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Exploring the ‘Nantucket of the Bronx,’ an island of contradictions

Sailors, artists, fishmongers, and lawyers coexist on Hunter Avenue

Near the end of an unassuming block on City Island in the Bronx, outside the 135-year-old Harlem Yacht Club, one of the oldest in the city and one of four such clubs on the island, Fordham University rowing team members hoist racing shells over their heads, wrapping up the day’s practice. In a parking lot across the street, boats named Aria, Green Lantern, Sly Fox, Breeze Meister, and perhaps the most timely and evocative, Panic Attack, sun in their dry-dock berths, awaiting their eventual return to the water. Members of the club paint and hammer and clean and otherwise ready things for the upcoming commission day—the start of the season. Gunfire reverberates across the bay, drills and target practice at Rodman’s Neck Firing Range, the NYPD training facility.

It is a late morning in early May, and I am observing these goings-on over a brick wall that separates the yacht club from the lawn next door. I’m standing with Max Krull, who has lived in a house on this property for 24 years. Max Krull is not his real name, but “everyone,” he insists, “knows me as Max.” The first time I met him, a couple months earlier, there was a thin layer of snow on the ground, which he had navigated in slippers.

City Island, at 230 acres, population a little under 4,500 according to the most recent census, is adjacent to the woods of Pelham Bay and Orchard Beach, the borough’s only public beach, and to the rest of the Bronx to the west and Westchester to the north. Photographer Chris Mottalini and I are exploring New York City’s boroughs through its blocks, one each in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, because we’re interested in how these blocks form their own micro-universes, and how those micro-universes fit into their boroughs.

We were drawn to City Island partly for the contrasts embedded in its name—both city and island, it is part of the Bronx and apart from it. And we landed on this particular block because it seemed to represent City Island as a whole, inhabited by artists, writers, eccentrics, scientists, lawyers, curators, art handlers, fishmongers, bus drivers, teachers, and electricians, many of whom traded rising rents in Brooklyn and Manhattan for a small town that is tethered to New York City but fairly remote, with wetlands that resemble a compressed wilderness, a place with proudly worn nautical roots, and the sense of nostalgia that seems to hover over almost all beach towns.

City Island came to be at the end of the last ice age, created by glaciers and covered in deposits of rare blue clay. The first humans who fished and hunted on City Island were the Siwanoy band of the Lenape Indians, who called it Minnewit, meaning pine, for the trees that proliferated in those times. Thomas Pell seized their land in 1654; Anne Hutchinson, seeking religious freedom, later settled there. Until 1895, when it was annexed by New York City, City Island was considered part of Westchester and was home mostly to farmers and shipbuilders and sailors and harvesters of oysters. Its first enterprise involved producing salt from evaporated seawater and its most successful enterprises, for years, were harvesting oysters and building and repairing boats and yachts, including several America’s Cup winners. The island did not get dial telephone service until 1960. It has served as the location for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, BUtterfield 8, and several episodes of Law & Order. Among its better-known residents over the years are mobster Frank Scalice of the Gambino crime family, longtime AFL-CIO leader George Meany, the comedian Red Buttons, the drag queen Coco Peru, and neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, who, the story goes, swam over to City Island from Orchard Beach one day and liked the island so much he bought a house there.

Along City Island Avenue, which runs the length of the island, hints of those past shipbuilders remain, along with seafood restaurants that draw in weekend crowds and markers of small town life: the City Island Diner, the upscale restaurant the Black Whale, the grocery, an ice cream parlor called Lickety Split, a public library, a junk shop that specializes in pop-culture ephemera, and a local photographer who will print your picture on a brick. The proprietor of the liquor store wrote up his own theories about the island’s economy, which suffered in the 2008 crash, and has printed them up in a free handout.

Off the avenue, Hunter Avenue, the block we came to visit, is a little enclave of its own.

Near the end of the block, set back from the street, a bright minivan is parked permanently in a yard, its road-tripping days done, living out a second life as a sincere mural covered in environmental slogans—Defend the Whales!, Save the Reef, Stop Global Warming. Taped to the door of the house is a New York Times story, “How Big Banks Are Putting Rain Forests in Peril.” The principles that rule the home of Max Krull and his wife, who prefers to remain anonymous, are clear. After years in Brooklyn and a rejection by a Manhattan co-op, it was a random detour on the way from driving their now-grown kids to summer camp in Westchester that led them to City Island. “I feel like I’m on vacation, even though I go to work,” Krull says. “I read, we have a little garden. We have these trees that grew up right around us as we lived here. Everyone knows each other.”

The house’s original bones date back to 1901, when it was part of a small farm. Two significant additions, plainly visible from outdoors, have occurred since. Inside, the house is open and many-windowed, with exposed beams and wood floors. Projects in various states spill over throughout the kitchen and living room—letters and accounting over here, a biography of Churchill over here, sections of the newspaper, work files, photographs from the ’60s and ’70s scattered over the counter.

The disarray is active and friendly—a signifier of the way Krull, like his house, seems to exist in multiple worlds and eras and languages at once, darting impulsively between years and countries and novel plots and trains of thought as he leads us through the house, through a living room relieved of much of its furniture (“my wife dances in this room,” he says) and a sunroom where succulents thrive by the windows. Krull is cheerfully unbothered that, for instance, they didn’t get around to fixing the upstairs bathroom this winter (“It’ll wait”) and more inclined to point out the wetlands around the corner that he is adamant must be protected against development, or the Austrian train station sign he swiped years ago (“the Franz Schubert Express; isn’t that great? When I got off the train in Vienna, everything smelled of fresh bread”), or the books that take up residence in every room. “I wince if I walk into a house and there are no books,” Krull says.

Krull is not the “mayor” of the block in the way that so many neighborhoods have their unofficial leaders, but rather a longtime resident who seems to embody the spirit of the place. Today he is in a reflective mood, poring over old photographs scattered across the kitchen counter. “Yesterday, May 6, is a personal holiday for me,” he mentions, and, when asked why, breezily responds, “Oh, I consider it the turning point of my life.” His own chosen alter ego, Krull, comes from an unfinished novel by Thomas Mann, Confessions of Felix Krull—“I just connected to it,” he says. (The “Max” comes from that time too; “It just felt sort of German to me,” Krull says, and it stuck.) Fifty-four years ago on May 6, he arrived in Lübeck, Germany, the town where Mann had lived; eventually he got to know some of Mann’s relatives.

Krull is now a lawyer who commutes to his practice in Brooklyn several days a week, but he grew up in Bergen Beach, one of five children, the son of an Appalachian-born taxi driver and a stay-at-home mother. He worked for the telephone company after graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School, and at the urging of an older brother who’d gotten an athletic scholarship to college, he paid a visit to the only other person in their neighborhood who had been to college. “I had no pattern for how this was done, no context,” he says. Later, friends steered him to the LSATs.

To the south, Krull’s property is adjacent to a blue modernist house built in 1958 and propped up on tall stilts, sleek and simple. The New York Times once called it “the Jetson house.” In the 90s, Roger Straus III, formerly of the publishing house his father helped found, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, lived here with his wife, Doris Straus, a talented gardener who switched careers from publishing to working for the New York Botanical Garden. On City Island, she set about transforming the tennis court into a rose garden, with a recirculating pool she dug herself, surrounded by cypresses, poppies, lilies, phlox, ferns, and numerous varieties of roses. “When they divorced and she moved to Manhattan, I think Doris must have called up all her friends,” Krull says. “People showed up with shovels.”

More recently, the Jetson house belonged to the artists Jonathan Horowitz and Rob Pruitt, who split the property into two lots and eventually sold the house to Victor de Santis, an electrical contractor originally from Yonkers. De Santis welcomes us inside through a series of doors whose knobs have been replaced with hockey pucks. “I just like them,” he says with a shrug. Soon after moving in, he set about girding the place against future storms. “They had all this wood siding—forget it,” De Santis says of the house’s original redwood. His young sons quietly play video games in their room; he points out the Pinewood Derby trophies they recently won in Boy Scouts. Outside, contractors are installing an outdoor stove. The open kitchen, modern and minimalist on our visit, has since been replaced with wood pallets stained in alternating shades. The adjacent sunporch, which looks out to the bay, has been enclosed for year-round use. “I own 400 feet out in the water,” he says, nodding toward the shore; vintage stamps and old magazines are spread across a large table, a decoupage project in progress.

In May, Doris Straus’s onetime garden had the look of a carefully plotted tract gone somewhat rebellious, now emerging from a deep winter slumber. The lot was recently sold, but De Santis says he has yet to see any signs of the new owners. Until then his closest neighbors are Krull and Krull’s tenants, the occupants of a two-story Hunter Avenue bungalow painted white, pretty and inviting, with daylilies blooming in its front yard. We pay them a visit.

Katie Ennis and Orion Lillyreed met six years ago at a Park Slope bar just before the Fourth of July. Ennis, a film editor, lived nearby; Lillyreed was living in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and working in graphics fabrication; when he took a job working for Pacific Gold at the New Fulton Fish Market, his commute stretched untenably. In 2005, the legendary market moved from Manhattan, where it had been based by the Brooklyn Bridge for 193 years, to Hunts Point in the Bronx.

Lillyreed and Ennis chanced on a rental posting in City Island, where neither of them knew a soul. The unfamiliar location would shrink his commute measurably. Traveling to Gowanus, Brooklyn, where Ennis just wrapped her fifth season as a film editor on The Americans (she’s at work on the forthcoming film Sister Aimee), is generally a 45-minute to an hour’s drive, but a compromise that felt right. They liked the yard and the block, even with its pair of abandoned houses. Their dog, Gillian, a 1 1/2-year-old pug and spaniel mix, was quickly befriended by Victor de Santis’ dog, Luna. Sometimes Coors Light, a cat who lives across the street, wanders over to play too.

Lillyreed and Ennis were also unexpectedly charmed by their new landlord. “When we met Max,” Lillyreed says, “there was instant accord. Max, he’s the kind of guy who’s just not content to be a passenger in life.” Now they share the garden that bridges the short distance between their houses, growing vegetables, tomatoes, and basil in raised beds. When they were married on July 3, they held the ceremony in Krull’s backyard.

None of the homeowners and renters we visit on Hunter Avenue are members of the Harlem Yacht Club, though it feels like the anchor of the block, linking it to the maritime past. The club was founded in Harlem in 1850 and eventually moved to City Island, to a Victorian mansion that was destroyed in a fire; the current clubhouse was dedicated in 1915.

Portraits of the club’s commodores line the walls, a veritable century’s worth of mustache chronicles, and trophies from its regattas fill glass cases. In the ballroom upstairs Kate Smith sets up a makeshift office, laptop on card table, by a window with a view of Eastchester Bay. She and her partner, Dave Jenkins, own SOUL Sailing (SOUL, she explains, stands for School of Unexplained Learning), now in its second year at the yacht club. The bayside restaurant is generally open to the public, especially popular for sunset drinks and dinners; in a clubroom nearby, sheet music and handwritten set lists are propped by a Magnum organ: “Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini,” “Hey Bo Diddley,” “Some Enchanted Evening.”

Next to the yacht club, we met Becky Brown and Bill Santen, married artists who were priced out of Brooklyn and moved into a house that belongs to Brown’s parents—a classic two-story beach house, with wood-paneled walls and extra rooms they’ve turned into studios. Santen is originally from Lexington, Kentucky; Brown grew up mostly in Manhattan—when she was 8, her family moved to Stuy Town, where her parents still live; their apartment kitchen figures in some of Brown’s artwork. City Island appealed to her Massachusetts-born parents, Deborah Wye, chief curator emerita of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art, and Paul Brown, the minimalist painter; when they bought the house, “around 2005 or 2006,” it reminded them of Nantucket. “My dad would paint here; they both find it so relaxing,” Brown says. “For lack of a better word, my mother ‘discovered’ Louise Bourgeois and she would bring her [writing on her] work out here too.”

Wye organized a retrospective of Bourgeois’s work at MoMA in 1982 and remains one of the foremost experts on the artist. It is fantastic to think of Bourgeois’s tremendous sculptures of spiders and cells, her drawings and paintings, being considered and written about here, making them imaginatively a part of the island, too. Wye and Brown still use the house on City Island, effectively sharing it with their daughter and son-in-law. “She did all the landscaping here with no training,” Santen points out. “People stop all the time to compliment us on the flowers.”

Santen works at MoMA too, as an art handler; Brown, who was between artist’s residencies at the Millay Colony and the MacDowell Colony in May, is an adjunct professor at Pratt. Both she and Santen rely on public transportation to get to work. “It can be challenging because our community—friends, art stuff—isn’t here, and it’s a long schlep to the Lower East Side or Brooklyn,” Brown says. “On a good day, it’s the best of both worlds; you’re in the city but you’re outside of it. On a bad day, it’s the worst of both worlds, because you’re still connected to the hustle.”

On weekends especially the parking lots at the southern end of the island fill up and Johnny’s Reef, Artie’s Steak and Seafood, and Sammy’s Fish Box are all vying for their business. “It seems like the entire Bronx comes back here to eat on the weekends,” Brown says.

“It’s like hours of traffic nonstop; thousands and thousands of people,” says Santen. “People have these strong associations with the restaurants they went to as a kid. That’s when you realize how much this place is still connected to the rest of the Bronx.”

One of Santen’s short 16-millimeter films, Traffic, follows the hypnotic stream of cars bound for the seafood shacks, circling the roundabouts on Pelham Bay and moving relentlessly across the bridge. Since Santen moved to City Island, the place has suffused his work. His film City Island includes the neon lobster-shaped Seafood City sign—one of the most famous icons of the island, washed away during Hurricane Sandy; the film depicts the facade of seemingly every house and structure on the island in a nearly 11-minute series of flashes.

“It’s like Ed Ruscha’s photo book Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” Brown says. To me, it is also reminiscent of the experimental collage films of Chris Marker, with a dash of some of the footage from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” video—Americana, but lyrical, elliptical, and connected to a yearning for some buried dream.

Watching it, I am reminded of Max Krull, telling stories of long-ago years in Paris as he made coffee on the stove. He’d quoted Hemingway: “Ernest Hemingway wrote that if ever a young person has a chance to live in Paris, wherever that person goes in life after that Paris will follow them forever because Paris is a moveable feast.” Is City Island then, Paris too? Krull reflexively raised an eyebrow, let a half smile show. “I love living here,” is all he’d say.

Rebecca Bengal lives in Brooklyn and writes fiction and nonfiction. Recent and forthcoming publications include the Guardian, Aperture, Vogue, Bookforum, the Paris Review, Oxford American, and Lapham’s Quarterly.

Chris Mottalini is a photographer based in New York City. Much of his work deals with the photographic preservation of Modernist architecture and its place in the American landscape. His most recent book is Land of Smiles.