Breaking Camp

Historic Bungalows Face The Bulldozer

Nude vegetarian communists haven't occupied the stretch of shoreline on Staten Island known as the Spanish Camp for decades now. But that doesn't mean that the slice of land fronting Raritan Bay is without controversy. To the contrary, the spot is in tumult as dozens of families are being evicted from cottages they have owned, some for 40 years.

That's because the 17-acre site on which the homes sit is being sold by the Spanish Naturopath Society (SNS), which founded the camp in the 1920s. Developer John DiScala plans to replace the 80 or so bungalows with 37 megamansions, and will close on the deal when the land is vacant; he says he expects to break ground in June. Residents have lost a string of court battles to preserve their homes and are being evicted; fewer than a dozen remain. By summer, the Spanish Camp will be home to no one.

"We supported the Spanish Naturopath Society for all these years, and now they're giving us the boot," says John Colón, a 40-year-old police officer who has lived in Spanish Camp for 33 years. "We have no options left."

The rise of the Spanish Camp was as idiosyncratic as its demise. It was established as a summer refuge for Spaniards living in New York, many of whom were leftists who had fled Franco and were looking for a place to follow their vegetarian regime, swim nude in segregated sessions, and exercise outdoors. Eventually, the camp evolved into an informal community of fully clothed, nonpartisan omnivores who were not SNS members but who paid the society rent— now between $100 and $400 a month— for land on which they live in bungalows they own.

In 1997, the SNS decided to sell the land to DiScala for a reported $7 million. Last September, civil court judge Philip Straniere dismissed claims by residents— including retirees, police officers, and city workers— that they believed the land would never be sold. Straniere ordered residents to move by February 8 this year; some linger on extensions.

Residents are not only losing their homes; barring a lawsuit that could take years to decide, they will not be compensated for their bungalows. Paschal Corbo, attorney for SNS, says owners are free to haul their homes away— a proposal even he admits is limited to legal, not practical, considerations. "It's absolutely disengenuous," says Tom Shanahan, who works for Public Advocate Mark Green and who has been trying to preserve the camp. "Where in New York City would you move them? How would you move them? This isn't an option, and everybody knows that."

Standing to gain are the society's 52 members, most of whom do not live at Spanish Camp. Corbo says they will divide the proceeds of the sale among themselves, then dissolve the nonprofit society, ending a once thriving club that was incorporated 70 years ago. Originally, the SNS rented the bayfront strip and erected tents on the beach and in the woods. SNS members installed a common latrine, and built a grocery and a salon. Eventually, people constructed summer cottages, and in 1948, the SNS bought the land with money from its members for about $50,000, Corbo says.

Around the same time, SNS stopped taking on new members. But it let people, including nonmembers, build or buy bungalows on SNS land. Over the years, they became year-round homes, and the camp grew into a community surrounded by old-growth trees, nestled along the ocean shore and the side of a freshwater lake, and home to herons, egrets, and rare sea grasses. It was such a setting that lured Dorothy Day— who founded the Catholic Worker, devoted her life to the poor, and is now a possible candidate for sainthood— to retire to a Spanish Camp cottage, where she lived until her death in 1980.

Spanish Camp's environment seems worlds away from the city beyond, and in a bureau- cratic sense, it is a phantom community. None of the bungalows are legally accounted for; not a single one has an occupancy permit required by the city's building department. Even so, the force of law has made itself known in these past weeks. "There's a city marshal coming in here every day locking people out," says resident Dee Vandenburg, who has lived in her oceanfront cottage for 10 years. "That is veryreal."

The marshals are making way for Central Park East Estates, a development the 46-year-old DiScala has named in honor of the trees he intends to spare. Custom-built, 4000-square-foot homes will start at $929,000 and top out at $1.8 million. Says DiScala, "I want to do something beautiful here."

Camp residents say DiScala's plan can only ruin natural beauty, noting that the site includes wetlands, tidal inlets, and designated open space. "We have thousands of ducks here; we have old rare trees," says resident Colón, who remembers clamming and fishing for porgies in the bay. "We're on the Atlantic flyway and get all kinds of birds, all sorts of things that could be damaged."

Development has so overtaken Staten Island's shoreline that Spanish Camp is a rare rustic spot. "There's a total disregard for the environment in this whole island," says Vandenburg. "You just pour concrete, put up pink brick and gold fixtures, and that's it. Maybe you get a $10,000 fine for building in a wetland, but you sold a million-dollar home. It's the cost of doing business."

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