City Island, Bronx

The ocean appears as flashes of blue light on City Island Road. Bloodroot, Trout Lilies, and Dutchman’s Breeches bloom in the tall grass just off the shoulder. The skyline and bridges of Manhattan are visible to the southwest. A green swing bridge made of steel and stone crosses Eastchester Bay at the western end of Long Island Sound. Four decorative fleur-de-lis and two faded signs mark the center of the bridge. A sign on the southern end reads Welcome to City Island.

On the other side is an island rich in history, seascapes, and local pride. Island residents were known for sympathizing with the American cause during the Revolutionary War and were often attacked by the British. The island was even occupied by the British and part of a critical juncture of the war was fought here. In the 1776 Battle of Pell’s Point just 750 Americans detained 4,000 British and Hessians, allowing George Washington to safely reach White Plains. Oyster culture started in America in 1830 when Orrin Fordham, a shipbuilder from Essex, started an oyster planting business on City Island. Boatbuilding was big here as well. Americas Cup and Gold Cup winners were designed and built on the island. So were WWII minesweepers, landing craft, and torpedo boats.

The Bronx is often considered a borough filled with drugs, guns, ghettos, and crooked cops. City Island is an escape from all that. When hordes of tourists and partiers aren’t cramming its streets, the island is more like a quintessential New England fishing village. A living reminder of the maritime community that New York once was. As I discovered this summer, living in those days, if only for a few hours, can be a much-needed break from the frenzied pace of metropolitan life.

City Island, in a southeast section of the Bronx, is one and a half miles long and a half mile wide and shaped like a lopsided fish fillet. The main thoroughfare, City Island Avenue, cuts the island lengthwise, south to north. Facing east from the main avenue, there are views of Eastchester Bay and facing west there are views of Long Island Sound. In between are the houses, businesses, marinas, and boatyards of one of New York City’s most unique neighborhoods.

Views open up as you cross the bridge — rows of sailboats at the marina, American flags lining the avenue for Independence Day. There are real telephone poles here, wood and round and ready to fall over. Windows and car bumpers have 9/11 Never Forget and FDNY 9–11–01 decals.

There are no public beaches here, but most of the streets have their own private beaches. Like many American beaches, they are hidden behind locked gates and only accessible to residents. Strips of sand mixed with rock run to the water.

At Beach Street, there’s a kayak, plastic beach toys, towels, and blankets on the sand but only one person there. I’m with my six-year old daughter and the man invites us through the gate. There are pieces of beach glass there and he tells me that at low tide, like now, there’s lots of beach glass and shells. He makes canvas tote bags and paints them, selling them at a local boutique. He also works in West Harlem weekdays. His five-year-old son helps paint the beach bags.

We talk about how peaceful the island is, and he says he moved here six years ago and loves it. There’s an island past a small floating dock that’s little more than a pile of rocks. His friend bought it last year. The beach we are on is shared, and even though it’s only a tiny strip of sand between buildings, it’s quiet and peaceful with a beautiful view. “It’s the Bronx, but it feels far away,” he says.

Belden Point is the southernmost tip of the island. There’s a direct view of Stepping Stones Lighthouse from the point. Seagulls glide in circles looking for food and sea mist blows along the shore. The sound of waves breaking on the beach creates a steady rhythm and the air smells like fish, crab, and rotting seaweed. Johnny’s Reef Restaurant holds down the east side of the point; Tony’s Pier Restaurant is on the west. Between the beautiful scenery are signs of the city’s fringe: cement walls, black chain link fences, danger signs, pink graffiti, and the three Sammy’s: Sammy’s Fish Box, Sammy’s Shrimp Box, and Sammy’s Take Out.

F. Scott Fitzgerald described Long Island Sound as “…the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere…” The view that Jay Gatsby’s guests would have seen while they were diving from his raft, taking sun from his beach or cruising in one of his motor-boats, the view that Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby would have seen from their sprawling porches, is, in fact, City Island. Hard to believe the three Sammy’s represent F. Scott Fitzgerald’s America. City Island was a different place then. In the summer of 1925, a powerboat built on City Island won the prestigious Gold Cup Regatta in Manhasset Bay. The sleek, thirty-foot mahogany boat was powered by a V-8 engine. The same month The Great Gatsby was published, April 1925, the New Yorker ran a piece that was probably about the owner of the boat — a real bootlegger named “the Yale Boy” — who spent his fortune on gambling, hotel living, and a titled lady.

Fordham Place represents all things new on City Island. New condos for sale there are boring gray with white trim and could be located anywhere in America. The views of Long Island Sound are good, though, and the Andersen windows, Caesarstone countertops, and Carrara marble bathrooms seem to draw homebuyers. The five-acre gated community has a clubhouse, playground, and heated pool. Right next door, a Department of Corrections beach and ferry dock are fenced off. Rikers Island inmates are bussed there and ferried less than a mile away to work on Hart Island, a sand and schist “potter’s field” for New York City’s unidentified or indigent dead.

Just down the street is PS 175. This two-story brick building is the old site of a shipyard where Henry B. Nevins once turned out cup winners and warcrafts. Nevins was a perfectionist. He opened his boatyard in 1907 and became known as the Tiffany of boatbuilders. In 1939 the U.S. Navy awarded him for his 54-foot motor torpedo boat. For years, he built boats for Olin Stephens, whose boat design business was diagonally opposite the Nevins Shipyard. One of their collaborations, the Columbia, won the 1958 Americas Cup. But Nevins was best known for his powerboats. For four years his boats dominated the Gold Cup. Greenwich Folly and Baby Bootlegger were Gold Cup Winners, while Miss Columbia was a Gold Cup Contender 1924 thru 1927 and finished second in each race.

Car and speedboat racer Caleb Smith Bragg owned the Baby Bootlegger. Bragg was born into a wealthy family, graduated from Yale, and made millions on Wall Street. He loved the thrill of flying and racing. He loved women too and was known as a playboy. Bragg’s confidential secretary Ethel Zimmerman had to send his celebrity paramours flowers. At an employee party, Bragg took employees out in the Manhasset Bay in his new speedboat, the Casey Jones. Ethel and the company switchboard operator were drenched when the speeding boat hit a log and overturned. Bragg took the women to his nearby houseboat, which was as luxurious as a Manhattan penthouse, and gave them silk pajamas to wear while their clothes dried. Bragg invested in Broadway musicals and Ethel was one of the women who begged him for Broadway roles. When Bragg finally wrote her a letter of introduction and she found theater work, Ethel changed her last name to Merman.

Later that day we walk downtown. The sidewalks on the avenue are curbed and shaded by hardwood trees. Toward the center of the island there’s a restaurant on the west side of the avenue that several locals recommended. The Black Whale is on the ground floor of a three-story wooden building. Large flowering trees in pots frame the front door, strings of white, green, and red lights running through them. From a distance the building looks neat and clean. Inside, we see the windows are filled with nautical bric-à-brac: wooden ship’s wheels, anchors, buoys, and fishing nets.

There is no line and we sit in the garden. The space is part salvage yard, part hoarder’s paradise. It is decorated with a blue wooden anchor, black copper lanterns, candleholders hanging from the trees, chipped marble tables, ornate cast iron vases, and a couple of stained glass windows. Nearby is an object on wheels, four feet tall and three feet wide. The server answers before I ask, it’s an antique coffee grinding machine. And it’s broken.

After lunch we head off to King Avenue and the only waterfront cemetery in New York City. Pelham Cemetery is quiet with all manner of memorials. Tombstones are carved with epitaphs for Civil War veterans. There are prominent New York family names, like Fordham, Van Allen, and Pell. The ground slopes away from the street toward the blue water and rocky shore. Like the island itself, the cemetery is peaceful and charming. With its trees, peacefulness, and breezes from the sound, it feels like this can’t be the Bronx.

My daughter and I spend an hour there, looking at the anchored sailboats, rocks, water, and Hart Island all green and wild. The sidewalks and paths around the cemetery were falling apart, but the grass and headstones inside were well-tended. It was, in fact, a lot like the island that we discovered — beautiful, charming, imperfect, and a respite from all the city that surrounds it.

© 2017 Kimberly Pizzutti. All Rights Reserved.