City Island in the Bronx and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn are maritime communities that look out to sea more than toward their more famous and boisterous neighbor, Manhattan. Though different in character, both are towns where time seems to have been suspended about 1970, when drugstores, ice cream parlors, and restaurants were family-run, and street parking was free and plentiful. Yet both are poised to vault into the 21st century with ''luxury" condos scheduled to replace working marinas and shore clubs. Time will tell how long it will be until the bait shops are gone and corporate coffee shops move in, but for now these maritime identities are intact.
''Welcome to City Island, Seaport of the Bronx," reads the sign atop a rickety metal bridge. City Island Avenue starts at this point and ends a mile-and-a-quarter later, at a chain link fence facing Long Island Sound. Along the way, this shady avenue is chockablock with nautical-themed businesses: sailing schools, yacht clubs, marinas, marine supply shops, sail makers, and repair shops.
City Island is a boating community, not a beach community. In fact, there's no beach at all, though you can see bathers across an inlet at Orchard Beach. Many beach-bums-by-day come to City Island Avenue at night for a lobster dinner or fried calamari at one of the many seafood joints and fine-dining restaurants.
The history of the island is tied to the sea. The original inhabitants, the Siwanoy Indians, harvested clams, oysters and fish until the first English settlers arrived in 1685. Since then, shipbuilding has sustained the island's commerce.
Today, day-trippers can get on the water by renting a reasonably priced rowboat or motor boat, or by catching an 8 a.m. fishing expedition out to deeper waters. Rentals are available at the Boat Livery, an old wood shack crammed with fishing rods, tackle, bait (''Bloodworms, Sandworms"), and a fully-stocked bar with six stools.
An avowed landlubber, I stuck with ocean treasures of the deep-fried and fresh-shucked varieties.
I found my seafood Shangri-la at the far end of the island. Johnny's Famous Reef Restaurant bills itself as a ''seafood cafeteria." It's easy to imagine that this squat, concrete building with windows onto the bay looked the same when it opened, 45 years ago.
We pushed our trays along a stainless steel counter, below hand-lettered yellow signs reading ''Fry Section," ''Steamed to Order," ''Bar," and ''Desserts." Johnny's offers lobsters, clams on the half-shell, every manner of fried fish and shellfish, corn on the cob, clam chowder, and for those who don't like seafood, chicken livers and frogs' legs. The bar serves mai tais and other fanciful drinks, while the Jell-O, watermelon, and soft ice cream are circa 1958.
Sitting outside at bright blue picnic tables along the water, my companion and I slurped salty littlenecks and munched on sweet, flaky fried snapper served in paper baskets. Across the bay, boats sailed near Great Neck, Long Island, and Throgs Neck Bridge glinted like a toy on the horizon.
After lunch, we shopped. Tucked between the nautical and the culinary establishments was a smattering of serious antiques stores, along with pizza parlors, book and record stores, ice cream parlors, and poke-around junk shops. Many are open Thursday through Sunday only.
It was a few steps up to Mooncurser Records, a not-to-be-missed shop selling LPs, 45s, and 78s along with sheet music and Victrolas. Dozens, if not hundreds, of horns, tambourines, ukuleles, clarinets, drums, squeeze boxes, castanets, and unidentifiable, not-for-sale instruments dangled from the rafters. Below, Roger Roberge sat in a rocker where he has been selling music for almost 30 years.
''I always say there's 100,000 records in here," Roberge said, while admitting he doesn't really know. ''There must be that many by now."
He could be right. The LP aisles are nine levels high and stretch 40 feet. (Quick estimate: 72 LPs per foot x 40 x 9 x 6 aisles = 155,520.) All are thematically and alphabetically arranged.
We ended our day with an ice cream from ''Lickety Split," a doll house-sized shop. Dodging children on bikes, we strolled to gaze at the marina. There were boats, but we also saw ''Coming Soon: Luxury Condo" signs. One of the smaller marinas, with 120 slips, will be gone by the end of the year. And farther down the strip, three national-chain food shops are scheduled to open.
Sheepshead BaySheepshead Bay, at the Southern edge of Brooklyn, is close to the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It has a grittier, more urban feel than its laid-back sister, City Island, but its maritime character is just as strong.
One of the last areas in Brooklyn to be settled by Europeans, Sheepshead Bay was inhabited by the Canarsee Indians until almost 1790. A sign along the main strip, Emmons Avenue, claims it is the largest fishing community in Brooklyn.
The air smelled of salt and fish as we headed toward a series of piers that jut into the bay. Seventy- to 90-foot-long vessels were either at sea or loading passengers and gear for fishing expeditions.
Captain Kevin Bradshaw, a third-generation owner who pilots the Dorothy B VIII, was getting ready for his second trip of the day. The kind of fish he gets depends on the season: fluke in summer, sea bass and porgies in fall, mackerel and sea bass in winter. It's impossible to see the rest of the seafaring community unless you walk across the pedestrian Ocean Avenue Bridge and look back from Manhattan Beach (which is a delightful thing to do). Private and yacht club marinas line the remainder of the bay, effectively blocking a glimpse of the water. Remnants of a simpler time can be found between these fortresses, where a series of pathways leads almost to the bay past connected, tiny cottages.
Farther down Emmons Avenue, the Stella Maris Bait and Tackle shop has been in operation for 56 years, selling rods, reels, bait, ice, tackle, Russell high-carbon knives, and ''I Love the Smell of Fish" T-shirts. From behind the counter, Joe Knauer, 24, explained that they serve mainly private boat owners and charter boat clients.
Asked if he likes living in this community, he plunked his left leg on the counter and pulled the cuff of his pants up to his knee.
''I love it so much I went and got a tattoo," Knauer said. An inky pirate head with ''Sheepshead Bay" crawled across his calf.
On both sides of the avenue, restaurants new and old are thriving. The oldest and grandest of all, a revived Lundy's, has resumed operation in part of the original building that first opened in 1918. In its heyday, Lundy's could serve 2,800 diners at one time, and often fed 10,000 in a night. Now a comparatively modest 800-seat restaurant serves an impressive selection of fresh fish and a special ''Shore Dinner" featuring lobster, chicken, and chowder.
The rest of the avenue is a combination of traditional clam bars, Italian seafood restaurants, and upscale contemporary eateries, a few shops (including a Loehmann's, a jewelry store, and tattoo parlor) bookended by a pair of diners, The Sheepshead Bay and El Greco. Next to the bait shop, in an old seafood shack, is the Liman, one of three places featuring Turkish cuisine.
Construction is everywhere. As we walked to the far end of the avenue, green highway signs loomed in the distance signaling the edge of the neighborhood. We peered through holes in a block-long plywood fence at piles of concrete and rubble, and an old sign for the ''Palm Shore Cabana Club." The club and its patrons are long gone, but what will take its place on the bay has yet to take shape.
Necee Regis is a freelance writer who lives in Boston and Miami Beach. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.