City Island demolition symbolizes a new chapter for the neighborhood

A City Island sign greets visitors at the only entrance and exit to the small enclave on Thursday, March 26, 2023.
A City Island sign greets visitors at the only entrance and exit to the small enclave.
Photo ET Rodriguez

South of Pelham Bay on the far western end of the Long Island Sound, sits one of the Bronx’s most unique areas. Spanning just about 1.5 miles long and a halfmile wide, City Island isn’t the typical New York City neighborhood. There are no tall buildings and no hospitals (although there is a clinic) — just a few restaurants, residences, marinas and tackle stores. 

And this month, after three worn-down buildings at the entrance of City Island were demolished, the waterfront community is re-envisioning what should welcome people to the neighborhood.

According to Ryan Degan, the deputy press secretary for the NYC Department of Buildings, on Feb. 28 the city ordered an emergency demolition at three addresses in the same vicinity on City Island: 663 City Island Ave., 663 ½ City Island Ave., and 663 GAR City Island Ave. He told the Bronx Times the demolition took place “after structures on the site were found to have deteriorated to a dangerous extent.”

Those structures sat right across the City Island Bridge — the only way on and off the island — and have been described by some community members as “eyesores.”

One of the lots, lot 149, is privately owned. According to the Automated City Register Information System, the most recent ownership transfer of 663 City Island Ave. was on June 12, 2012 — wherein two individuals sold the property to 663 City Island Avenue LLC.

The site was once home to the famed Rosenberger’s Boat Livery — or the “Worm Bar,” as many City Islanders called it — for more than a century, some claim. The boat and marine gear rental shop and bar, described by the New York Times as a “blue-collar fisherman’s paradise,” went under in 2009 after the recession.

But the community has its eyes on the other lots near the entrance to City Island, which are owned by the NYC Department of Transportation.

The entrance to City Island before the building demolition.
The entrance to City Island before the building demolition. Photo courtesy Linda Baldwin

Maria Caruso is the president of the City Island Gateway project — a nonprofit that aims to turn the now-empty city lots into a public space that celebrates the unique heritage of the neighborhood.

“Our mission statement for the Gateway is to honor the nautical history of City Island, and basically educate the public about the ecology of the Long Island Sound and connect the community with water-related uses,” Caruso told the Bronx Times in an interview this month. 

Simon Shehu, who said he has lived in City Island for 15 years, was walking his dog with his two young daughters on March 16 when the Bronx Times visited the island to gauge whether or not there was a consensus about what the site should become.

“I would like to see a parking lot for boats,” he said. 

Another 15-year on-and-off resident named Christina, who declined to provide her last name, said she’d like to see more housing take up that space. 

John Doyle, the president of the nonprofit City Island Rising, told the Bronx Times the organization supports the Gateway project. 

While there was no clear unanimity, everyone the Bronx Times spoke with knew what they didn’t want — the decrepit building and occasional squatters that have marked the area for years. 

The Long Island Sound is seen from City Island on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
The Long Island Sound as seen from City Island on Thursday, March 16, 2023. Photo ET Rodriguez

City Island has been described as “Martha’s Vineyard with a Bronx accent,” according to Caruso. She said people in the neighborhood can’t plan on a quick trip to the local grocery store. 

“Everybody stops you to chit chat,” she said. “We are a very close-knit community.” 

And people from other parts may not fully understand how much the waterfront plays a role in the City Island community, said Linda Baldwin, one of the board members of the City Island Gateway project. She said she often sees neighbors while she kayaks, and she meets people out on the sound.  

“People are boat owners, people like to fish, people like to be by the water,” Baldwin said. “People are there by choice.” 

The spirit of City Island, they said, is what unites people for causes like these. 

The City Island Gateway project manifesto does not mention any specific design plans for the site, since a new development only became a real possibility in the last five weeks since news of the structures demolition broke. But the project will “follow a community-based approach to planning for the future use of the property.” Degan told the Bronx Times the Department of Buildings hasn’t issued any work permits or received any work permit requests so far for projects at the aforementioned addresses.

“What we can do at the site will be limited by what the city allows us to do to a certain degree,” Baldwin said. “We know what we have to start by just doing what the community needs and wants the most, which is really cleaning up the site and making it really visibility attractive to all the people who come.” 

Even though the push for a communal waterfront space has generated more interest in the last few weeks, previous Bronx Times reporting states that the project has actually been in the works for years — going back to at least 2011.  

Now, the demolition site looks like a fenced, mostly empty lot — with the exception of a few construction rigs. That, the group said, symbolizes a new beginning. 

Sandra Erickson, vice president of the Gateway project, said the organization is working to capitalize on the momentum. 

“Even the first few years I was involved it seemed like we weren’t getting anywhere, and then we had COVID,” she said. “So now we see the movement.”

The site at 663 City Island Ave. is seen on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
The site at 663 City Island Ave. as seen on Thursday, March 16, 2023. Photo ET Rodriguez

— ET Rodriguez contributed to this report

Reach Camille Botello at [email protected]. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes