(all photographs by Hannah Frishberg)
The paranormal is tangible at the New York Farm Colony, where ghosts of past patients mingle with victims of the weekend’s satanic rituals. Layers of suffering coat the walls, the dust of abandonment covering the immeasurable graffiti which nearly distracts from the jagged metal bars obscuring an interior once full of impoverished souls.
And in the dirt below the aging buildings one girl’s body was found, and many are thought to still lie there as yet unfound, lost in the soil. “This place isn’t haunting so much because of its look,” my friend told me as we stared down a two story drop where the stairs had simply blown away, “but because I think a lot of people were very unhappy here.”
Poverty is deeply rooted in the 300 acres of woodland the Farm Colony exists on. Originally part of the town of Castleton beginning in the 1680s, the government took over the land in 1829 for use as the Richmond County Poor Farm. In 1898 it was redesignated the New York City Farm Colony, and the quaint but dull farmhouses were replaced with the large brick dormitories rotting there today.
Built in the Dutch Colonial style during a time of changing attitudes in the treatment of the poor, the buildings are constructed to conjure the comfort of rural living, as opposed to an institutional design. This was the era of the farm colony, when establishments like these were built for the purpose of housing a community of societal outcasts (the poor, the old, the developmentally delayed) who worked in exchange for their room and board.
Self-sustaining and utopic in essence, 200 residents produced over 3,000 vegetables, enough to feed themselves and share with other city institutions, such as City Hospital on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island. The New York Times’ archives are spotted with random happy encounters at the colony, ranging from craft fairs to choral group performances and horseshoe rivalries.
In the 1910s, the acres expanded cultivation to swine and chickens, the now 824 residents able to produce $22,887 worth of food in a single season – but the colony’s population was quickly aging. With over half the residents above 50 years of age, and a quarter over 70, many were unfit for labor. By 1932, a policy change made the Colony no longer a self-supporting institution but a “haven for old people” with 1,428 residents.
By the 1950s, the introduction of social security had stripped the colony of its able-bodied population and turned it into what was essentially a geriatric hospital. 1975 marked the end of the Farm Colony’s existence: the complex was closed, and remaining patients transferred to Seaview Hospital across the street. The buildings were sealed and forgotten, much like the patients they once held. But while this was the official end of the live history of the Staten Island Farm Colony, it was also the beginning of a far more sinister chapter in its existence.
Crime had been present on and around the grounds since the 1920s, when a seven-year-old boy disappeared from the woods after being seen walking with an elderly man. The nearby Willowbrook State School had a troubled history for much of its life as an institution for the developmentally disabled. A famous 1972 exposé revealed the children at Willowbrook lying naked on the floor, smeared in their own feces, with one attendant for every 50 kids. And then, in the 70s and 80s, children started disappearing.
Many of them disabled, local kids would disappear from family homes, most never to be found again. Jennifer Schweiger, a 12-year-old with Down’s syndrome, disappeared on July 9, 1987, during what was intended as a short walk, to be found 35 days later in a shallow grave on the grounds of the Willobrook State School. Andre Rand, once an orderly of the school, was blamed for the series of murders. It was rumored he lived in the tunnels under the decaying hospital, and his campsites were found on the grounds of the property.
Workers at Seaview Hospital also reported seeing former patients walking the halls and stairwells of the fast-decaying facilities, their restless souls returned to haunt the tunnels they once worked to maintain. And so the century-old urban legend of the crazed serial killer the Cropsey Maniac became associated with the New York Farm Colony.
Well-known by Staten Islanders, Cropsey is a boogeyman and a horror tactic parents use to make their children eat their vegetables, get to bed on time, and stay away from the Greenbelt — the woods where what is left of the colony is located. But for anyone who knows some of the place’s history, Cropsey is not all legend.
Today, 12 of the original structures still stand – barely. Although a 1985 landmarking designation saved the buildings from outright demolition, their preservation has been left to the elements. Despite, or perhaps because of, the horror stories and Cropsey tales surrounding the structures, the area has become a well-known local hangout for teenagers looking for a scare, or just a good place to play paintball. The grounds are strewn with beer cans, cigarettes butts, coke bottles, and the general detritus of kids having a good time. There is also evidence of some more ominous activity, namely Satanic worship.
Within the four H-shaped Georgian-style dormitories are endless symmetrical hallways, the same on every floor, the same in every building, discernible only by the graffiti. The Insane Pavilion, its basement smelling of death, has its front yard filled with strange markings, beer cans, shoes, and other random objects nailed in patterns to trees, and a few cat corpses in its back room. The laundry room is piled with clothing, moldering with the ages, and the rest of the structures are so deeply hidden in the backwoods that I couldn’t find them.
The Staten Island Farm Colony represents the highest concentration of abandoned buildings in all of New York, and even more than that it is one of the few forgotten and illegal spots where random suited adults on Staten Island buses can give you explicit instructions on how to get in.
More than a local haunt to smoke with your friends, this rotting asylum has hosted generations of parties and pain and fear and insanity. It embodies so many strong emotions, so many lost souls, so many good times, and bad times. The history here is nearly as potent as the grime, so it’s no wonder that so many ghosts choose to make it their home.
All photographs by Hannah Frishberg.
THE NEW YORK CITY FARM COLONY, Staten Island, New York