"Poor Man's Bermuda" in Staten Island? Not anymore

For a century, 41 families have had a sweet deal on public land in Staten Island. But summer is finally over.

"Poor Man's Bermuda" in Staten Island? Not anymore

Way out on the south shore of Staten Island, just north of a wastewater treatment plant and past a scrappy section of beach, lies a quiet, tucked-away community known as the Cedar Grove Beach Club. If you didn't have reason to go there—and few people do—you wouldn't even know it existed. For literally a century, the members of Cedar Grove Beach Club were happy to keep it that way.

Summer after summer, they came to this enclave of 41 wooden bungalows to relax on a three-quarter-mile stretch of clay beach they could call their own. The members, who live elsewhere on Staten Island during the other nine months of the year, didn't see the need to go far. They spent their vacations the way Staten Islanders did in the 1930s and 1940s: close to home. That was when this section of the borough was a resort town that people called "the poor man's Bermuda."

Every June, they made the 25-minute drive across Staten Island and set up shop, hoisting the club's forest-green-and-beige flag from the front gate. They passed 90 degree afternoons in Bermuda shorts, drinking cocktails and chatting on back porches built right on the sand. They played host to friends and to extended family, enjoying summer-long visits from children and grandchildren. If passers-by managed to find their way onto the neatly combed beach, the club members say, they were treated politely enough. But if those beachgoers made the mistake of getting too close to the houses, they would be warned that they were trespassing on someone else's property. This is technically true, but only in the narrowest sense. That's because Cedar Grove sits on public land. For 50 years—ever since the property was seized through eminent domain by Robert Moses—the club has been leasing the land from the city.

Nearby New Dorp Beach is in sad shape.
Nearby New Dorp Beach is in sad shape.

In recent weeks, the members of the Cedar Grove Beach Club have been thrust into the spotlight—the last place they ever wanted to be. The Parks Department, which owns the land, announced plans to demolish most of the bungalows and turn the 200-acre property into a public park. According to city documents, the agency plans to turn the clubhouse into a recreation center, and maybe leave a couple of the bungalows to be used as lifeguard headquarters, food concessions stands, and other administrative offices.

Naturally, Cedar Grove residents are none too happy—as no one about to lose a family home passed down for generations would be. They have come to see the beach as their own—city-owned or not—and they see the city's move as a death blow to their way of life. The two sides have been duking it out all summer, with the club members arguing that the city is destroying an important piece of New York history, and the Parks Department arguing the obvious: that such a lovely stretch of beach was never meant for the near-exclusive use and enjoyment of just 41 families. The residents counter that the beach would never have been so lovely had they not been taking care of it all these years. The Parks Department says it doesn't matter: It's time to give the public what's rightfully theirs.

Throughout the summer, the residents have been raising havoc with the city. And they've managed to line up an impressive group of politicians to support them. But still, they know that this is a losing battle. Cedar Grove may not be prime real estate—there is, after all, a sewage treatment plant within view—but it is waterfront property, and this is New York, a city where all battles are essentially over territory. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg moves to make waterfront redevelopment a hallmark of his tenure—Hudson River Park by the West Side Highway and the recently opened Brooklyn Bridge Park are just two examples—it was only a matter of time before the people of Cedar Grove would have to go.

There aren't many different ways to get to the beach at Cedar Grove Beach Club. One way you definitely don't want to go is along the waterfront from the north, along the contiguous beach, which is called New Dorp.

The town of New Dorp was founded by French Huguenots in the 17th century. Say "New Dorp" to any lifelong Staten Island resident who is over 70, and he will likely remember the place as a childhood vacation area. But that was long ago. New Dorp Beach, in fact, used to be lined with cottages, too, but when the city condemned the land from Verrazano Bridge to what is now Great Kills Park (Robert Moses wanted to build a highway), the New Dorp cottages were demolished. Cedar Grove club members, however, fought the condemnation in court between 1962 and 1964, and were able to obtain the rights to lease the land on a 10-year basis. So while club members kept up the condition of Cedar Grove, the beach next to it, at New Dorp, fell into disuse.

Today, New Dorp is a completely neglected and foreboding strip of waterfront. The beach is strewn with wrappers, condoms, rusted metal parts, mangy mussel shells, crates, and even discarded household cleaning supplies. A wide swath of weeds and brush separated the residents of the town of New Dorp from the water. At one entrance to the beach, right where New Dorp Lane dead-ends, there's a sign that says "Beach Closed. No Swimming or Bathing. No LifeGuard on Duty." Moses, may in fact, have been one of the few city officials to pay any real attention to the development of New Dorp.

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