See a google map of our walk at https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zh606ZkPWN0U.kmQr5i0E1AKA
Setting the Scene
When picturing the Bronx, the beautiful town of City Island does not seem to match the description that those unfamiliar with the New York City borough might have; in fact, City Island defies those expectations. The town is clean, friendly, and surrounded by nature. Although the picturesque view of the water and sunset behind the Manhattan skyline from City Island is breathtaking, it’s hard to forget the changes that the island is facing today. With a long maritime history, the island is facing an identity crisis. As the ship industry declines in New York City, City Island’s economy is left to be supported by tourists. With this economic shift, inevitably subtle changes in the city’s character are occurring. These changes in character threaten the artistic scene on the island, as the island serves as an alternative haven to the urban grit of the city.
City Island’s history is reflective of traditional port towns along the East Coast. Settled in 1685, the land was claimed by the Dutch in 1614. The European settlers drove the native Siwanoy people off the island.Thomas Pell, and his family owned the island until 1749. In 1761, Benjamin Palmer purchased the island. His goal was to create a city, named New City Island, that would rival the city blossoming on the island of Manhattan. However, in 1896, the residents of City Island voted to become a part of New York City and leave Westchester County.
The economy began to develop, depending largely on nautical imports and exports, like seafood and shipbuilding. Its natural resources and unparalleled access to Long Island Sound give it a strong advantage. The island produced great ships, including minesweepers for WWI and WWII. After wartime, the island focused on producing yachts. Seven America’s Cup winning yachts were produced on City Island.
Today, the island is quiet and quaint. Famous for its fresh seafood, fishing, and sailing, City Island’s idyllic atmosphere has the feel of a charming, New England town. One modest branch of the New York Public Library can be found on the island, which provides the primary community space, becoming not just a library, but a central hub of communication, education, entertainment, and social gathering for the residents. In addition, there is a lack of brand-name stores, reflecting a small-town vibe. One cannot find an atmosphere like this anywhere else in New York City. Over the last century, Manhattan and the Bronx have matured tremendously and have transformed into urban environment. City Island stands in the face of all the urbanism with its mom and pop stores and suburban streets. A unique space is presented that simply cannot be found anywhere else in New York City.
Identity Crisis: City Island in Transition
Today, the island is facing an identity crisis. As explained earlier, City Island once relied on the shipbuilding industry for their economy; however, the shipbuilding industry is changing due to technological advances and is no longer the stable industry it once was. Molly Gallagher, a writer for Time Out New York, observed life on the island and what residents thought of their future. Gallagher remarks, “[security of the shipbuilding industry] changed in the 1980s, when the already shaky boat-construction industry all but evaporated”. According to Barbara Burn Dolensek, the vice president of the City Island Historical Society, the last major boat, which was used in the America’s Cup, was built on the island in 1980.
Today, tourism plays a big role for City Island, especially in the summer. City Island is a perfect getaway for the frazzled New Yorker. An increasing number of restaurants are opening, attracting tourists. Tourism can destroy the unique vibe of City Island because the community must then provide and offer restaurants and shops that cater to non-residents. For instance, local record store, known as Mooncurser Records, was forced to close due to lack of interest; the store was “a bastion for obscure vinyl 33s, 45s and 78s”. The owner passed away in 2004, and the store closed down two years later.
It is unfortunate that City Island has to say goodbye to the record store, a symbol of culture. If the island’s economy has been belittled due to the fall of shipbuilding, than City Island will have no choice but to renounce its unique culture. John Persteins, owner of the nautical curio stores says, “Everywhere you used to see boatyards… Now it’s pretty much a restaurant island’.
With their strong goals in attracting tourists but also maintaining the nautical atmosphere and small community, City Island has to consider new developments and changes. The island is known for being a haven of expression for artists, independent music stores and galleries. Many who live on the island choose to take their own path. One such example is Bronx native Elliot Glick, who opened the Starving Artist Café. Originally, Glick intended the space to be a gallery for his artisan jewelry, but the space took on a bigger role in the community.
According to Glick’s website, “Wanting to celebrate art in all forms, Glick added spoken word artists and comic talent to the Starving Artist lineup with open mic nights in these areas. He has featured book signings as well for several authors at his studio / cafe / gallery”. Elliott Glick is a champion of artistic expression, opening a space for all artists of City Island. Artists who want a nautical, small town atmosphere can find it in City Island. The environment is one of the only of its kind left in New York City. It serves as a unique place for artists who may want an alternative place to practice their craft.
We, Maylee Sands and Katherine Lichtenfels, decided to explore City Island firsthand to understand and see the changes that are happening and its effects on the community. To get to City Island, we had to take the bus. As the bus traveled down Pelham Parkway, we saw parts of the Bronx we had never seen before. I [Katherine] noticed that at home, I knew everything in my neighborhood, but here in the Bronx I hadn’t even seen places a 10 minute bus ride away. Urban areas have unique, tight-knit neighborhoods and within just a 30 minute bus ride, we discovered an entirely new one- from Fordham Road to City Island Avenue.
Residing on-campus at Fordham University, it is easy to forget that there are several diverse neighborhoods in the Bronx. As we walked along City Island Avenue, we felt a sense of tranquility and peacefulness. It is easy to understand why an art community thrives in City Island; however, unfortunately, this art community is being threatened by gentrification.
Why Gentrification is Affecting the Art Scene
Walking around made us think about the flâneurs of Paris. They wandered the streets, collecting creativity from the world around them. City Island provided an oasis for artists to explore in a natural environment, away from the fast-paced life in Manhattan. There was a noticeable shift in our attitudes and thinking as we walked around calm City Island. We didn’t have to dodge people or hurry to catch the train. City Island presented a perfect opportunity to simply exist in an area that wasn’t the urban grit of New York City.
Artists are unique. It’s easy to see how originality could bloom in the City Island setting. Some artists are often stifled in a repetitive environment, such as an urban space like Manhattan. Consider Monet and his studio at Giverny. Distance can create an artistic state of mind. City Island’s serene landscape, open space, and quiet provide for an ideal space for the romantic artist to bloom. The city already offers an urban landscape for artists, but with the destruction of City Island by urban tourists, artists who seek out City Island no longer have that space for creativity. City Island’s change of pace is what differentiates itself from an urban environment, where an artist may feel uninspired or even overwhelmed with the intense energy that is found in a large city.
The peaceful community and nature is appealing to artists as well as tourists. These two different groups of people challenge City Island’s community atmosphere, and this new shift towards tourism is changing the pace of the island. It might perhaps become an extension of the urban lifestyle, and the unique, untouched environment of City Island will be destroyed. City Island exists as a perfect space for a romantic artists. Artists who want to see the ocean and explore a nautical environment will have no where else to go if the island is destroyed by the urban tourist. City Island needs to maintain its calm, peaceful, and nautical atmosphere to continue being a space of romantic artistry. Urbanism is threatening the tranquility and vibe of this area.
Gentrification is becoming a problem in City Island. John C. Doyle, a representative for the City Island Civic Association explains, “[there] used to [be] a lot of shipbuilders, marinas, areas that primarily served the boating needs of City Island and all the surrounding communities….waterfront property has become so expensive, you’re seeing a shift away from those recreational outlets toward homes that people are willing to pay top dollar for.” The modernity of New York City is infiltrating in the streets of the island, threatening to destroy the unique environment. City Island is an oasis for artists, offering an escape in the midst of the Bronx, but it is threatened by the urbanites lurking just miles away.