Among the oaks, walnut and locust trees along Forest Hill Road, is a greenspace at the heart of Meiers Corners. Despite being home to deer, woodchucks, robins and woodpeckers, these woods have not had the attention of nearby parks like Willowbrook or LaTourette.
But now there’s a new accessible sidewalk along Willowbrook and Forest Hill roads, that makes it possible to safely walk along the perimeter of the woods from the gates of the Willowbrook Campus of Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Service Organization (SIDDSO) south to the New Springville Little League fields, including an area known as the Corson Brook Woods.
Before the sidewalk was built, it was hard for people with mobility issues to leave the Willowbrook campus. People who use wheelchairs or walkers would need to use a busy street to enter the community at an intersection without a traffic light nor sidewalk. Even without mobility issues, there were sections of Forest Hill Road without a sidewalk where all pedestrians had to walk along one of Staten Island’s busiest streets.
The woods once served to buffer the community from the infamous Willowbrook State School where up to 6,000 individuals were once warehoused. When the school closed down in 1988, the property was reconfigured with the College of Staten Island occupying much of the site, as well as facilities and residences for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities on the rest of the property. Organizations such as Lifestyles for the Disabled, Lifespire, and the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council now utilize the historic buildings. The Institute for Basic Research, which opened in 1968, also remains on the property.
But the woods remained, surrounding the property and
creating a barrier between the people using services on the Willowbrook campus and inclusion in the greater community. “It felt like a prison, being stuck on campus,” said Joseph Padalino of the Life-Wire crew. “It felt like the old Willowbrook.”
To learn about the woods, the Life-Wire News crew invited Cliff Hagen, President of the Protectors of the Pine Oak Woods, to take them on a walk around the site. “I was curious because I didn’t know what was there,” said Padalino. “I thought it was abandoned woods, but didn’t know it was inhabited by bugs, animals, spiders, and nature.”
“There are wildflowers in the area. A number of different tree species and plenty of birds,” observed Hagen. “While we walked I heard and, or saw robins, downy and red bellied woodpeckers, house wren, great crested flycatcher and blue jays. There are also deer in the area, along with skunks, foxes, groundhogs, squirrels, raccoons and opossums.”
“It was interesting to learn that dandelions are very useful to eat, to make wine or tea, but we mostly just pull them out and throw them away,” noted Life-Wire’s Gregory Perosi. “They’re full of antioxidants, and help the immune system and the liver. We learned that the name means lion’s teeth from the French ‘dent de lion.’”
Walking in by the woods made the group feel exhilarated to be in nature. Padalino said, “I felt very revived, relaxed; I was finally one with nature. I felt I was not in a wheelchair. I felt like I was walking. It brought back my spirit to be in the woods.”
The new sidewalk runs along a wooded area belonging to the State of New York that borders the former Willowbrook State School. This had the Life-Wire News crew speculating- what if they made a park in the area? “People of every ability could enjoy the beauty of nature,” wondered Life-Wire’s Aaron Bialer. “There could be benches and paths and playgrounds. It would be a great opportunity for inclusion and to meet people in the community.”
New York State already operates several greenspaces on Staten Island, including: Arden Heights Woods, Bloesser’s Pond, North Mount Loretto State Forest, Lemon Creek, and Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve. Opening up the Forest Hill Road woods with accessible paths would benefit the disabilities community, the residents of New York State operated group homes, and the neighbors in the surrounding communities of Meiers Corners and Westerleigh.
What do you think would be a good use of the greenspaces surrounding the Willowbrook campus? Share your ideas to LFDmedia@lfdsi.org.
-Written collaboratively by Aaron Bialer, Joseph Padalino, Anthony DiCostanzo, Joseph Jones, Kevin DiStefano and Gregory Perosi for Life-Wire News Service with Edward Gregory.