City Island gains spot on the map, but fights to retain identity

By JACKIE SNOW & LINDSAY ARMSTRONG

One day in 2006, Paul Klein was riding the A train when he noticed that the subway map didn’t include City Island.

According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Bronx ended where Orchard Beach met the Long Island Sound. Klein knew better. He had lived on City Island, a mile-and-a-half long strip of land that juts out into the Sound, for several years. He was also a local business owner and vice president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Klein decided to take action. He called the transit authority to convince them that City Island deserved a place on the map, even if it wasn’t accessible by subway.

“I mean, if nobody knows that we exist,” he reasoned, “how will they ever know to come visit us?”

City Island is connected to mainland Bronx by a three-lane bridge. However, it has always been more New England fishing village than Boogie Down Bronx. Until a few decades ago, the island relied on the surrounding water for its livelihood. As many of the water-based industries dried up, City Island turned to the twin pillars of tourism and development to stay afloat.

The Chamber of Commerce now wants to bring more visitors to the island. It is launching a campaign to attract a different kind of tourist, one interested in more than the lobster restaurants that line the main avenue.

“I’ve always thought that the potential here is tremendous,” Klein said. “It could be a New Hope, Pennsylvania or a Provincetown.”

Most residents and local business owners recognize the benefits of this plan for the community, but some have misgivings about the side effects that this kind of attention could bring. The island community has already struggled to hold on to its identity. They don’t want to see it washed away by tides of tourism and change.

Tourists are nothing new for City Island. Local resident and historian, Barbara Burns said that they have been coming to the island since as far back as the 1800s. She points to an 1895 editorial printed in the local newspaper, The City Island Drift. The writer complained about the traffic caused by incoming visitors.

“Of course they were on horse and buggy then,” Burns said with a laugh.

Later, the tenor of City Island’s tourism changed. People had once come out to the island to spend the summer in family-owned cottages. By the 1960s, that had largely died out. The island became a favorite destination for other Bronxites. They drove out to eat at seafood restaurants like the Lobster Box and Tony’s Pier, which had opened along City Island’s main drag.

It’s not much different now. On nice days, droves of tourists pour into the restaurants and back traffic up for miles.

Burns said dealing with the influx of people each weekend is difficult for local residents who value City Island’s tranquility and sense of community.

“These visitors think of it as a commercial strip,” Burns said. “They don’t think about the fact that people live here.”

According to Bill Stanton, president of the civic association, they don’t think much about local businesses either.

“City Island doesn’t benefit from all of the tourism,” Stanton said. “Those restaurants do really well, but it doesn’t pour over to the other businesses.”

The Chamber of Commerce officers hope their plan will change that. They wants to brand City Island as the ideal day trip destination By emphasizing the island’s nautical history and small town charm.

Oysters were the first major industry in the 1800s. After the waters became too polluted for the bivalves by the early 20th century, boat building and sailmaking took its place. World War II was the peak of the nautical industries, with boatyards building the PT boats used to sink Japanese warships. After the war, City Island turned out several America’s Cup-winning crafts.

Most boat building stopped in the 1980s when new technology streamlined production and waterfront property taxes became too expensive for the boatyards. Sailmaking has similarly limped along.

Donna McGowan co-owns the City Island Diner with her sister. They do a steady business with locals who came in for the burgers and the sandwiches, all named after famous local ships.

McGowan welcomed the idea of bringing new clientele to the island, but acknowledged that more tourism could exacerbate some issues. Many residents complain about the traffic and lack of parking on the weekends. Underneath of those complaints is another concern: the sense that City Island is changing, not necessarily for the better.

McGowan has lived on the island for 17 years. She has noticed a change, but chalks it up to people who move to the island but aren’t interested in becoming a part of community life.

“Sometimes I’ll deliver to someone that I’ve never seen before,” she said. “I’ll ask how long they’ve been here and they say ten years! It’s incredible”

McGowan supports both tourism and development, if it’s well done.

“As long as people come out and go to the business and walk around and make this place look vibrant,” McGowan said. “I’m fine with it.”

She paused to make change for a customer at the register.

“But,” she said on second thought. “I’m not a real City Islander. You’ll have to ask them.”

City Island is community where houses are passed down through the generations and people only have to give the last four digits of their phone number because the first three are all the same. Seventeen years here might make you a local, but it does not make you a “clam digger,” the name for those born and raised on the island.

One clam digger is Tony Italiano, 82, who has lived on City Island his entire life. He recalls a time when everyone on knew one another and none of the residents ever locked their doors. He says it was an ideal place to grow up. Italiano still considers City Island a tight-knit community, especially compared to most neighborhoods in New York. However, things have changed.

“ It’s not like when we were kids and everyone was running around barefoot and everything,” Italiano said. “When you came out of school you’d take your shoes off and never really put them on again until school was back.”

Italiano says some of these changes are just the result of modernity sneaking in, but he feels the biggest threat to City Island’s community feel is over-development.

“We got so many [condominiums] and all it does is bring more people and more cars,” Italiano said. “It loses it charm.”

Italiano accepts that the island will inevitably change. He’s not against that, but he’s protective of his home.

Klein said he hears similar concerns all the time, but he believes the initiative is necessary.

“There are people on the island who wish that the bridge would fall into the water so that no one could come here,” Klein said. “I think that’s true of every special place. But you can’t have a special place without having thriving businesses.”

Tourism might even help revive some of City Island’s boat and sail industry. Butch Ulmer, the owner of UK Halsey Sailmakers, said tourists who come out to boat or store one on the island would bring in new business, even if its different.

“Whether sails will be made here like they are now or it will be in a sales capacity is yet to be seen,” Ulmer said.

Regardless if the initiative succeeds, life has already changed. But the past still holds on, the key to the future success of the island. A balancing act. Klein did get City Island put on the MTA maps, but there is still no label on the little slice of land sticking out into Long Island Sound.

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