this place someday restored to an easily accessible public trail of some sort, but there is a tremendous amount of work to be done to ever see such a thing happen. Far too many dangers exist, simply due to the state of the buildings, but its history, however unpleasant it may have been at times, is one that should be remembered.

It should also be noted, that we had another subtle shock, akin to the feeling I held after my initial viewing of Cropsey. Later that night, sitting in bed with the laptop, we looked up various animals native to the region, and the potential source of all that waste in the basement. We are not particularly trained in such a naturalistic capacity, of course, but we can research. While we may have escaped the spectre and urban legend known as Cropsey that day, one detail we discovered made us wide-eyed and sick: the closest source image to the material we almost stepped in in the damp, dark, and enclosed basement was human. 

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