City Island offers glimpse into the Big Apple’s seafaring past

CITY ISLAND, NEW YORK – Some folks call it the Bronx Riviera, this last bastion of small-town security sitting smack on the edge of New York City.

City Island is an idyllic little spot located just beyond Pelham Bay in the Bronx, surrounded by the waters of Long Island Sound and Eastchester Bay.

It’s a slow-moving, slow-changing place where slightly more than 5,000 people make their permanent home. On weekends, however, the sleepy little streets abound with visitors from the concrete canyons of Manhattan looking for a place to fish, sail or chow down some of the best seafood around.

In total, City Island measures less than three miles of dry land in any direction — before you hit the water. The side streets are dotted with little wooden summer cottages, many dating back decades, which are lovingly tended by those lucky enough to live there.

Many of the tiny bungalows were transferred to the island from nearby Pelham Bay Park, when it was established in the 1930s.

Long history of shipbuilding

But it’s seafaring and sailing that made City Island’s reputation. As far back as 1685, a small English settlement provided a stopng-off point for schooners travelling between Manhattan and points north.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the area became an important shipbuilding and yachting centre. The Second World War saw the yachtbuilding industry change over to construction of submarine chasers, P.T. boats, tugs, landing craft and mine sweepers.

After the war, the boat builders of City Island went back to their first love – turning out sleek winners of the America’s Cup yacht race, including the Independence, Enterprise and the Courageous. Indeed, five winners were built locally.

Today, the presence of yacht clubs, sailing schools, sailmakers and marine supply shops reflects the area’s historic role as a nautical community.

But if you happen to arrive at City Island without your ocean-going yacht, there’s still lots to do.

You can board one of the party boats for a moonlight cruise or stay on land and grab a fine dinner at The Original Crab shanty, an island landmark. The Original Crab Shanty is known for its garlic crabs and Italian-accented seafood. (Telephone 212-885-1810) Or you can visit The Lobster Box restaurant, which gets a listing in the New York Zagat restaurant guide. Zagat critics say you can’t beat it “for lovely water views”. (Telephone 212-885-1952)

Stroll along the streets
During the day, a stroll along City Island Avenue will offer you antique stores to explore with lots of nautically-themed novelties to bring home. Or just stroll up the side streets leading to the water and peek at the little homes with their splendid gardens. But watch out for the potholes – there are lots of them.

You might also wander over to the City Island Museum, located in an old public school built in 1897 and on a former Indian burial ground. It’s on one of the highest points of land on the island.

The museum contains more than 60 original paintings of City Island, along with numerous shipbuilding and yachting artifacts. It’s open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday and Wednesday.

While the numbers of visitors swell on a long weekend and during the summer, City Island doesn’t have its own police station. Only an occasional squad car from the Bronx drives through. And that’s all the “clamdiggers”, as the islanders call themselves, say they need.

Only one bridge provides car access to the island, so there is a feeling of safe isolation. In fact, the island’s only bank robbery was more than three decades ago.

Present-day visitors are not the first to seek out City Island’s charms. Film folks and literary figures of the past, such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and D.W. Griffiths, used to visit often. In fact, the old Hollywood cliffhanger, The Perils of Pauline, was serialized on the island. And a local villa was used for scenes in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Kate Hepburn.

The island has survived many redevelopment plans, including August Belmont (of the Belmont Stakes horse race fame) who wanted to turn the area into a racetrack. Others sought to bring in casinos. But the clamdiggers won out and the island remains relatively undeveloped commercially.

And the best news about City Island is that it’s easy to get to from Manhattan.

You can reach it by boarding a Number 6 train north to Pelham Bay Park, which is the last stop – so you can’t get lost. Then transfer to City Bus BX29 toward City Island.

While visiting City Island, you may spot another little clump of land across the water. This uninhabited spot is called Hart Island. Trivia buffs may be interested to know that Hart Island is the burial site for more than 7,000 souls. It is New York’s proverbial Potter’s Field, where the unknown and unidentified find a final resting-place.

Linda Fox is a Toronto-based freelance writer.