"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.

In recent years, the Parks Department has paved the area and built benches, a small plaza, and a path to the water, where people now walk their dogs. (A ballfield is under construction, but it all, according to Councilman James Oddo, came from money earmarked by the Council.) But after years of neglect, residents seem oblivious to the fact that they live a few hundred yards from the water. "They just don't pay attention to this place like they do other places," says Tom, who lived 44 of his 51 years in New Dorp. He has stopped his SUV in front of the Our Lady of Lourdes church, just up the street from the entrance of the Cedar Grove Beach Club. He looks down the gravel path heading toward New Dorp Beach. "There's no lifeguard—no nothing! It's completely abandoned. The beach is filthy. It's unbelievable. When I took my granddaughters out there, I had to carry them so they didn't step on the drug vials. When I want to go to the beach, I go to the Jersey Shore!" He shakes his head. "We heard an FBI informant said they'd buried a body out there." Tom feels differently about Cedar Grove, where he sometimes went fishing. "That beach down there is beautiful," he says, pointing his finger at the club entrance down the street. "Because it's private! Because they take care of it."

The contrast between the beaches at New Dorp and at Cedar Grove couldn't be greater. Where New Dorp appears to have been abandoned, Cedar Grove is immaculate. The residents sift the sand regularly with a beachcomber the club bought for $80,000. There's not a speck of trash to be seen.

"I hate to see them go—you know, they've been there for so long," says Walter Griswold, a 75-year-old retired letter carrier, who has lived in a cottage in the town of New Dorp for most of his life. Griswold, who remembered when New Dorp's bungalows were destroyed in the mid-'60s, says he feels like history is repeating itself.

Walking through the entrance onto the grounds of Cedar Grove Beach Club, you get the sensation that time has slowed nearly to a halt. There's a feeling of leisure and spaciousness one hardly comes across in the city. The small cottages sit in rows around a circular driveway. From each one waves an American flag, which the members put up in June when they first move in, to signal their arrival to their neighbors. Poplar trees, with tire swings attached to them, sway in the breeze. Short grass covers what was once a baseball field. A large vegetable garden, belonging to 81-year-old Edith Holtermann, of Cottage 22, grows on the center of the grounds.

"When you step through that gate, it's like it's 1930 all over again," says Eleanor Dugan, a retired city special-education teacher, who has been in her cottage since 1970. Dugan remembers when her son, Bill Dugan, now a high school principal in Harlem, rebuilt the clubhouse one summer after it was destroyed by vandals. Bill Dugan leases the cottage next to his mother's. The Dugan family name is mounted on a plaque in the clubhouse—among the Gradys, O'Reillys, Kennys, and Murphys—honoring the families that pitched in.

December 11, 1992—the day of a nor'easter—is an infamous day for the residents. They talk about it like it happened yesterday. The storm left four inches of sand in Eleanor Dugan's living room. Twenty-five houses on the south end were so damaged that the Parks Department tore them down.

If there's one thing everyone seems to remember, it's the Robert Moses story. Even if they weren't around in the '60s, their relatives were, and the beach club members talk about it like they lived through it, too. The city was able to acquire and condemn the land using the Parkland Acquisition Act of 1960, in which the state agreed to put up bonds for three-quarters of the funds to fund parkland. This act was brokered by Moses and was meant to support the creation of new parks, but Moses used it to get in through the backdoor. After obtaining the land, and paying all the New Dorp residents for their properties, Moses returned to his earlier plan to build a sprawling four-lane parkway that would extend from the Verrazano Bridge and connect with the Outerbridge Crossing into New Jersey. He tried to steamroll the project, but faced opposition from a stronger force: the federal government. By 1972, Moses's proposed Shore Front Drive was declared dead.

Moses's vision of a parkway was in line with his other grand-scale urban planning projects. But today it appears ironic: As Parks Commissioner in 1937, Moses was the first one to propose that the city build what he billed as a second Jones Beach on Staten Island's south shore. In his report to the city in that year, he described the value of the south shore beaches and boardwalk as "incalculable." "Robert Moses never built or loved a park that didn't have a highway attached to it," Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, tells the Voice.

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