There is a magic road in The Bronx.
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.
Though you probably won’t notice it, the magic happens just as you cross the midway point of the bridge.
All of a sudden, you’ll start to notice that the landscape looks decidedly not-New York:
Squat buildings pass by with little nautical details: a captain’s wheel…
On a large mansion, a figurehead and portholes for windows.
Seafood restaurants begin to appear, their oversized names emblazoned on large frames…
…along with worn, sandswept homes…
…and shops offering marine supplies:
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.
Er, or City Island in The Bronx.
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…
…and see someone sewing together an enormous sail:
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.
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.
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.
The central downtown area certainly has all the hallmarks of a seaside New England town: rows of two-story clapboard or shingled storefronts…
A high-steepled church with a white fence and nicely manicured lawn…
A quaint wood-frame real estate office…
A corner diner complete with striped awnings…
Restaurants that would look at home in Martha’s Vineyard…
Be sure to glance in the window to see some of the island’s original street signs:
And of course, the cute ice cream shack, which I found hidden behind a school bus (Lickety Splits, sadly closed for the season).
The houses along City Island Ave, like #295 (built in 1931), only add to that otherworldly New England feel.
Is there a cuter house in New York City than 351 City Island Avenue, built in 1920?
At #377, a great shingled home with that strong nautical feel:
And I love the little miniature house at #377, built in 1920 and just 594 square feet. Did I mention this is The Bronx?
Further down is City Island’s second tallest building.
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:
Finally, no Amity Beach-style town would be complete without a tree-lined park, represented on City Island by the nautical-themed Hawkins Park.
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.
Lining the main drag are numerous marine-oriented shops offering everything from bait and tackle…
…to diving gear…
…to general supplies. Many have been here for decades, like Burck’s, which dates to 1928…
…and stepping inside is like a trip back in time.
Be sure to check out the store’s collection of items found in the harbor on display in the windows:
City Island is also the only place in New York City that I’ve ever seen vending machines offering live bait and tackle:
Finally, no trip to City Island would be complete without a glance into the store at #239…
…which has to be the most crowded store in New York City.
I’m not kidding – you literally cannot move.
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:
I glanced in the yard next door – perhaps to be seen on a future episode of Hoarders?
Moving beyond the main drag, some of City Island’s most beautiful treasures can be found hidden on its side streets.
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.
Small and simple, with selective ornamentation, it’s the definition of charming.
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.
The oldest home on the island is the Schofield farmhouse at the corner of Schofield and William.
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:
Another beautiful house nearby, with rocking chairs swaying on the porch in the breeze. I mentioned this is The Bronx, right?
I’d love to know what the house at 562 City Island Ave was originally built for – almost looks like a train station:
There are a number of enormous Victorians along King Ave on the Western Side of town…
…including this gorgeous coastal property that was given a very distinctive paint job in recent years:
Nearby is the School of St. Mary…
…featuring a great design over the door.
Perhaps the only school in New York City whose backyard is the water?
The actual St. Mary’s “Star of the Sea” church has a pretty neat emblem:
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:
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.
The property has its own dock and waterside gazebo:
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the rows of bungalows:
These can be found scattered on both sides of the island, often wedged into the most unlikely of nooks and crannies.
Some owners clearly take a lot of pride is their design and upkeep:
And then there are the quirky houses…
I happened to pass by this somewhat creepy, dilapidated home…
…and was amused to see this sign over the door:
On the east side of the island is the picturesque Pelham Cemetery, a rare waterfront cemetery for NY.
Dating to the 1880s, the cemetery is home to generations of City Islanders.
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…
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…).
Another off-limits island is just out of reach on City Island. Go to 700 King Avenue, and you’ll find a gate…
…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):
Finally, go all the way to the southern tip…
…and in the distance you’ll see the cute little Stepping Stone lighthouse, dating to 1877.
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.
One last note: when walking along the coast, try to spot the numerous boat wrecks in the harbor.
Not sure who’s responsible for cleaning these up, but there are a surprising number floating about.
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.
Then, head back through that magic portal to New York City.
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