A child prodigy who graduated from Columbia University at age 15 and later designed and built Staten Island’s first sidewalks, Charles Gustav Francis Maria Ignacio Heironymus Parnelli Hornblatt, (better known as ‘Parnelli Hornblatt’) was also a prodigious author. His turn of the century, bestselling, pedestrian-oriented, books include his autobiography: Walk A Mile in My Shoes, or Better Yet, Walk A Mile in Your Own, and the self-help tract, It’s Never Too Late To Ambulate.
Hornblatt’s lifelong love of walking developed as a youngster growing up in what is now known as the East Village, but was then called “Kleindeutschland.” The product of a German Lutheran Father and a Catholic Italian mother who converted to her husband’s faith, the young man’s world was shattered when his mother and sisters perished during a tragic church outing aboard the excursion boat The General Slocum.
At that point, Parnelli Hornblatt was plunged, from a comfortable middle class existence, to abject poverty when his grief stricken father took to drink and never again held a steady job. Lacking funds to commute, Hornblatt (who was already attending Columbia University on full scholarship at the tender age of 13) was forced to walk from his home on East 10th street to Morningside Heights and back each day. He never thought that the experience was a hardship however. “Those walks cleared my mind and strengthened my heart and kidneys, and gave me the will to exceed,” he would later recall in Walk A Mile in My Shoes, or Better Yet, Walk A Mile In Your Own.
Immediately following graduation, Parnelli Hornblatt was enlisted in the most ambitious civil engineering project in Staten island’s history – the construction of a cross-island canal that would effectively link the island to the transportation hub of central New Jersey. Despite being all of 16 years old, Parnelli was made the project’s chief engineer. But after initial dredging of mid-island swamps revealed what a local chemist ostensibly named Van Nostrand called “the richest shale oil deposits this side of Texas,”– the project was abandoned in favor of drilling oil wells. At this point, Parnelli Hornblatt lost interest. “I didn’t become a civil engineer to dig for black gold “he told a friend, “I want to build things.”
Hornblatt had chosen to receive payment in shares of company stock which he then sold as he sought other employment. Due to the speculative fever around the oil discovery his stock fetched a fortune. He had become fabulously wealthy overnight, but the gain came at a price to his reputation. Because, before long, it emerged that the Staten Island Canal Company was nothing but a massive real estate swindle. There was in fact barely enough oil in the swamp lands of Staten Island to grease a horse carriage.
In the course of a series of trials, Hornblatt’s partners all went to prison for fraud — with the largest sentenced handed out to the so-called chemist Van Nostrand, who turned out to be a deranged circus acrobat named Muggsy Parker and thus was convicted of the additional crime of impersonating a man of science. However, Parnelli Hornblatt was found to be completely innocent of wrongdoing. Apparently, despite his brilliance, the innocence of his young age had been a factor in his hiring by the perpetrators of the fraud. Since Parnelli Hornblatt had divested himself of his investment without any knowledge of the swindle, or any criminal intent, he was spared further legal repercussions.
With his problems behind him, and fortune intact, Hornblatt set out to restore his reputation. While others in his position might have considered this the moment to leave past troubles behind, Hornblatt had a passionate affection for the borough of Richmond that kept him Island bound. This affection was expressed in numerous passages in his diaries, such as the following: “It is breathtakingly beautiful here. There are all manner of glorious flora and fauna. The ladies are refined and elegant; the houses lovely; it lacks only one thing—sidewalks.” He would spend the rest of his life trying to fill this one gap in an otherwise perfect utopia.
Through a series of initiatives, Parnelli Hornblatt designed and (by local subscription) financed a series of sidewalks all around what is now referred to as “Downtown Staten Island” (the areas of St. George, Tompkinsville, and Stapleton). As important as that work was, he had an even grander idea. He conceived a plan to unite Tompkinsville, Stapleton and St. George into a metropolis known as “Hyperpedia” via a three-tiered sidewalk (one tier for northern traffic, one for southern traffic and a third for strollers in either direction). Unfortunately, Parnelli did not live long enough to see his vision of a pedestrian-friendly urban utopia on Staten Island fulfilled. While surveying for this his most ambitious project –Parnelli Hornblatt was struck and fatally injured, by the Island’s first Model T Ford.
Today, Parnelli Hornblatt’s vision of a pedestrian utopia on Staten island is forgotten. His books are little read, and his belief in the value of walking is thought of as nothing more than quaint by Staten Islanders. But that doesn’t mean that his great contribution to Island life is neglected. Whether they’re parking their cars on them, dumping garbage, using them as a receptacle for pet waste, or settling a contentious dispute with the aid of a baseball bat, a day does not go by where one of Parnelli Hornblatt’s sidewalks is not made good use of by Staten Islanders.