In 1996, the Staten Island Advocate ran a front-page photograph of an odd assortment of stone cairns that had recently appeared on a beach in Mount Loretto State Park. The newspaper asked in its headline if the piles of rocks were a “Sophomoric Prank or Cult Activity?”
In fact, they were neither. Spanning nearly a half mile of beachfront, the stone sculptures were the creation of Doug Schwartz, a zookeeper at the Staten Island Zoo, for whom this unusual outside--and outsider--art has been both a hobby and a passion for more than a decade.
Schwartz can be found working on the beach at least one day a week, making him something of a local celebrity. However, it is for another eccentric Staten Island tradition that he is best known. Schwartz is the keeper of Staten Island Chuck, a groundhog who serves as the fifth borough's answer to Punxsutawney Phil. For most of the year Chuck lives in a a cage in Schwartz's office at the Staten Island Zoo. He emerges every February 2nd on Groundhog Day to try to find his shadow.
There are now close to 200 rock towers overlooking Raritan Bay on the southern shore of Staten Island. Some are precariously poised, others are propped up with sticks, or buttressed with old beer cans. For Schwartz, the stone formations are simply a form of self-expression, and a relaxing way to spend a morning at the beach. He has built several benches out of stones and washed up lumber so that visitors can take a load off while they contemplate his slate and ochre garden.