Broad Channel breaks the city mold

Courtesy Google Images

Courtesy Google Images

By Lee Landor

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Queens Chronicle on Feb. 14, 2008. This content is the rightful property of the Queens Chronicle. Photos  were not immediately available.]

There might be only one place in the entire city of New York where drivers can make a left turn on red, park on a main street’s central median and ignore one-way street signs.

That place is Broad Channel, an island in the heart of Jamaica Bay only accessible by way of train, bridge or boat. Barely recognizable as a Queens neighborhood, this unique community offers its residents something most city folk lack: a body of water into which they can dive from the docks in their yards.

The incomparable views there are made even more exhilarating when migratory birds, which find sanctuary at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge just north of Broad Channel, can be seen skimming the water and circling the expansive sky.

This quaint community, often used as a throughway for those heading to the Rockaways, is slowly changing, according to Barbara Toborg, a longtime resident and founder of the Broad Channel Historical Society. Still, she and her neighbors believe it continues to keep its charm and special character. “Broad Channel is very discreet,” she said, “and I think that gives it a real sense of community.”

The few who know where and what Broad Channel is expressed similar descriptions of the homey community. “Broad Channel is a microcosm of New York City,” said Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach). “Nowhere in the city will you find the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets as you do there.”

The community, which sits on marshland in the Gateway National Recreation Area, was once a summer colony, visited mostly by fisherman and those longing to escape the city heat. They built bungalows and small shacks on the mile-long island, which was also surrounded by hotels in the late 1880s, according to Dan Guarino and his wife, Liz, who are waiting for spring, when their photo essay book about Broad Channel will be published.

When Crossbay Boulevard was constructed in 1923, it caused a surge in population, and Broad Channel slowly became a residential neighborhood. The hotels came down, out-of-town visitors only stayed the weekend and houses were winterized and renovated.

As the residential sector expanded, commercial development lagged. Today, there are only a handful of businesses, which include several restaurants, a real estate office and a pharmacy. The community’s approximately 3,000 residents must travel to Howard Beach or the Rockaways for groceries, gas, clothes, movies and other forms of entertainment.

Luckily, the residents of Broad Channel don’t mind the traveling. That’s because they are tenacious, Toborg said. Agreeing with the description, Dan Guarino noted that should the residents ever need something, they will build it, buy it or fight for it themselves.

One of the longest and most strenuous battles was over property rights. Beginning in 1939 and lasting almost 45 years, Broad Channel residents fought the city, which owned the island, for the right to purchase the land under their homes. They won the fight in 1982.

That tenacity can only be found in a certain group of people, Toborg said. Giving an example of just how strong community members are, fourth-generation Broad Channel resident Margaret Wagner recalled one nor’easter that caused devastating damage to the island’s occupants, but failed to destroy their resolve. They cleaned, repaired and stayed in their homes — which were all elevated.

The residents are accustomed to floods that drown their streets; to high tides that force them to park their cars on Crossbay Boulevard’s central median; and to repeatedly cleaning their windows, which get splashed with and stained by salt water.

Although things can get messy, it no longer looks as rundown as it did before residents obtained the rights to purchase land from the city, Wagner said. “Everyone takes pride in their property here. Everybody cares how the town looks.”

People work together to beautify the neighborhood, Liz Guarino said. They chip in financially and physically, as they did when the neighbors of East 6th Street, the island’s lowest and most flooded road, decided to build a dock.

One resident in particular appears to have single-handedly taken on the task of improving the area: Wagner’s brother, Charlie Howard. His goal is to move Broad Channel’s commercial sector forward, Wagner said. He owns Call-A-Head, one of the most successful portable toilet companies in the state, the Bay Gull Store and Broad Channel’s newest addition, Wharton’s Pharmacy. According to his sister, Howard’s next endeavor is a cafe.

As times change and the real estate market fluctuates, the Broad Channel demographic is changing and so is the need for more commerce, said Wagner, an associate broker for Century 21 in Howard Beach.

It is no longer made up entirely of generations of Irish and Italian families or blue collar workers, which Toborg said resided there for most of the community’s existence. Today, Wagner is selling homes to young, professionals and city workers who can’t afford Long Island’s taxes or who aren’t ready for million-dollar estates. Houses can cost between $300,000 and $600,000, Wagner said.

ýany people are leaving Broad Channel because they go away for college and don’t want to return or decide to plant new roots in other parts of the country, the former Broad Channel Athletic Club president added. Wagner is finding that those from the outside who consider moving into Broad Channel “either love it or (realize) it’s not for them.”

Aside from the town-by-the-sea lifestyle that might turn people away, the community’s small size often intimidates new buyers who are used to large spaces, Wagner noted.

Most lots in are 2,500 square feet. Some of the newer houses are double that size, but are nothing like “McMansions,” Liz Guarino said. “They’re in character with the rest of the town,” her husband added.

Wanting bigger homes and more land, some people are considering buying up the lot next to theirs and expanding, according to Wagner. But, she doubts this will change the community’s cohesiveness, which primarily resulted from the familial relations and close proximity of homes.

Since moving to Broad Channel in 1989, the Guarinos have witnessed Broad Channel’s intimacy, they said. But it was last spring, when they began working on their book, that they realized its full extent. Although they spent many long and hard hours collecting information and photographs about the history, they didn’t mind sharing some of the credit with their neighbors.

Calling it a “collective effort,” the couple said they received assistance from the historical society, residents who provided vintage pictures and old-timers who remembered names and dates of people and events.

The residents of this neighborhood are very “involved,” Dan Guarino said, which Toborg believes is why it is so socially and politically savvy. With annual parades and parties, active local organizations and casual meet and greet events, people are always interacting. The residents gather at the public library, the two churches, the volunteer fire department and the public elementary school on a variety of occasions.

This has created a safe community with an extremely low crime rate, Toborg said. It has also created a comfortable environment where people can work out issues or disputes among themselves.

In one recent case, the residents were unable to do this. Members of the BCAC and the American Legion Post 1404 ended up in court after fighting over a piece of land. The two-year battle followed an earlier battle over the same spot. The previous fight between the BCAC, one of the churches and a Brooklyn organization lasted five years.

Still unresolved, the situation has left some bitter. Wagner, who was involved in the proceedings since they first started a decade ago, recently resigned from her position and said she holds a grudge. “Worn out” and financially exhausted, she and other BCAC members are keeping their distance from their American Legion neighbors — some of whom are their own relatives.

But more often than not, Broad Channel residents unite to fight common enemies, Toborg said. The most current cause is the very land on which it sits. Preservation and protection of the disappearing marshlands have become the residents’ main priority.

The tidal wetlands that surround the island are rapidly eroding, causing concerns about increased flooding. Groups like Dan Mundy’s EcoWatchers and Don Riepe’s Jamaica Bay Guardian have been formed to advocate for conservation.

The residents have been working to meet this goal with their elected officials and various city agencies. They have maintained working relationships with the city that have been productive and help bring about needed services and other things, Toborg said.

Despite all its activity, Broad Channel is often overlooked. “It’s almost like a forgotten pocket,” Dan Guarino said. “You could miss it with the blink of an eye,” his wife added. However, the neighborhood enjoys its privacy and geographic isolation, Addabbo concluded.

The community is keeping up with contemporary culture and society, but it refuses to lose its mystique, Toborg said. Unique in its old-town charm, remote waterfront location and bold population, it will forever seem a world away from the concrete jungle that is New York City.