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Recovering City Island Looks to Artists and Developers

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of a series on changing neighborhoods, Kensinger visits City Island.

[On City Island, a nautical village in the Bronx, a tight-knit community has faced several recent challenges. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

City Island, the charming and remote nautical community located in the northeast corner of the Bronx, has been a popular tourist destination for years. Crowds throng to its seafood restaurants to feast on crabs, shrimp, fried smelts, and Piña Coladas, while admiring its historic Victorian architecture and small-town vibe. Some locals have lived here for generations, earning the name "clam diggers," while all of the island's residents, including recently arrived "mussel suckers," have embraced the surrounding sea. Nearly every street here dead-ends in a private beach, a marina, or a yacht club, and at high tide, children swim in the ocean while fish swim in driveways. Taken in its entirety, City Island feels like a village of its own, unattached to New York City.

Hidden behind shuttered storefronts and down side streets, though, a different story is unfolding, as the island fights to maintain its unique identity while recovering from recent calamitous events. "The economy has been rough on us," said Gerard "Skip" Giacco, owner of the Lickety Split Ice Cream shop and president of City Island's Chamber of Commerce. His vice president, Paul Klein, agrees, estimating that there are 18 to 20 shuttered businesses along the community's main street out of a total of 220 active businesses on the 1.5-mile-long island. Some storefronts have "been empty for as long as I can remember," says Paul. During Hurricane Sandy, many of the marinas and yacht clubs suffered serious damage, with piers destroyed and boats jumbled onshore. "I think City Island is a pretty safe piece of land," Paul says, but "it seems like the weather is getting predictably worse."

Skip and Paul are not giving up on the island, though, and have a plan to revitalize its main street by luring in a new crowd of artists, including ones displaced by rising rents in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They'd like these newcomers to establish an artists' colony where they will live and work year-round in storefronts, paying full rent and selling art. "I need to get one or two landlords on board, and then it will all fall in place," says Skip. "I think it's down the road a couple years." It's not exactly clear what courting Brooklyn artists might mean for the identity of this seaside community, especially given recent examples of gentrification transforming similar neighborhoods in the Rockaways. Skip acknowledges that he might be courting a culture clash, describing the island's current flavor as "much more hippy than hipster."

In the meantime, residents of the island seem firmly tied to keeping things the way they are, as evidenced by their recent, successful fight against the city's plans for an oversized new bridge. But change is coming to the island whether locals like it or not. Developers have been snatching up the last few open parcels of land to build new housing complexes. The largest project now underway will create 43 new condos in a gated community on a remediated brownfield, with waterfront views out to nearby Hart Island, where Rikers Island prisoners bury the city's unclaimed dead. "Most of those are going to be $600, 000, $700,000 houses," says Paul. "Typically with waterfront views, you have to calculate a million."

Work has now begun on City Island's new bridge, due to be completed in 2016. It will be a modest affair, after residents complained about an earlier 160-foot-high version.

The backstreets of City Island are lined with both simple bungalows and Victorian mansions dating back to the 1800s, most in great shape.

Scattered throughout the island, though, are a number of abandoned or seemingly vacant properties, including this waterfront home dotted with warning signs.

Along City Island Avenue, the island's main street, several empty storefronts are listed for sale or for rent. "There are a number of places that are in flux, so it's hard to get ahold of the owners," said Paul Klein, who owns the Kaleidoscope Gallery on the avenue.

Businesses that are open on the main strip are often maritime in theme, including this salvage shop which was crammed with a horde of boating ephemera.

Tony's Pier Restaurant, located at the end of City Island Avenue, burned to the ground during Hurricane Sandy. It reopened one year after the storm, rebuilt atop five-foot pilings.

At high tide, water and fish filled the end of this street near City Island's wetlands. During Hurricane Sandy, there was a mandatory evacuation in place for the island, which sits in Zone 1.

Further into the wetlands, a footbridge leads to a hidden hangout, complete with fire pit. This verdant marsh is a reminder of what the area would look like without human intervention.

With sea levels rising, City Island may be increasingly cut off. The main access road to the island is prone to flooding, though much of the island is well above sea level.

Many of the streets on the island end in man-made private beaches, protected by lock and key. Homeowners own the rights to the shoreline behind their houses, even at low tide, unlike other waterfront communities in NYC.

The largest empty plot of land on the island is now being developed into a collection of condominiums, after going through a brownfield remediation process. 

The development site sits next to the ferry to Hart Island, which transports prisoners out to the potters field located there.  Over one million dead are buried on Hart Island.

The ruins of Hart Island will provide a scenic backdrop for new homeowners. This island once housed a prison, a lunatic asylum, and a Nike missile site. Some City Island residents hope Hart Island will be turned over to the Parks Department.

Several other relatively new housing developments have already been built on the island's waterfront. This one looks out at Rat Island, which was bought in 2011 by a City Island resident for $160,000.

Rat Island, as seen from shore, is largely a rock. The new owner has so far only installed a picnic table and two flags. "I believe it should be conserved, kept as is," he told the Post, in true City Island spirit.
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· City Island coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]