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New York, New York

Photograph courtesy Timothy Ledwith

And While It Lasted, It Was Wonderful

For nearly a century, a summer enclave on the edge of Staten Island offered restoration to a small group of city-weary New Yorkers. A look back after last summer’s close of Cedar Grove.

We took my mother to the Cedar Grove Beach Club for one last visit before it closed. Having turned 100 in August, she’s a year older than the bungalow colony on the south shore of Staten Island—and now she has lived to see its demise. At the end of September, the New York City parks department evicted the residents of the summer enclave. Most of the 41 families had been there for generations, and they fought hard to stay. In the end, they lost. This fall, their cottages will be demolished to make way for a municipal beach.

Mom is not the nostalgic type; maybe living in the present is the secret of her longevity. Yet there’s no denying the tidal pull of family history at Cedar Grove. Her father—my grandfather, John Hammel, a captain on the Staten Island Ferry—bought a three-bedroom bungalow at the beach club in the 1920s. The extended Hammel clan spent almost 40 summers there. Eventually, my mother and her brothers and sisters had to divvy up each season, staying at the one-story cottage in shifts of two or three weeks apiece to accommodate Captain Hammel’s growing brood of grandchildren.

I was the youngest of the lot, and some of my earliest memories are of that bungalow. I remember the sound of the surf pounding just beyond our screened-in porch; the smell of sea salt and mussels, and driftwood burning in bonfires; the patter of raindrops on the roof as I lay in a top bunk at naptime, sleepless, gazing at the exposed rafters above. All of which makes it difficult to be objective about the beach community’s unceremonious closure.

 

Under circumstances less clouded by emotion, my stance on the struggle over public space and private privilege at Cedar Grove would be unequivocal: By default, I favor free access to park land. I also abhor the notion of anything resembling a gated community on city-owned property, and that’s exactly what the Cedar Grove Beach Club is—or was—albeit by an accident of history.

Incorporated in 1911, the club sprouted from one of the campgrounds that were ubiquitous on New York’s beaches at the turn of the last century. Far from a haven for the wealthy, the summer camps provided families of modest means with a respite from city heat in the era before air conditioning. Eventually, the tents in most of these colonies were replaced by rustic cottages, like the one Captain Hammel purchased for $1,000 in 1925.

I abhor the notion of anything resembling a gated community on city-owned property, and that’s exactly what the Cedar Grove Beach Club is—or was—albeit by an accident of history.

At its height, the Cedar Grove club boasted more than 80 such clapboard and shingled bungalows built on pilings in the sand. They sat side-by-side along a jagged arc defined by the meandering shoreline. But the uninsulated wood-frame buildings were vulnerable to harsh Atlantic weather—and to fire, especially in the winter months, when no one but a lone caretaker was around. As a result, their number winnowed down over time.

One winter night in the 1970s, our old cottage was leveled when an unattended gas line ruptured. In December 1992, a violent nor’easter took out every bungalow on the southern half of the beachfront.

The Hammels and their kin were long gone from the beach by then. We had decamped in 1963, not long after my grandfather died—but more to the point, after Cedar Grove had been bought out and condemned by eminent domain. In Robert Moses’s master plan for Staten Island, the colony sat in the right-of-way for a parkway to be built along the Lower Bay. When the parkway plan later fell through, the city agreed to rent Cedar Grove back to the club members. We never returned, but most of our seasonal neighbors stayed on, renting the bungalows they had formerly owned under long-term leases that the city renewed routinely—until now.

 

For the most part, press coverage has framed this story in classic David vs. Goliath terms, with the protesting beach club members and the unyielding parks department neatly cast in their respective roles. But the battle that ended last month is emblematic of a larger conflict that has unfolded in New York’s least-populous borough for decades.

The shorefront highway that almost displaced Cedar Grove the first time around was envisioned as part of the Staten Island Expressway system, built in the early 1960s to connect with the new Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. For many Islanders—especially those with deep roots, like the Cedar Grove families—the opening of the suspension span to Brooklyn in 1964 marked the turning point between a simpler, idealized past and an uncertain future.

The battle that ended last month is emblematic of a larger conflict that has unfolded in New York’s least-populous borough for decades.

Before the bridge, which exposed Staten Island to rampant development, the borough was certainly greener than it is today, but it was also considerably whiter and more homogeneous. After the bridge, successive waves of migrants and immigrants washed up on its shores. First came a tsunami of Brooklynites (mostly white themselves, and fleeing their own uncertainties), followed by South Asians, West Africans, Eastern Europeans, and more. The insular world of the Island’s old guard was upended. They longed for a return to their Eden.

More than any place I know, the half-mile strand at Cedar Grove Beach is a perfect representation of that lost paradise.

 

Of course, even paradise could offer only so much safety. This much was clear from the bittersweet memories evoked by my mother’s last look at Cedar Grove. When we talked later about her years there, she told me something I hadn’t known before: Captain Hammel originally decided to buy the bungalow because he thought the fresh air would be therapeutic for my Aunt Martha, who had polio as a child and had fallen ill again as a teenager in the early ‘20s. The seaside rest cure apparently worked; Martha would live into her eighties. Another Hammel sibling, my Uncle Harold, didn’t fare nearly as well, however. As we reminisced, Mom talked about him, too.

There’s a family photograph of Harold standing in bright sunshine on the steps of the Cedar Grove bungalow in 1927. Not yet 30, dressed in spats and a cutaway tux for his best friend’s wedding, he looks young and handsome, with a hint of Gatsby in his cocky smile. Just two years after that picture was taken, Harold suffered a breakdown of uncertain origin. He had to be closely watched for his own protection, but he slipped out one day, walked into the ocean and drowned. My mother—Harold’s kid sister—was devastated. My grandmother never fully recovered from the shock. Captain Hammel soon retired from the ferry and spent every remaining summer of his long life tending his rose garden and fishing at the beach. The quiet cottage by the bay must have been therapeutic for him, as well, though as an old salt he’d have been loath to say so.

The quiet cottage by the bay must have been therapeutic for him, though as an old salt he’d have been loath to say so.

With the parks department cutoff date fast approaching at Cedar Grove late last month, the residents already seemed to be racing through the many stages of mourning over their own impending loss—at once resigned to it and seething with anger. On the Sunday before they had to go, families held yard sales to clear out the detritus of their warm-weather lives. They squeezed mattresses and wicker coffee tables into SUVs already packed with beach chairs and knickknacks. Stars and stripes still whipped smartly in the east wind on flagpoles planted in patios along the beach. Children still built castles in the sand under their mothers’ watchful gaze, as I remember doing in another, dreamlike time.

A group of curious onlookers strolled by on a walking tour organized by the Preservation League of Staten Island, which has argued that the beach club’s architectural and historical significance warrants landmark designation. Despite support from the state office of historic preservation, the landmark argument came up short against an intransigent bureaucracy. So did all the others: that the bungalows could coexist with a public beach, for example, or that the city lacks adequate funding to maintain its existing parks, much less develop a new one. I wish the parties could have reached a compromise, even though I know that the status quo at Cedar Grove Beach was an anachronism.

While I stood nearby, a gray-haired man with a stocky build strode up to the tour group. He introduced himself as a longtime resident and told them to enjoy the beautiful view. Then he lowered his voice and eyed them over the rim of his sunglasses. “God help us all,” he said, “when you-know-who gets hold of this.” For a moment, I wondered exactly who he meant. But it didn’t really matter. The world as we once knew it at Cedar Grove is already beyond our grasp, or anyone else’s. All that remains is for the bulldozers to come and finish the job.

Timothy Ledwith reads, writes, and occasionally looks out the window on the Staten Island Ferry. He is a fellow at the Writers’ Institute of the C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center. More by Timothy Ledwith