Saturday, October 25, 2008

Quietly Keeping Their Charm

Are the Canals still the Venice of Long Island?

By Joseph Kellard

When Joe Lehr returned to the classrooms he attended at East School to speak to elementary students during the school’s 80th anniversary two years ago, he found that all that had changed was the blackboards. “Now they're green,” Lehr said.

The school, at Neptune Boulevard on the west edge of the neighborhood know as the canals, is perhaps reflective of the general area: It has changed some, but retains certain distinct qualities from decades past.

The most defining, of course, are its four canals (named Sarazen, Ouimet, Hagen and Bob Jones) and three arched bridges. The canals are named after pro golfers from the era when they were built, the 1920s. So are nearly all the streets, which are characterized by long, narrow one-ways and dead-ends.

All this contributes to keeping the canals area — nestled in the northeast corner of town and bordered by Reynolds Channel to the north and Bob Jones to the east — relatively secluded and serene, a contrast to the bustling neighborhoods along the beach on the city’s south side.

“There are a lot of people in Long Beach who are truly not even aware of the canals area,” said Karen Adamo, a Long Beach real estate agent who has lived at the end of East State Street since 1991. “There's really no reason to come back here.”

Yet one 40-year resident of Heron Street, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that at least in some areas, traffic has increased considerably, including beach-goers who now park their cars there and walk across East Park Avenue to the boardwalk.

“It’s not nearly as quiet as it used to be,” the longtime resident said. “Drivers try to avoid Park Avenue, so they use East Chester. It's become like a highway. It's the same thing that happens over at Olive and Walnut streets.”

With more two-family homes and illegal mother-daughter apartments on some streets, lack of parking has become an issue, too, she noted.

“Parents who have two children, they have two cars, and that’s the case all over Long Beach,” she said. “And when you add on the illegal tenants, you add to the problem, and it's happening here, too.”

The demographics demonstrate another way in which the relatively quiet neighborhood has changed, yet stayed the same. There are two predominant types of residents: married 20- or 30-somethings who work in Manhattan and have young children, and retirees who have lived in the canals for decades.

Lehr, 77, and his wife, Bobbi, moved into their Doyle Street home, which faces the Sarazen canal, in 1960. They paid $21,000 for the four-bedroom ranch, where they raised three daughters and added eight rooms.

Expanded homes are common in the city, but in the canals most have remained legal single-families. Despite small properties, their proximity to the canals and the bay has given much of the otherwise middle-class neighborhood upper-class property values. Homes with their backyards on the canals begin at $850,000 or higher for those north of the bridges (allowing for larger boats).

“It's an area where you can get away from the craziness near the ocean and the congestion,” Adamo said, “and is more for people who are ready in their life for a little more quiet and where it's safer for their kids to play in the streets. ”

The original homes were Moorish in style and, later, sand castles, and served as second dwellings for the upper middle class. William Reynolds, Long Beach's founder and a former state senator, used his own money, as well as that of his millionaire friends Otto Kahn, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Payne Whitney, to build the waterways in the mid-1920s, calling the project “the canals of Lido.”

They were intended to complement the adjacent original Lido golf course Reynolds had built a decade earlier, all part of his vision to turn Long Beach into “the future Venice of America,” as he advertised it. Canals then, from Venice Beach, Calif., to Boca Raton, Fla., were a new resort concept, and Reynolds aimed to attract his rich and famous friends to the barrier island.

“People wanted an international feel,” Roberta Fiore, a city historian, explained.

In 1928, Reynolds razed the Lido Hotel, originally called the Lido Golf and Country Club, after which the Depression hit and shattered his master plan. (When he attempted to reimburse himself for his project from the city coffers, he was charged with misappropriation of funds and jailed.)

After World War II, more homeowners began to live in the canals year-round. At the time, flat-roofed bungalows (dubbed “daylight homes” for their picture windows) made up the majority of homes. Lehr's was originally built in 1945, and sold for $5,500 to veterans returning from World War II. When Lehr was a boy, he lived on Shore Road, but docked his rowboat on the canals.

The 1950s saw the canals become the least expensive area in the East End, attracting many blue-collar workers, who shopped at the supermarket that was always part of the strip of stores on East Park Avenue. Other notable businesses were O'Rourk's hardware and the Cozy Nook, a luncheonette where East School students could buy candy for a nickel. They played at the Clark Street playground near the bay.

“One of the things we loved about living in the canals is that you can do your life in whatever social fashion you choose,” Lehr said. “You can do it in black tie or jeans or shorts. It's a phenomenally mixed community where you can have a major head of a hospital live next door to a policeman. ”

The area drew the interest of the city's politicos, with Kerrigan Street turning into something of a “who's who” block in the 1960s, its residents including the likes of Larry Elovich and Arthur J. Kremer. Elovich, an attorney and Long Beach's former Democratic Party leader, bought his first home in 1963 on Kerrigan, across the street from Kremer, who, two years later, was elected to the state Assembly and became chairman of its Ways and Means Committee. Their annual summer block party included political dignitaries from around the state, including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

“We would have this huge party every year where literally a couple of thousand people would come,” Elovich recalled.

At the end of Kerrigan, where former county Legislator Michael Zapson lives today, is a house overlooking the bay that was once owned by Joseph Ehrenreich, who had the exclusive rights to market Nikon products in the U.S.(Fiore said, however, that silent screen star Clara Bow neither honeymooned nor lived in a Moorish house on East Pine at Vinton Street, as is widely believed.)

During the 1960s and ’70s, waterfront property became more desirable. “I think more families who liked boating recognized it, and the property values weren't really escalating at that time,” said Joe Ponte, a real estate agent who was raised on Barnes Street and attended East School with Billy Crystal.

Lehr's house, like most “upland” homes on the canals’ east side, has a grassy strip of city-owned land between the street and the bulkhead — another feature that distinguishes the neighborhood, where residents typically put their lawn furniture and hammocks and build picket fences around the plots.

When he moved to the canals, the original bulkheads were in terrible disrepair, said Lehr, the longtime president of the East End Civic Association. From 1970 to 1972, the city installed steel bulkheads, dredged the canals and overhauled the bridges. For 30 years, until 2000, upland homeowners paid a portion of the cost of the rebuilt bulkheads —about $550 annually — as well as a dollar a foot to lease the property lining the canals, according to Lehr.

Today, the bulkheads have deteriorated considerably in some areas, including the Clark Street playground and on East State Street, where Adamo lives, and where the topsoil has sunk into the canals and bay water creeps into the park. In August, the City Council voted to approve an $8 million bond, a portion of which fund repairs of the city-owned bulkheads in the canals and at the park.

Nef Albergo, a 15-year resident of the landlocked Kirkwood Street, hopes that when the city refurbishes the park, it will also create a pier for avid kayakers like him. “My biggest problem is that if you don't live on the water, you don't have access to it,” Albergo said.

Albergo and Lehr were among the residents who were up in arms when the state ordered the city to reconstruct the bridges earlier this decade. Lehr argued that their cracks could have been easily repaired. “It was just a phenomenal waste of taxpayer money,” Lehr said of the project.

Albergo said that the new walls built on the bridges, which obstruct views of the canals, created more controversy. “They weren't what we wanted,” he said. “... They're more or less highway bridges.”

But the 40-year Heron Street resident said she speaks for others who believe the reconstructed bridges are a great new change to the area. “I think they came out good,” she said.

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