As one of the most unique neighborhoods in New York City, City Island holds a special place in many people’s hearts both those who live there and visitors alike.
The tiny island covers 253 acres in its 1.5 mile length by half a mile width and is the home to approximately 4,500 residents of clamdiggers (those who are actually born on the island) and musselsuckers (those not born on island).
On any given holiday or summer weekend (or warm weekend for that matter) the population swells by the thousands (perhaps upwards of 10,000) as throngs of Bronxites flock to the dozens of restaurants that line City Island Avenue, much to the chagrin of the natives who often get stranded on their island or unable to reach home in a timely manner due to the traffic for the only meas of egress is the City Island Bridge (or a boat if you own one).
But City Island is more than just the restaurants that’s the economic engine of the island. It’s the galleries, the boat yards and most of all it’s the people who make this place special and unique.
Its unique geography as an isolated island neighborhood cut off from the rest of America’s largest city by water and its largest park is simply an added bonus to this magical recipe.
Curbed New York has a special new series which explores New York City’s boroughs one block at a time and in their inaugural piece they chose to take a look at Hunter Avenue, a small cul-de-sac off Ditmars Street on the Western half of the island.
The beautiful essay delves into the lives of those who live on the block: lawyers, artists, sailors, and fishmongers all coexisting.
City Island, at 230 acres, population a little under 4,500 according to the most recent census, is adjacent to the woods of Pelham Bay and Orchard Beach, the borough’s only public beach, and to the rest of the Bronx to the west and Westchester to the north. Photographer Chris Mottalini and I are exploring New York City’s boroughs through its blocks, one each in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, because we’re interested in how these blocks form their own micro-universes, and how those micro-universes fit into their boroughs.
We were drawn to City Island partly for the contrasts embedded in its name—both city and island, it is part of the Bronx and apart from it. And we landed on this particular block because it seemed to represent City Island as a whole, inhabited by artists, writers, eccentrics, scientists, lawyers, curators, art handlers, fishmongers, bus drivers, teachers, and electricians, many of whom traded rising rents in Brooklyn and Manhattan for a small town that is tethered to New York City but fairly remote, with wetlands that resemble a compressed wilderness, a place with proudly worn nautical roots, and the sense of nostalgia that seems to hover over almost all beach towns.
City Island came to be at the end of the last ice age, created by glaciers and covered in deposits of rare blue clay. The first humans who fished and hunted on City Island were the Siwanoy band of the Lenape Indians, who called it Minnewit, meaning pine, for the trees that proliferated in those times. Thomas Pell seized their land in 1654; Anne Hutchinson, seeking religious freedom, later settled there. Until 1895, when it was annexed by New York City, City Island was considered part of Westchester and was home mostly to farmers and shipbuilders and sailors and harvesters of oysters. Its first enterprise involved producing salt from evaporated seawater and its most successful enterprises, for years, were harvesting oysters and building and repairing boats and yachts, including several America’s Cup winners. The island did not get dial telephone service until 1960. It has served as the location for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, BUtterfield 8, and several episodes of Law & Order. Among its better-known residents over the years are mobster Frank Scalice of the Gambino crime family, longtime AFL-CIO leader George Meany, the comedian Red Buttons, the drag queen Coco Peru, and neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, who, the story goes, swam over to City Island from Orchard Beach one day and liked the island so much he bought a house there.
Read the rest of the beautiful essay over at Curbed.