Monday, August 18, 2008

Close In More Ways Than One

Walks residents say area is tight-knit, safe

By Joseph Kellard

On a sun-soaked July afternoon, Matt Mariano and a friend tossed a football around outside Mariano’s July Walk bungalow. A game of catch was about all there was room for, since a narrow sidewalk is all that divides the houses in Long Beach’s historic Walks community.

The 10 blocks of walks have no street access, and Mariano’s lawn spans perhaps 5 yards, much too small for a scrimmage. But what Mariano and fellow homeowners lack in asphalt and backyard space, they make for up in neighborly intimacy, whether it’s picking up groceries for one another or shoveling snow together to clear a path to the surrounding streets.

“It’s a little more communal because of the close proximity of the homes,” said Mariano, a 20-something who grew up in Levittown, teaches in Amityville and moved to July Walk two years ago. “And that makes for a better neighborhood.”

The bungalows on each walk face east and west and are sandwiched behind homes facing north and south from West Park Avenue, the neighborhood’s northern border, to West Beech Street to the south.

The walks themselves run north-south, from Lindell Avenue, the eastern border, to New York Avenue. The homes are little more than arm-spans apart, and their “yards” are best described as patches of grass.

“You really become very friendly with your neighbors,” said Allison Kallelis, who moved from Yonkers to Long Beach with her husband, Alex, six years ago and bought a September Walk home for $260,000. “I know everyone in the surrounding area. So you have to be extremely friendly to live here. If you’re not, then it’s not for you.”

A changing neighborhood

Kallelis said she can’t imagine ever selling their bungalow, where they will raise Kaleb, their 9-month-old son. When they first arrived, their neighbors were mostly retirees, many of whom have since left the neighborhood, replaced by other young couples.

Kallelis finds the walks safe, and said that children can play along the sidewalk without worrying about cars, and strangers rarely wander through the neighborhood. But above all, she said, she cherishes the neighborly camaraderie.

“As people walk down the walk, they yell out, ‘I’m going to the grocery store, what do you need?’” Kallelis explained. “That’s very common here. We borrow eggs and everything from each other. It’s a godsend to have the neighbors so close and so friendly.”

Homeowners make the most of their small properties, lining their front picket or chain-link fences with flowers while leaving their backyards barrier-free, blurring the property lines. Glyn and Kelly Jaime, who live on October Walk, have a fenceless backyard that mingles with their neighbors’ concrete plots. Having a yard is something new for Glyn, who was born and raised in Greenwich Village and has always lived in Manhattan, where she and her husband work.

“In our building in the city, we have about five apartments in our own little corner,” said Glyn, who owns a package design company. “We don’t even know those people. I’m not kidding, we’ve been there five years and I’ve never even seen them. Here we know the families around us, we know everybody. The neighbors here are incredible. It’s a real sense of community, but it’s not like people are in your face.”

While they were house-hunting, the Jamies looked at some 25 Long Beach properties before discovering the Walks. They were instantly sold on the area, and bought a single-level bungalow built in 1928 by Louis Bossert, a Brooklyn lumber producer who developed the second wave of homes there after World War I.

The Jamies’ bungalow is typical, with three small bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen and bathroom. It retains many of its original features: a white stucco exterior, metal awnings, a brick fireplace, a four-legged, cast-iron bathtub, linseed linoleum floors and beaver-board walls. “All these things are what drew us to the house,” Glyn said.

When she and Kelly moved in, the house had been vacant for two years but was filled with cobwebs and sheet-covered furniture, including a vintage 1950s Herman Miller kitchen table and chairs that the Jamies kept, since it fit their retro style. The walls are adorned with a weathered 1938 New York license plate, a midcentury street map of the Columbus Circle area and framed black-and-white vintage photos of Manhattan.

The Jamies have another typical feature: an enclosed front porch that was once open, and caught breezes from the ocean a few blocks south. “The whole design of the Walks was to build houses without street access, but an aside was the terrific breezes,” said Roberta Fiore, a Long Beach historian.

Fiore regards the Walks as the city’s most distinct neighborhood. “I love it because it has so much charm,” she said. “It’s a cute little community with a lot of creativity.”

Military beginnings

The neighborhood was first developed in 1917 and 1918, when the U.S. military took over the Nassau Hotel and Long Beach became a military settlement like Camp Yaphank in Suffolk County, where pre-fabricated bungalows were built for $2,500. They were shipped to Long Beach and installed on property owned by Brooklyn developer and former State Sen. William Reynolds.

The uninsulated pre-fabs were meant for summer use, but for $500 more a chimney could be built. By the mid-1950s, tenants started to live in them year-round. “The expression then was, ‘Throw some heat in the bungalows,’” Fiore said.

By the 1970s, half the homes became permanent dwellings, said Jim Hennessy, a former City Council president who was raised on January Walk. Hennessy fondly remembers the closeness not only of the neighborhood, but also in his family’s bungalow: He was one of nine children. He and a younger sister, two older brothers and single mother occupied the standard three bedrooms, and his five other sisters shared the attic-turned-bedroom.

Hennessy’s mother worked the midnight shift at Long Beach Hospital, and he and his siblings slept around the kitchen oven on winter nights. In the tight-knit neighborhood, the family left their front door unlocked.

“There was a house across from ours where two elderly French-Canadian women lived,” Hennessy said. “If I had to go to the bathroom and one of my other siblings was in our bathroom, I would just run outside my house and use Jean and Isabella’s bathroom. That’s what it was like. It was really close and a lot of fun.”

Fun for Hennessy meant running with friends through stretches of then mostly wide-open yards, throwing a football across a few lawns and jumping from one rooftop to the next while playing hide-and-seek.

In 1984, Pat Redinger moved to June Walk because it reminded her of the old Courts community in the Rockaways, where she spent her summers as a girl. She and her mother paid $100,000 for a pre-fab bungalow that still looks out onto an open yard. To create more space, Redinger converted a boiler room into a storage closet, and she uses corner-fitting furniture.

Another challenge that comes with living in the Walks is parking. The neighborhood is without street access, driveways or garages, so it can sometimes be “impossible to have company over,” Redinger said.

“And to move the car, you feel you may never find another spot.” The Walks also has periodic water pressure, drainage and sewage problems.

Looking to the future

While the parking headaches have led Redinger to contemplate a move, others who plan to stay, such as the Kallelises and Hennessy (who lives with his wife and children on West Beech Street, off February Walk), want to lobby City Hall to improve their community. They are hoping to revive the Walks Association, a civic group established in the early 1990s that flourished but disbanded after its founder moved.

“Everyone has their own neighbors association, and we want to have our own, too,” Hennessy said, “because we have to lobby for the things that we need.”

Allison Kallelis is on the same page of what may become a new chapter for the walks. “We’re trying to start up the association again just to get a stronger voice in the city when different planning issues come up, and we’re trying to get more money allocated to the Walks,” she explained. “We’re kind of like the forgotten neighborhood.”

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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