How To Visit A New England Fishing Village In The Bronx

There is a magic road in The Bronx.

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At first, it seems like just an ordinary road through the woodsy Pelham Bay Park. But then, after a short ways, an old bridge appears in the distance.

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Though you probably won’t notice it, the magic happens just as you cross the midway point of the bridge.

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All of a sudden, you’ll start to notice that the landscape looks decidedly not-New York:

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Squat buildings pass by with little nautical details: a captain’s wheel…

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On a large mansion, a figurehead and portholes for windows.

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Seafood restaurants begin to appear, their oversized names emblazoned on large frames…

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…along with worn, sandswept homes…

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…and shops offering marine supplies:

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By the time you come to the quaint downtown area, with it’s shingled storefronts, you’ll have realized the truth: that unassuming bridge is actually a magic portal to a New England fishing village.

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Er, or City Island in The Bronx.

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City Island is easily one of the most unusual neighborhoods in New York City. It’s the sort of place where you’ll happen to glance in the window of a random building…

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…and see someone sewing together an enormous sail:

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Just one mile long by a half mile wide, there are places on the island where you can see from one side to the other quite easily.

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Originally settled by the Lenape Indians, colonists began arriving on City Island (then known as Minnerfers Island, after a local Native American) in the 1600s; by 1685, there were several homes and farms on the island. The first main road was laid out in 1811, and the bridge to the mainland built in 1873. Over the years, City Island has been home to such industries as salt evaporation, oystering, and shipbuilding, as well as serving as a resort community for New Yorkers escaping the city.

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I’ve been scouting on City Island over the past week, and I’ve been amazed at the number of deja vu moments I’ve had to growing up on the north shore of Massachusetts.

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The central downtown area certainly has all the hallmarks of a seaside New England town: rows of two-story clapboard or shingled storefronts…

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A high-steepled church with a white fence and nicely manicured lawn…

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A quaint wood-frame real estate office…

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A corner diner complete with striped awnings…

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Restaurants that would look at home in Martha’s Vineyard…

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Be sure to glance in the window to see some of the island’s original street signs:

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And of course, the cute ice cream shack, which I found hidden behind a school bus (Lickety Splits, sadly closed for the season).

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The houses along City Island Ave, like #295 (built in 1931), only add to that otherworldly New England feel.

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Is there a cuter house in New York City than 351 City Island Avenue, built in 1920?

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At #377, a great shingled home with that strong nautical feel:

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And I love the little miniature house at #377, built in 1920 and just 594 square feet. Did I mention this is The Bronx?

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Further down is City Island’s second tallest building.

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Built in 1898, the five-story brick building – appropriately fish-scaled – lost its Tallest Building title in the 1960s to a modern highrise on Pilot Street. Yes, that’s a little porthole at the tip of the roof:

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Finally, no Amity Beach-style town would be complete without a tree-lined park, represented on City Island by the nautical-themed Hawkins Park.

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Be sure to note the plaque for City’s Island’s veterans of “The World War,” erected obviously before anyone knew there was a second one coming.

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Lining the main drag are numerous marine-oriented shops offering everything from bait and tackle…

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…to diving gear…

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…to general supplies. Many have been here for decades, like Burck’s, which dates to 1928…

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…and stepping inside is like a trip back in time.

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Be sure to check out the store’s collection of items found in the harbor on display in the windows:

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City Island is also the only place in New York City that I’ve ever seen vending machines offering live bait and tackle:

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Finally, no trip to City Island would be complete without a glance into the store at #239…

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…which has to be the most crowded store in New York City.

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I’m not kidding – you literally cannot move.

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I’d say the merchandise is stacked floor-to-ceiling, but there’s at least a few more feet to cover before they hit the tin:

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I glanced in the yard next door – perhaps to be seen on a future episode of Hoarders?

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Moving beyond the main drag, some of City Island’s most beautiful treasures can be found hidden on its side streets.

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One of my all-time favorite houses in all of New York City can be found at 141 City Island Avenue, a gorgeous flat-roofed Italiante home dating to 1862.

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Small and simple, with selective ornamentation, it’s the definition of charming.

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Another gem can be found at 586 City Island Ave. A 15-room captain’s home dating to 1876, it was built for oysterman Samuel Pell, who lived there until 1907. It was later seen on the 1969 television show Arsenic and Old Lace, and served as a bed and breakfast in the 2000s.

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The oldest home on the island is the Schofield farmhouse at the corner of Schofield and William.

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Built in the 1840s by William Schofield (hence the intersection), one of the island’s original settlers, it is now being restored by its new owners after having fallen into complete disrepair:

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Another beautiful house nearby, with rocking chairs swaying on the porch in the breeze. I mentioned this is The Bronx, right?

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I’d love to know what the house at 562 City Island Ave was originally built for – almost looks like a train station:

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There are a number of enormous Victorians along King Ave on the Western Side of town…

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…including this gorgeous coastal property that was given a very distinctive paint job in recent years:

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Nearby is the School of St. Mary…

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…featuring a great design over the door.

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Perhaps the only school in New York City whose backyard is the water?

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The actual St. Mary’s “Star of the Sea” church has a pretty neat emblem:

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The oldest church on the island is the Episcopal Grace Church at the corner of Pilot and City Island Ave, built circa 1867 in the Gothic Revival style:

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One last beauty is this home at 21 Tier Street, built in 1894. “A shingled jewel,” writes the AIA Guide to NYC. “To own this would be reason enough to move to City Island.” Recognize it? It was used as the summer home in The Royal Tenenbaums, and was also featured in the 1962 film version of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

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The property has its own dock and waterside gazebo:

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At the opposite end of the spectrum are the rows of bungalows:

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These can be found scattered on both sides of the island, often wedged into the most unlikely of nooks and crannies.

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Some owners clearly take a lot of pride is their design and upkeep:

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And then there are the quirky houses…

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I happened to pass by this somewhat creepy, dilapidated home…

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…and was amused to see this sign over the door:

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On the east side of the island is the picturesque Pelham Cemetery, a rare waterfront cemetery for NY.

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Dating to the 1880s, the cemetery is home to generations of City Islanders.

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While in the cemetery, be sure to walk down to the shore for a great view of a place you’ll probably never get to visit…

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Hart Island, home to New York’s potter’s field (burial site for over 1,000,000 unclaimed/indigent corpses) and a small town of unbelievably gorgeous abandoned buildings (I swear I will someday figure out a way to get out there…).

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Another off-limits island is just out of reach on City Island. Go to 700 King Avenue, and you’ll find a gate…

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…and just beyond, a small causeway leading to the privately owned High Island. Once referred to as Shark Island due to the sand sharks in Pelham Bay, the island is now owned by the radio station WCBS, from where it broadcasts (note the antenna through the trees):

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Finally, go all the way to the southern tip…

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…and in the distance you’ll see the cute little Stepping Stone lighthouse, dating to 1877.

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Nearby is the City Island Nautical Museum at 190 Fordham Street. Housed in the island’s former public school building dating to 1897, its exhibits will tell you pretty much everything you need know about the island’s past.

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One last note: when walking along the coast, try to spot the numerous boat wrecks in the harbor.

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Not sure who’s responsible for cleaning these up, but there are a surprising number floating about.

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If you’ve never been to City Island, the best way to experience it is on a bike. Though most articles don’t mention it, the majority of homes and buildings on the island are more traditional New York City fare, some very nice, some not so nice. The historical gems are mixed into the bunch – you just have to take the time to find them. But it’s worth it, if only for the otherworldly feeling that City Island brings.

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Then, head back through that magic portal to New York City.

-SCOUT

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29 comments

  1. You may also note that most of the America’s Cup defenders were built on City Island until the mid-1980’s. Some brief history here:
    http://cityislandmuseum.org/AmericasCupHistory.html

  2. The great Sidney Lumet film of O’Neill’s drama “Long Days Journey Into Night” was filmed on City Island on Tier Street. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056196/locations?ref_=ttspec_sa_6

    (Seinfeld’s ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ also filmed at the Diner, w/ Ricky Gervais)

  3. And, “A Bronx Tale”, “Awakenings”, and the eponymous “City Island”.

  4. Pic #5: only in NYC will you see graffitti on a roof. Beautiful work as usual!!

  5. The old Benjamin Franklin High School at 115th street has the East River as its front yard (if you don’t count the FDR coming between them).

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.794269,-73.931075,3a,90y,233.73h,88.04t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1szcyY_bbIhWedSP8PhcydTg!2e0

  6. Fantastic read! We discovered City Island three years ago and I couldn’t believe that you would walk to the western end of one of the streets and look out on the Empire State building, that I wasn’t back in New London, Connecticut.

    I think you’ll find that a lot of those boats are Sandy victims either abandoned by their owners or wrapped up in insurance hell. I think the Times or someone mentioned that in a story last year.

    Again, great read and photos!

  7. Great post, Scout, I can smell the salt water from here! Your photos feel as though you’re in a tiny Maine fishing town – though as you say, on City Island, the reality can smell as good if the wind is right, but the actual city makes itself known along the way.

  8. WOW! I really enjoyed this post, Scout! I live in Tasmania, Australia. We are in Burnie, which is a city by the sea.
    Tasmania is an island and we can drive for about 4 and a half hours and we go from north to south. Our capital city is Hobart. Constitution Dock is fantastic, have a look, everybody loves it. Thanks again for the fascinating pics and brilliant commentary…Barry

  9. I think maybe an episode of Law & Order was filmed there also.

  10. A great series of photographs Scout, I am also from Tasmania Australia and take much pleasure from viewing scenes of others travels – well done

  11. michael corsillo

    Preston High School (also in the bronx) actually has a waterfront backyard, too. it is on schurz avenue, right before the east river meets littleneck bay.

  12. And this is where some clown wants to replace the City Island Bridge with a brand new one that will change City Island forever. City Island is the bridge when you see it you know you have arrived in a different place and time.

  13. A friend of mine Mary Jane Warning from NY shared your pictures and I loved looking at them. Thank you so much for the wonderful history you shared in seeing your photos. I was amazed and delighted to be able to travel back in time with your photos.

  14. I proposed to my lady on City Island. Maybe a decade later I proposed again … and she accepted. Then I changed MY mind. It must be something in the sea air. John R. Lancellotti

  15. Carolyn Foley Peters

    Thanks for the travel back in time. I was born on City Island= “a clam digger” Attended PS17 and Trinity Methodist church. Lived on CI Ave Still have relative on C.I. Was a wonderful place to ‘grow up’. Return, frequently.

  16. I found this as a re-post on Facebook….my Mothers family grew up on City Island, some still live there including my Uncle who still lives in the house he was born in! I spent many teenage summers there because at the time it was the only place in New York that you could roam the streets ans not worry about getting mugged or killed! It truly is a magical place!

  17. Mooncurser Records is now closed but it was a great place, jam packed with 78s in particular, the old man (I think a least 90 years old) still selling when I first went there. Also, there was one B&B on the island for many years; too bad it closed. http://www.placematters.net/node/1361

  18. Did the door get relocated on that first house at #377?

  19. Sylvia Kent Bowdoin

    Moved to C I in 1964, lived on King St across from the TKC Club. I loved the Island and it’s people. I moved there when I met my first love in 63. let’s call him H.H. He was my world and the Island was my 2nd world. I was married at the Lido, but not to H.H I must say. In April 1968 to George.B. I came to visit the Island in Oct 2013 by myself to see how things had changed. To my surprise the Island looked wonderful. With new town homes on the water, etc.The Island was clean and well done up from the 60’s. I remember the Airways which was no longer there.I spent many weekends there w/ H.H dancing and have fun as a teenager into my early 20’s. I was sorry to see it gone. Scott I just want to thank you for such a wonderful job you have done.Keep up the good work.

  20. You briefly pointed out High Island where my family spent summers from 1944 to 1958 when CBS bought it. It was then a bungalow colony as it was before then when my grandparents and my mother spen the summers there. It was an idyllic location with water everywhere and no cars. It’s such a wonderful memory that my brother wants his ashes scattered there. Of course, we went to City Island all the time which is also a wonderful memory.

  21. “Perhaps the only school in New York City whose backyard is the water?”

    Beach Channel High School (BCHS) (also known as High School 410 or H.S. 410), is a high school in the public school system of New York City, is located at 100-00 Beach Channel Drive in Rockaway Park in the borough of Queens. The school opened in 1973 and, as of 2006, has an enrollment of 2,175 students. The school was built on the edge of Jamaica Bay and has a private dock.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beach_Channel_High_School

  22. Not the best site on City Island, but GOOD. When our family moved there way back, the stores all had steps going into wooden creaky floors and pickles in barrels, very nautical and our Beach at the end of our street was our playground during the summers and winters where we would walk into the middle of the frozen water, imagine all kinds of things and then swim in it during the returning summers! Very magical indeed, I went to PS 17 and have a huge shell collection from the low tide walks. Do shells only come from stores now? A place of reflection- at night, on the forth of July, we could see across the water, many Firework displays, and then in front of our beaches as each “block” put on a show, furnished by a neighbor or family member. The Twin Towers were very visual from Bridge Park along with the skyline including The Empire State Building. Separated by water, the Isle of Manhattan sparkled at night as the streams of cars moving on the surrounding CITY bridges looked like twinkling snakes in movement. I have many fond memories of my time living there. I now reside in New England which is a wonderful place with magic of it’s own. I grew up around water, so I am not easily impressed as I was to Live in The Bronx, and on an Island yet! We walked bare foot and sat on curbs and even got snowed in one year with no access to us Land Lubbers for days! No milk, no bread, the staples everyone still runs out for! It was an adventure. Hello to all my friends there along with some family members- Goodbye to some of them there sadly. Hope it remains the wonderful ship building community it once was in booming times, and NO MORE Modern things coming in! Keep up the good work Scout! Dig deeper and post more soon! Have you ever fallen to sleep to the rhythm of masts clinking on the water? So SOOTHING. SAVE THE C.I. BRIDGE!!

  23. A very nice mix of City Island treasures. I grew up in the apartments over Jack’s Bait & Tackle. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  24. Had my first experience with clams on the half shell

  25. Spent many summers there as both parents grew up on the Island and grandparents still lived there in the 50’s and 60’s, etc. 4th of July celebrations were the best as Earley Street was the site of games for kids, greased watermelon wrestling in the water for the men, fireworks and food! My grandfather would bring his rowboat down to the end of the street and hand out cans of soda to us kids….lots of good memories there.

  26. I was a police officer in the late 90’s, in the 45th Precinct, which covers City Island. I always loved being on the island because of the “out of the city” feeling that I would get while there. It was as if you were transported back in time. Thank you for sharing one of New York City’s best kept secrets.

  27. When was this first built?

  28. I know you’re in LA now, but the next time you come to the Bronx and go to City Island, I HIGHLY recommend that when you get off the bridge, turn right and drive all the way straight to the very end of the southern tip to where you saw the lighthouse.( Basically picture #72). And go into Johnny Reef Restaurant on the left of the road. It will be the BEST seafood you have in your life. Growing up, my mom and dad would take my sisters and I thee for every summertime special occasion like graduation or something and we still go there to this day. I remember as a kid at johnnys, sitting outside are the picnic table by the water feeding the seagulls and throwing fries up in the air and the birds catching them mid air. We still do that now but with the grandkids also now. It’s pretty cool that what my parents did with us as kids, we are now doing with our kids. I hold Johnny’s and city island very near and dear to my heart.

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