Willowbrook: Staten Island’s Resilient Neighborhood

Willowbrook, a neighborhood located on the North Shore of Staten Island, New York City, is situated in the Mid-Island area. It is surrounded by the communities of New Springville, Port Richmond, Bulls Head, Manor Heights, and Westerleigh.

The history of Willowbrook is fascinating, with its origins rooted in agriculture, a story that is common among many neighborhoods on Staten Island. As a primarily residential area, Willowbrook offers a wide variety of housing options, from single-family homes to apartment buildings.

Known for its suburban feel, abundant green spaces, and easy access to the Staten Island Expressway, Willowbrook provides a unique and desirable living experience.

The Evolution of Willowbrook

In the late 1700s, Willowbrook was home to several factories that were closed down by the early 1900s. Despite this change, the area maintained its primarily agricultural character, with farmland and a brook running through it, which inspired the neighborhood’s name.

A Turning Point: The Willowbrook State School Era

By 1938, the State of New York had purchased the land that was once the Willowbrook Golf Course, intending to build the Willowbrook State Hospital. However, during World War II, the hospital was used by the United States Army. In 1951, it was converted into the Willowbrook State School, which served as a facility for children with mental disabilities.

The Willowbrook State School became the largest state-run hospital for the mentally disabled in the United States, with over 40 buildings and the capacity to house 4,000 patients. Sadly, the reality of the institution was far from ideal. In 1965, the school held over 6,000 children, and during hepatitis outbreaks in 1963 and 1966, unethical medical studies were conducted on healthy patients.

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The deplorable conditions at Willowbrook were first brought to public attention by Robert Kennedy. In 1972, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the State of New York, citing overcrowding, abuse, and unsanitary conditions. In 1987, the institution was shut down, and the land was used to build the College of Staten Island campus.

Willowbrook in Film and Documentary

The Willowbrook neighborhood has not only been a part of Staten Island’s history but has also captured the attention of filmmakers and documentarians over the years. Several movies and documentaries have featured Willowbrook as a filming location or have centered their stories around the area’s history, shedding light on various aspects of the neighborhood’s past and its significance in the larger context of society.

One such movie is the 1984 comedy “Grace Quigley” (rated PG), starring Katharine Hepburn and Nick Nolte. The film, which tells the story of an elderly woman who blackmails a hit-man into helping her end her life, used Willowbrook as a filming location. Although Staten Island is not listed as a filming location on the movie’s IMDb page, local news clippings confirm that certain scenes were shot in the Willowbrook area. This highlights the neighborhood’s versatility and appeal as a backdrop for Hollywood productions.

The most significant film related to Willowbrook is undoubtedly the documentary “Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook” (1996). This powerful film, featuring actors Danny Aiello and Geraldo Rivera, sheds light on the disturbing abuses that took place at the Willowbrook State School. The documentary serves as a poignant reminder of the institution’s dark history and its impact on the community, bringing attention to the crucial issue of the treatment of individuals with disabilities.

Community Demographics

Willowbrook has a population of approximately 93,736 residents. The neighborhood has a diverse demographic makeup, with a mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds. The median age of residents is around 42.1 years old, with a fairly even distribution among age groups.

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The average household income in Willowbrook is slightly higher than the Staten Island median, with a mix of white-collar and blue-collar occupations. The neighborhood has a strong sense of community, with many families having lived in the area for generations.

Housing Options in Willowbrook

Willowbrook offers a range of housing options to suit various needs and lifestyles. The neighborhood features a mix of single-family homes, townhouses, and apartment complexes, each catering to different preferences.

Single-family homes are popular among those seeking privacy and space, with well-maintained lawns and a suburban atmosphere. Townhouses provide a balance between the convenience of shared walls and individual space, fostering a sense of community. While not as common as in more urban areas, apartment complexes in Willowbrook offer rental options for those who prefer multi-unit living in a suburban setting.

The neighborhood’s proximity to the College of Staten Island makes it an attractive choice for students and academics. Residents of Willowbrook enjoy the advantage of having Willowbrook Park in proximity, offering a convenient way to indulge in outdoor recreational activities.

Commuting and Transportation

Willowbrook is conveniently located near major roads, such as the Staten Island Expressway, making it an ideal choice for commuters. The neighborhood is served by several MTA bus routes, including the S57, S61, S91, and S92, which connect residents to the Staten Island Ferry and other parts of the borough. The Staten Island Railway also has a stop at the nearby Grasmere station, providing access to the St. George Ferry Terminal and connections to Manhattan.

Estimated commute times from Willowbrook to other parts of New York City are as follows:

  • St. George Ferry Terminal: 20-30 minutes by bus or car
  • Lower Manhattan (via Staten Island Ferry): 60-75 minutes
  • Midtown Manhattan (via Staten Island Ferry and subway): 75-90 minutes
  • Brooklyn: 45-60 minutes by car (depending on traffic)
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Education and Local Amenities

Willowbrook is home to a diverse range of educational institutions, catering to students from primary school to higher education. The College of Staten Island, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, is located in the neighborhood and offers a wide array of undergraduate and graduate programs.

The neighborhood also has several public and private schools, including P.S. 54 Charles W. Leng, P.S. 60 Alice Austen, and the St. Rita School. For additional academic support, Willowbrook has tutoring centers that cater to various subjects and grade levels.

Residents have access to public libraries, which provide quiet study spaces and a vast collection of educational materials. The neighborhood also features a variety of local businesses, including grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants, with the Staten Island Mall located nearby, offering extensive shopping and dining options.

Parks and Recreation

Willowbrook Park is a 164-acre green space that serves as a focal point for the community. The park features walking trails, sports fields, a playground, and an archery range. The park’s natural beauty, with its wooded areas and a five-acre lake, attracts wildlife and provides opportunities for birdwatching and fishing.

One of the park’s unique features is the Carousel for All Children, an accessible carousel with hand-carved wooden animals designed to accommodate children with disabilities. The park also hosts various community events throughout the year, fostering a sense of togetherness and neighborhood spirit.


Willowbrook has experienced a remarkable transformation over time, evolving from its agricultural roots into a residential neighborhood with a distinctive charm. The area’s diverse housing selections, educational institutions, parks, and local conveniences make it a desirable place to live for families, students, and working professionals.

Willowbrook’s convenient location, transportation options, and a strong sense of community provide residents with a suburban way of life while maintaining a connection to the broader New York City metro region. As the neighborhood continues to grow and change, it remains a relatively undiscovered treasure on Staten Island, providing residents with an excellent standard of living.

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