"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.

By Elizabeth Dwoskin

published: September 15, 2010

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.

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.

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.

"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?"

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."

For Benepe, the point is simple: "It's a shame that a small handful of individuals is fighting our efforts to create a public amenity," he says, adding, "I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who would like to have a bungalow on the water. We could turn all the city's waterfront into a bungalow community, or hotels, or condos, but that's not what we're in the business for. There's a reason this group of private families would like to hold on to what they have: It's a sweet deal, and it's over."

As to why the situation had been ignored for so long—and why the Parks Department hasn't maintained New Dorp Beach—Benepe replies that he can't answer for previous administrations. He says that Staten Island is the state's fastest growing county, and that there's been talk of redeveloping the waterfront for some time. Oddo—who in 2006 used Council earmark money to build the tiny park that now exists at New Dorp—openly asks why the Parks Department has neglected New Dorp Beach. The Parks Department says it doesn't bother to maintain New Dorp because it is not a public bathing beach. "Once we assume maintenance responsibility at Cedar Grove, we'll be in a better position to maintain New Dorp as well," Parks Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh tells the Voice.

As the summer began, Cedar Grove members called on their political allies. With the notable absence of Borough President James Molinaro, most Staten Island politicians have thrown their weight behind the beach club. Congressman Michael McMahon, a Democrat, along with two Republican City Councilmen—Oddo and Vincent Ignizio—and Republican State Senator Andrew Lanza, have been the loudest advocates for the community. In a letter to Benepe from June, the politicians asked the city to extend the license agreements for the inhabitants of Cedar Grove until a "clear site plan has been presented and approved." The pols lamented what they referred to as Benepe's "hard-line stance" against the community: "The Cedar Grove community has maintained these grounds impeccably for all these years. It is unacceptable for Parks to evict these families without a plan being set forth for public use."

Meanwhile, some officials who don't have connections to Staten Island have also started to pressure Parks for a plan for the site. "They've yet to present what they plan to do with that property," says Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who chairs the Council's Parks and Recreation Committee. She says she has not been given information she has requested from the agency and is openly suspicious of the Parks Department: When she looked at the budget, "there were no allocations either on the capital end or the expense end for a park at Cedar Grove.

"The Parks Department doesn't feel like it has to be accountable to anybody," says Viverito, adding that the department has fallen behind on other park projects in Staten Island. "You're going to wrap yourself in the mantle of 'This is a public amenity,' but there is very little goodwill toward the Parks Department in Staten Island," she says.

So far, the Parks Department has been vague in its response to questions about plans for the site. The department has said little about what transforming Cedar Grove will cost, how it will be funded, when work will begin, which bungalows will be destroyed, and what they will be used for. Benepe says he intends to make it usable as a swimming beach within the next year or two, which brings up the big questions about financing. In a letter to Congressman McMahon, the department said that seven bungalows would be left intact (for lifeguard headquarters, equipment storage, food concessions, and, yes, a comfort station). Then, two weeks ago, Benepe told the Voice that only three or four bungalows would not be demolished, and that the matter was still under consideration. In contrast to the original letter he sent to the residents, he also said that he was not going to be developing neighboring New Dorp Beach for use as a public bathing beach (Cedar Grove, he said, was better suited to recreational activities).

He conceded that the budget was an issue, and recently, the Parks Department said that the first phase of the park work—$1.8 million—will be paid for by money accrued from the Beach Club Resident's rent payments. "Look, the budget is a problem, but the answer to a budget problem is not to have people do something which is illegal," says Benepe. "And it's illegal to have people living in a park."

Having forfeited the right to sue, the members of Cedar Grove Beach Club have been working what they're hoping might be their best shot at staving off the looming eviction. They've applied to the state to have the Cedar Grove Beach Club placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In early July, they got some encouraging news: An official from the State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation notified the Parks Department and the club members that the site is eligible to be put on the national register. (The office called the club "a rare surviving property type in New York City.") An editorial in the Advance echoed the cry for Cedar Grove to become a landmark. Ever since the vacation homes in New Dorp were destroyed in the Moses era, the editorialist contended, the city has let the town sink into ruin. For 50 years, the city did not bother to redevelop the areas it destroyed—nor did it build the town a proper sewer system—and the empty lots became a haven for abandoned cars and crime. "Cedar Grove Beach Club is the last remaining piece of New Dorp Beach's history," the editorialist wrote.

But the historical designation efforts are a losing battle for club members: A property can only be listed on the national register with the owner's consent. In this case, of course, the owner is the Parks Department—and this is about the last thing that the Parks Department will consent to.

Meanwhile, the people of Cedar Grove say they are deeply offended that Benepe hasn't paid a single visit to the community he is about to tear down. They say they've asked him multiple times. Benepe says he doesn't remember getting an invitation.

In a way, the whole thing circles back to Robert Moses. In recent years, Moses has been remembered more for being the master builder of traffic-clogged highways and the callous gutter of poor, disenfranchised neighborhoods. But Moses was also, of course, the city's greatest developer of public beaches and parks. When he left his position as chief of the state's park system, in 1960, the state had added more than a million acres of parkland.

When it comes to the south shore of Staten Island, Moses may never have gotten his highway. But it looks like he'll finally get his park.

edwoskin@villagevoice.com