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Web walk down Memory Lane

New Internet site posted by South Beach resident provides a look at the Staten Island of yesteryear

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

By TAMARA VALLES

STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE

Care to take a step back in time to the Staten Island of years gone by? To a time long before developers threatened our rural, sea-kissed landscape with rows of cookie-cutter townhouses, big-name retailers and over-sized "mini" malls?

Would you like to sit back, re-live cherished memories and recharge amid the down-home charm of close-knit neighborhoods, mom-and-pop shops and bustling beach areas? Would you like to see what's been lost over

 time and what things looked like here when grandma and grandpa were kids?

Well, now you can do just that -- and without leaving home, thanks to John Sublett.

The 51-year-old Midland Beach native, who now lives in South Beach, recently designed a comprehensive Web site (www.statenislandhistory.com) which celebrates our borough's rich history.

"It was my love of Staten Island and a desire to see again how the Island used to look that led me to do it," explained Sublett, calling the Island then and now a "relief" from the frenzied atmosphere of the rest of the city. "It's something I'd thought about doing for awhile, but I was waiting for the right moment."

That moment came in April when Sublett, who enjoys "fooling around with the computer," was home from work for a couple of months -- he's a mechanic for Coca-Cola in Queens -- with a broken toe.

"Old Staten Island" is not his first attempt at designing a Web page. Five years ago, Sublett, who is the sole guardian for his 20-year-old autistic son, John Jr., created "Angels with Autism" (http:\\johnsublett0.tripod.com) "to enlighten and encourage all those whose lives have been touched by autism."

"I have terrific memories of growing up here, particularly of my Mom bringing us to the beach as a child, so I started with that and then I got in contact with several people through e-mail," he said. "Some sent me old pictures and stories about what they remember most ... and it blossomed from there."

Did it ever! Perusing the "Old Staten Island" Web site, posted in June, is like having a beautifully-illustrated history book of the borough right at your fingertips.

Intrigued visitors can, of course, begin their time-travel journey anywhere they'd like, but in order to put the site in the appropriate perspective, it might be best to start with the historical events page. Far from being a tedious lesson in social studies, this page features an engaging timeline of key events in the history of Richmond County dating from the early 1600s through to the present day.

For trivia of a different kind, there's the "Staten Island in Film" page which references dozens of films reported to contain scenes on Staten Island or from the Staten Island Ferry. Another fun, lighthearted page is "Famous Islanders," which lists the names, along with brief biographies, of those who have, at one time or another, called Staten Island home. (We bet you'll come across a few surprises here!)

Once your mind is chock full of details like these, site visitors can take a stroll through the virtual galleries of sentimental postcards and photographs and charming old store and movie ads.

Where did Sublett come upon such information in the first place? The public library, of course.

In fact, he spent weeks at the St. George Library researching old records and scanning early editions of the Advance to make sure the historical details given were not only thorough, but accurate as well. He also consulted several books written about the borough over the years.

"It's really been a learning experience for me," Sublett shared. "Staten Island has such an amazing history."

As for the featured photographs, he is grateful to have received most of them as "donations."

The current crop reveals the way South and Midland Beaches appeared between the late 1890s and the 1940s and '50s. Among the scenes sure to send folks on a leisurely trip down Memory Lane are the old Happy Land Amusement Park, Theater and Dancing Pavilion in South Beach, the Graham Beach Pool and Southfield Beach camping grounds, as well as former hotels like Schaefers and May's and a variety of bungalows set along bucolic byways.

For those who are too young to remember the former glory of the beach area or for those who didn't live here in those days, the photos will show you a simpler Staten Island, one where folks from across the country flocked to take a swim in clear blue waters, play in the sand and enjoy a sweet summer's day.

Elsewhere on the site are photos and postcards depicting old schoolhouses, street scenes, beloved shops, theaters, and even fast-food joints in Port Richmond, St. George, West Brighton, Great Kills and Tottenville.

Sublett is just getting started.

"My long-term goal is to include pictures, events and stories from every town on the Island," he said. "Actually, if anyone out there has anything to add, I'd love to hear from them." (FYI: Sublett can be contacted via e-mail at JohnJohn44@aol.com)

So far, feedback from Staten Islanders, past and present, has been extremely positive. In fact, he's already received dozens of e-mails applauding him for conjuring up a treasure trove of old memories about a place that holds a special place in each of their hearts.

One that particularly touched Sublett came from a native Islander now living in Lauderhill, Fla. She wrote of how the old photographs on his site were of special importance to her and her family. Her husband has Alzheimer's disease, Sublett explained, and pictures of former landmarks, like the old Tirelli's carousel in South Beach, help stimulate his fading memory.

"It makes me feel wonderful to be able to help people like this," he said, adding that the site has far exceeded his expectations. "Honestly, I didn't even expect anyone to look at it so you can imagine my surprise to see that the site is getting (an average of) 150 visitors per day. I guess word of mouth travels fast."

If word keeps traveling, Sublett may have to purchase space on a new server. Right now, with only a fixed amount of storage, the site is free to maintain. However, he's getting awfully "close to the edge." "I guess we'll see what happens," Sublett laughed.

In addition to expanding his present sites, he's toying with the idea of designing a site dedicated to a place he's always been quite fond of, Brooklyn's Coney Island.

Asked why he doesn't use his potentially-profitable Web design talents to embark on a new profession, Sublett said: "It's a hobby that brings me great pleasure and if I tried to do it as a career, I probably wouldn't enjoy it as much."

Tamara Valles is a lifestyle reporter at the Staten Island Advance. She can be reached at valles@siadvance.com.

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