New Yorkers rarely explore the tourist destinations in their own city.
I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty, for example, and have visited the Empire State Building only once, when I was barely old enough to walk.
But there’s a destination in the city that New Yorkers and tourists alike have probably never been to or even heard of: City Island.
A tiny island in the Long Island Sound, the neighbourhood feels closer to a quaint New England village than anywhere else in New York City. We recently visited to see what it’s all about.
City Island is a 2.4km-long island located off the coast of the Bronx in New York City. It was first settled by Europeans in the 1600s, who forced the Siwanoy people off the land.
You can drive there by heading through Pelham Bay Park, New York City’s largest public park. Earlier this year, a new bridge to the island replaced the previous one, which dated to 1901.
It’s accessible by public transit. Take the 6 train to the last stop — Pelham Bay Park — and transfer to the Bx29 bus. It comes about every 30 minutes.
Stop by the City Island Diner for some classic ‘greasy spoon’-style fare and to hear the latest gossip from some of the island’s 4000+ residents.
The diner is many residents’ favourite place on the island. It’s not hard to see why. As soon as you walk in, you can feel the homey everybody-knows-each-other vibe. A rarity in New York.
In the 1700s, Benjamin Palmer bought the island and planned to make it rival New York City as a commercial hub. That didn’t work out, but most businesses are centered on City Island Avenue.
The island has a long history of shipbuilding, but that mostly ended after World War II. Now, it’s more about recreational boating. There are four yacht clubs on the island and, in the summer, the waters are filled with boats.
Source: Harlem Yacht Club
The Snug, an Irish tavern next to the diner, is a popular watering hole. A good place to have a happy hour beer and talk to the sociable bartenders.
Source: The Snug
The Kaleidoscope gallery is the perfect place to pick up a Christmas gift. It’s full of jewellery, ornaments, toys and knick-knacks.
Source: Kaleidoscope Gallery
Kaleidoscope owner Paul Klein is the vice-president of the island’s Chamber of Commerce. He moved to the island years ago so he could have a garden. He’s a friendly source of info for anything on the island.
Dan Treiber, the owner of vintage shop 239 Play!, is a lifelong resident on the island. He opened the store last year after he purchased this 150-year-old house to prevent it from being knocked down and turned into condos.
Source: Dan’s Parents’ House
The store is a wonderland of postcards, toys, art, electronics, cameras, and jewellery from the last 50+ years. It started as Dan’s Parent’s House, Treiber’s booth at Brooklyn Flea. Yes, everything originally came from his parents’ house.
The island is busy on summer weekends with daytrippers, but pretty quiet the rest of the year. Any day is a good one to check out the island’s unique architecture. Like this house.
There are lots of these types of clapboard houses that would look more at home in Cape Cod than New York City.
The houses really give the island that seaside town feel.
It’s a small island, so every street dead-ends at the water.
Residents have their own little beachfront to enjoy the view. At low tide, you can lay out on the sand, but it’s usually wet. That’s Manhattan in the distance.
This spooky house reminded me of Boo Radley’s house in To Kill A Mockingbird.
There are lots of little cottages like this one that have Victorian architecture. A strange combination.
The view from the backyards on the water is incredible. That’s prime waterfront property.
The Black Whale is a favourite among locals, having a long history on the island. It was originally run by Richie DePierro in the ’60s and ’70s as a counter-culture haunt. After more than a decade closed, it was reopened by resident Bill Kenny.
Source: The New York Times
Photographer Ron Terner runs the Focal Point Gallery nearby. He moved to the island in the ’70s because of a growing artist and artisan community. He said by the early 2000s most had left or gone out of business due to internet retailers and big box stores.
But the island is starting to come back, Terner said, as people get hungry for face-to-face interactions. This building was recently purchased by DePierro to be turned into five new storefronts on City Island Avenue.
There’s a Papa John’s on the island, but don’t expect to get pizza there.
For that, you’ll have to head to Filomena’s where the Grandma slice is as good as any classic Bronx pizzeria.
There’s plenty to see and do besides eat. Head to the free Nautical Museum for a slice of the island’s shipbuilding history.
The oldest house on the island is the Schofield House, which was built in 1840. From the looks of it, it was recently restored and painted. The house on Google Maps looks significantly more rundown.
The Samuel Pell House on City Island Avenue was built in 1876 by Pell, an oysterman and a descendant of the Pell family who once owned the island. The house is considered a well-preserved example of a Second Empire-style house — a style that was popular in the outer areas of New York City at the time.
Source: Historic Pelham
There’s some new construction happening on the island as well. On The Sound is a new 43-unit private waterfront development. The 3-bedroom condos are selling for anywhere between $US750K to $US1M.
The Pelham Cemetery is a small cemetery on the water nearby. Many City Island residents are buried there.
The island is frequently used for films and TV, particularly if they need a stand-in for a New England town. This house was featured in Wes Anderson’s ‘The Royal Tenenbaums.’
The island finally stood in for itself in the 2009 family drama ‘City Island.’ This house served as the Rizzos’ house in the film.
Source: New York Daily News
This strip of sand next door was one of the few real slices of beach I saw on the island. Klein said that he often meets more foreign tourists than Americans on the island who saw the movie and want to know if it is a real place.
If you decide to come for a day of fishing, Jack’s Bait & Tackle is a good place to start. It was opened by Jack Rumpf and his wife Rose after Rumpf returned from World War II. It’s now run by John DeCuffa, the fourth family generation to run the shop.
Source: Jack’s Bait and Tackle
But first you might want to stop at this memorial wall set up by Terner, the photographer. These are all City Island residents that have died. Having lived on the island for 40 years, Terner has shot all these photographs.
What would a trip to a fishing village be without a little seafood? City Island Lobster House is famous for its $US110 Lobster Feast for two.
Source: City Island Lobster House
But there are plenty of options. Many of the sit-down restaurants are Italian-influenced seafood and pasta joints, like Sammy’s. In the summers, they’re very busy.
But the real place to chow down is Johnny’s Reef. Every resident I spoke to said the no-frills, cafeteria-style restaurant was a must-visit. Unfortunately, it’s closed until the spring.
The best view on the island is from the Morris Yacht Beach Club. It was gorgeous just before sunset. It also has one of the nicest beaches on the island.
New York City’s hustle and bustle is a distant memory from here. Seriously, you can’t hear any of the noise. You might as well be in Maine.
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