REACHING THE MARSHY spot on southwestern Staten Island where good boats go to die requires a car, sturdy footwear, and a willingness to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Though a sliver of the Arthur Kill ship graveyard is visible from the nearest road, the site’s full grandeur only becomes apparent once you sneak beyond the “No Trespassing” and “Beware of Dog” signs and hack through a miasma of seven-foot-tall reeds that stink of brine and guano.
The thicket finally dead-ends at a colossal pile of junk: thousands of splintered beams of lumber mixed in with broken engine parts. Just beyond this debris field lie as many three dozen ghostly ships in various states of decay, abandoned decades ago in this isolated corner of New York City.
The Arthur Kill ship graveyard was never meant to become such a decrepit spectacle. In the years following World War II, the adjacent scrapyard began to purchase scores of outdated vessels, with the intention of harvesting them for anything of value. But the shipbreakers couldn’t keep pace with the influx of boats, especially once people started to use the graveyard as a dumping ground for their old dinghies. Plenty of ships fell into such disrepair that they were no longer worth the effort to strip, especially since many teem with toxic substances. And so they’ve been left to rot in the murky tidal strait that divides Staten Island from New Jersey, where they’ve turned scarlet with rust and now host entire ecosystems of hardy aquatic creatures.
Like so many relics of our species’ industrial past, the graveyard has attracted a fair number of intrepid artists and vandals over the years. The small ships closest to shore are splattered with spray-painted tags, while those farther out have been frequent subjects for oil painters and water colorists. A South Korean artist, Miru Kim, has even photographed herself wading around the site as part of a series fittingly titled “Naked City Spleen.” But no one has produced anything quite as visually striking as Graves of Arthur Kill, a new 32-minute documentary that features up-close and ultra-rare footage of the graveyard’s most gorgeous wrecks...