When the reclusive Dr. Dietrich Irving Kniebocker invited me to edit and illustrate his life’s work (The Forgotten History of Staten Island) I didn’t know what to expect. And I must say, that after a year of working on the project, I still don’t. Dr. Kniebocker is nothing if not unique, and the same can be said for many of his accounts of Staten Island life in the past two centuries. In the course of working on the footnotes, and searching for the illustrations of what will be a multi-volume encyclopediacal work, I have been astounded to find sources for many of the seemingly impossible anecdotes described in Dr. Kniebocker’s text. In other instances, the doctor’s information would have been lost in the sands of time except for his recollections and his unusual research methods (such as interviews with members of the spirit community).
For example, there’s a rich load of archival material on the generally forgotten Staten Island NFL Team, the Stapleton Stapes. But the role of its owner, Grandpops Staples, in creating an early version of Monday Night Football has been recorded by no one else and is still not generally accepted, despite Dr. Kniebocker’s efforts.
Thus Dr. Kniebocker, who is generally considered Staten Island’s most controversial historian (and by many its best) is not without his critics, to whom he has one standard reply: “If you don’t like my history, write your own!” In a somewhat different spirit then the clenched teeth with which my esteemed colleague utters this epithet, I would like to offer the same advice, even if you do like Dr. Kniebocker’s epic work.
The great American author, Thorton Wilder, once wrote, “I tell the future… Nothing easier… But who can tell your past”? That is a remark I never truly understood until I met Dr. Kniebocker. Through my collaboration with him, I have come to realize that (to some degree) we all must assemble our own vision of the past. Each of us must connect the dots, of the available facts, to draw our own picture.
This project has been a wonderful journey through the history of Staten Island that has opened my eyes to its amazing legacy, and through that to new ideas of what it might become.
Thus it is my hope that Dr. Kniebocker’s epic work will encourage other people to dig into the past and assemble their own history of Staten Island, or anywhere else, whether they choose to write it down, or not. As Doctor Kniebocker has shown me, it is only by taking control of the past that one has the possibility to influence the future. And by the same token, when you constrict the past, you (inevitably) constrict the future. Now that I have seen history through Dr. Kniebocker’s eyes, it seems that both the past and future are filled with endless possibilities.
As I left Dr. Kniebocker’s retreat that first time, he clasped my hand firmly and said “I’m entrusting you with a great responsibility, young man, as you have accepted this task it will be incumbent on you to make sure people remember The Forgotten History of Staten Island.”
In turn, Dear Reader, I’m passing this responsibility on to you. Please remember all forgotten histories, whether they be Doctor Kniebocker’s, or your own.