"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.

"They lied in the beginning, and they're lying now!" says an older resident, who is sitting on his back porch, which nestles into the sand. "That builder Bob Moses—yup! The whole thing was a sham to begin with. They told us they would be extending Seaside Boulevard. . . . Now the city has decided, in its infinite wisdom, they no longer need it. Don't forget—we owned this before they did." The back porch is cluttered with seashells, stools, and potted plants; wooden fish and other nautical-themed decorations hang from the cloth ceiling. The man, who didn't want to give his name, continues: "We had a creed for a long time. We don't speak to outsiders. Then somebody opened their big mouth.

"Most people on Staten Island didn't even know we existed two years ago. We were fine, just paying our way. We had exclusive franchise rights to everything down to the water line. Everyone else was an outsider. They were trespassers in the land for which we were paying dearly." He pauses, looking straight out into the water, never moving his gaze. "We raised our kids here. They were taught swimming and diving. The kids had free roam over the entire area. The only rule was that you don't go outside the gate." He shakes his head. "I'm a relatively old man, and seeing this all go—it's pretty tough. We tried to keep this a secret for 41 years. . . . It's beautiful, and it's been that way for 41 years," he says. "On September 30, we're going to lose a life."

Near the house is 82-year-old Eileen Lee. Lee, a retired school administrator, is the oldest member of the beach club. Her 19 grandkids were there to help her pack up her neat four-bedroom bungalow. She had given all her scrapbook photos to the 895-member "Save Cedar Grove Beach Club" Facebook page. The photos showed the club's black-tie dinner parties—held at a hotel in Midtown in the 1950s. There were pictures of people gathered at the club's annual Corn and Weenie Festival, and photographs of kids playing, back when the Cedar Grove Beach Club supported a full-service summer camp (with a dormitory for paid camp counselors). "I had my bridal shower here!" in 1952, Lee says, choking up. Her grandson, Gavin, comes over to comfort her. She continues, drying her eyes: "The Parks Department plans said my house was going to be turned into a comfort station." She gestures toward the bathroom in the house. "A comfort station! Tell me: Does this look like a comfort station to you?"

Cedar Grove's club president, Roy P. Wood
Alyse Emdur
Cedar Grove's club president, Roy P. Wood

Well into the 1950s, beach communities like Cedar Grove littered the shorelines of New York. Moses destroyed his fair share of them. He bulldozed the clubs and bungalows—including those on Coney Island and on Orchard Beach in the Long Island Sound—to make way for some of the city's most well-known and heavily used public parks. Today, the Cedar Grove Beach Club is the city's last remaining beach bungalow community.

Cedar Grove Beach residents say they pay the city $134,000 a year to lease the property for the entire summer season. Divided among 41 families, that's less than $4,000 per family for the entire three months—a sweet deal. (They also pay the salary of a full-time custodian, José, whose family lives in a bungalow year-round.)

Club members first got word of their impending eviction in late November 2009, when they received a letter from the Parks Department. The letter said they had 30 days to pack up and leave. In response to inquiries from the Staten Island Advance, the department issued a statement in early December: "On Dec. 31, 2009, the license agreement for seasonal land use at Cedar Grove will expire. At that time, the Parks Department looks forward to cleaning up and increasing public access to this 307-acre waterfront property. Once the area reopens, Staten Islanders will enjoy an uninterrupted stretch of public recreational shoreline from Oakwood Beach to New Dorp Beach, reconnecting the borough to its maritime heritage."

Of course, it being winter then, no one was actually living in the cottages—they were boarded up. Elderly residents complained to the Parks Department that a winter move would have been extremely difficult. "You call giving an 80-year-old woman 30 days to leave her home an act of good faith?" says Bill Dugan. And not everyone was around, Dugan adds: "Some people were in Florida!"

With the help of some local officials, residents were able to negotiate an extension with the city. On March 1, Roy Wood, president of the Cedar Grove Beach Club, who has been vacationing in Cedar Grove since 1954, signed the extension, which gave the members until September 30 to vacate the property. The Parks Department says this contract means that the beach club has given up its right to sue. Wood, an eighth-generation Staten Islander and a retired third-generation boat captain, says that he had no choice but to sign: "My back was up against the wall," he tells the Voice.

The Parks Department tells the story differently. "They signed a legal stipulation to get out, and agreed not to sue," Adrian Benepe, the Parks Commissioner, says. "They asked us for one more summer. Out of the kindness of our hearts, we gave them one more summer. They said, 'We promise we won't fuss,' and they've gone back on their word."

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