City Island: The Grit and the Gulls

Wouldn’t you want to live here? Looking at Long Island Sound at the end of Carroll Street on City Island.  You can even see the twin towers of the  Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance, which reminds me of commuting.

Gail and I started the summer wanting to visit six New York Islands.  We started with Roosevelt Island, then ventured to Ellis Island (see previous post).  A few weeks back we spent the late afternoon/evening in City Island in the Bronx.  It is a world unto itself, a sea shore village with a unique urban edge.  It is also a place where Gail’s dad Harry lived for a year at some point when Gail was in high school.  Where did he live?  That was part of our detective work this afternoon.  One place that she always remembered from the few times she visited her as a youngster: The Black Whale where she used to eat dessert, and where we did the same at the end of our day.

The above shot I like for a number of reasons. The houses at the end of the blocks on the west side of the island are stunning and have incredible views (one can even see the city skyline about nine or so miles away).  They all have their own private “beach;” they’re waterfront properties that have the water all to themselves.  But the biggest reason: look past the manicured lawn, the Adirondack chair facing westward, and you can see the Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance.  My Throgs Neck Bridge (It’s all about me, right?)  The bridge I drive over four days a week when I’m teaching to get to Nassau Community College.  It’s always a highlight of my commute when I’m on the bridge (wait – can a horrible commute have a “highlight?”).   But bridges can be so iconic, and the TNB certainly is.  I fantasize: wouldn’t it be great to live on CI and commute to work from there?  I could avoid the GWB and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Living in CI, in a matter of moments I would be approaching the TNB.  My commute could be 20 minutes – if I lived in a dreamland (truth be told, it would probably take me a lot longer to get off island and then get to 95, but this is a fantasy.  Also, part of this fantasy is Gail having retires – this is years from now.  She could sub and one of the island’s two public schools).  And – hey – here I am on a beautiful August afternoon on this beautiful City Island and I’m strategizing commuting if we ever move here.  What is wrong with me????

Looking down Carroll Street looking west. The house from the first shot would have been by the water on the left side of the street. Notice the double-red stop light at the end of the block warning drivers that there ain’t no road left.

One of the unique characteristics of the island is how narrow it is.  There is one main drag that goes up and down the island.  It is the spine of the island.  The east-west roads only intersect City Island Avenue.  There are no other intersecting roads.  While City Island Avenue has shops, playgrounds, boat supply shops, schools, restaurants, churches (and abandoned store fronts), while it is a three lane road (with the middle lane reserved for emergency vehicles – after all most structures are pretty old and most are of wood construction) the traffic and noise can remind you that you are still in the Bronx.  However, step off the avenue and you feel as if you have stepped out of time into a different world.  It’s quiet.  You can smell good things like the sea, like the vegetation.  Late August sunlight is intense filtered off the water and through the trees.

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Gail walking eastward down Carroll Street, away from the house in the first shot.

Another house on Carroll Street. It is hard to believe we are in New York City

A beautiful clapboard church along City Island Ave. I love all the electric wires going north, south, east, and west. And look carefully, you can see a bit of the Long Island Sound to the left way behind the pole.

So we parked on Carroll and explored that street, we then walked down City Island Avenue a half-mile or so until the island’s end.  It ends in honky tonk, two seafood restaurants that remind me of a City Island version of Cape May Point’s Sunset Beach (multiply their six tables by 25??).  Pigeons peck and seagulls swoop.  Young guys in motorboats and jetskis are hot dogging and racing right by the sea wall – kinda like dudes on motorcycles screaming by you on the west side highway.  It is an intense scene.  Crowded for an early Thursday night.  We’ve eaten here before on a previous visit, but we wander, retracing our steps up City Island Avenue to find a place for dinner.

How can you resist?

We sit outside at Sammy’s a beautiful late August night.  The menu is extensive, and expensive.  It’s hot out – but we feel the air conditioning coming in from the open doors of the restaurant.  We order two beers and they come in frozen mugs… just the ticket.  We decide on raw clams and oysters.  It’s a hot night on City Island.  We leisurely eat our food, drink our beers, enjoy this deeply pleasurable moment of our lives.

Sitting outside at Sammy’s

Gail had remembered “Pilot Street” as her dad’s old address.  He lived there for a year, she visited him two, maybe three times.  How does she remember?  How does memory work?  How can we remember an old address from 35 years ago but not the name of the main character of a tv drama we watch week after week???  Pilot is just around the corner from Sammy’s.  We walk up the street of older homes.  Some houses in City Island look as if the caretaker stopped really caring sometime during the Bush administration.  Lots of sagging parts, yards overgrown and littered with rusty old shit.  And some homes are beautiful and impeccably maintained.  But walking down Pilot nothing seemed familiar to Gail.  Harry wouldn’t have lived in a house – it wouldn’t have been his style.   Maybe he kept his boat out by the island somewhere?  At the end of Pilot there is an apartment building.  It didn’t look familiar, but the longer we lingered, the clearer the realization came.

This must be the place.  Later the mystery is solved: 11 Pilot Street.

The building itself didn’t register any bang.  but where else would Harry have lived on Pilot?  And we’re talking 1975.  The building faces the water.  Harry could have been watching sunsets.  There was no “aha” moment, just the strong probability that this must be the place.  And later in the evening when we were having dessert in the Black Whale, the actual address came to Gail.  30 Pilot Street.  She Googled it on her phone and the building came up.

Okay, we’re not going to move there anytime soon (days later the realization came to me that unless you’re living right on the water, you really have very little access to the water.  It’s not like the Jersey shore where every block offers access.  Here there is only access for elite homeowner (though the 99%  can gaze from behind the concrete barriers at street’s end).  But it’s fantastic place.  A true mix of urban and sea shore.  The grit and the gulls.  The old buildings still seem to stand – there doesn’t seem to have been a rush of newer construction that ruined old places.  Sure some storefronts are new (or newly empty), and some new buildings have sprung up, but I would venture to guess that the essence of City Island hasn’t changed as much as other places have changed, say in the past 30 years.  It was already developed, it probably isn’t any more densely settled than it was.  Somehow, I feel at home here.  Through the mixture of urban and seashore, I’m reminded of the Atlantic City of my youth, but in a good way.  And you can see the Manhattan skyline from here.  One is never far away from the cultural hub of the universe.

Outside the Black Whale, which remains Gail’s strongest memory of her teenage visits to City Island. 

The sunsets are spectacular for those facing west on City Island. Notice the Manhattan skyline behind the gazebo.

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