It all started with a man and a dream. The man was William H. Reynolds, a young tycoon and New York's youngest state senator at only 24 years old. The dream was to turn an unsung barrier island in Nassau County into the next playground for the rich and famous. Already famous himself for constructing Dreamland - Coney Island's largest amusement park - in 1903, Reynolds purchased Long Beach in the early 1900s and set about making his dream a reality.
Long Beach is a barrier island covering five square miles with a 2.1-mile boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean. It's one of two cities in Nassau County with a year-round population of 35,000. According to history, the crew aboard explorer Henry Hudson's Half Moon first sighted the island in 1609 as he sailed around the south shore. In 1643, Massapequa chieftain Sachem Tackapausha bartered with Hempstead settlers to share the "long white sandy beach." It was named the Great Sand Beach, but it took more than 250 years before permanent settlers arrived.
Playground for the Wealthy
A group of wealthy developers built the Long Beach Hotel in 1870 and the area began to boom, thanks to the development of the railroad and bridge. Unfortunately, the hotel burned in 1907 - but by then, Senator Reynolds had stepped onto the shoreline to begin his dream.
Reynolds designed a 300-room fireproof hotel that was to be the centerpiece of his resort community. According to documents detailing the town's history, famed dancers Verne and Irene Castle opened a nightclub there, and visitors included Clara Bowe, Eddie Cantor, Flo Ziegfeld and Rudy Vallee.
"He came here to make Long Beach a second Atlantic City," says Karen Adamo, president of The Long Beach Historical and Preservation Society. "To attract the wealthy, Reynolds executed a tremendous undertaking - dredging sand from the channel so bigger boats and yachts could dock, and building bungalows for their servants."
Reynolds also built a concrete boardwalk (using the elephants from his amusement park) and constructed The Estates of Long Beach, a forerunner of today's planned communities. According to Adamo, "The whole idea was based on the French Riviera. The first mansions of the 1900s were built with white stucco [walls] and red tile roofs, and lined redbrick streets. No expense was spared. He even had both regular and salt water coming into the bathrooms."
Reynolds built other hotels, including the Nassau hotel and bungalows for servants. Visitors loved the oceanfront, seaside community, with temperatures that averaged 10 degrees warmer in the winter and 10 degrees cooler in the summer than in the city. In 1922, Long Beach was officially named "The City of Long Beach," and Reynolds' vision was coming to fruition.
The Lean Years
Just a few years later, however, the stock market crash of 1929 would bring the boom times to an abrupt halt. Summer homes were vacated and the rich no longer had money to play with. Instead, families saw this as an opportunity to purchase homes for year-round living.
According to documents of the time kept by the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, "With Ellis Island's new Americans at our front door and World War I behind us, these families chose to live on our "Barricade" Island. Their children are Americans, true, first-generation Americans, and now they had a safe, healthy community to begin a new life. From Village Hall to City Hall, they continued to build homes, schools, libraries, churches, synagogues and movie theaters. The stock market crash of 1929 saw the opening of the Granada Towers and the Lido Hotel. Quality of life was protected, barricaded on our Barrier Island."
"Long Beach has had a few renaissances since then," says Adamo, "but in the 1960s and "˜70s we had another downslide when it was known as not the nicest place to live. However, in the last 20 years, the city has really come back. Infrastructure and schools were improved, and anything that could be done to attract people to live here was done."
A City in its Own Right
Today, Long Beachers have their own government, which includes a five-member city council and an appointed city manager. Located 20 minutes from JFK International Airport, Long Beach also has a station stop on the Long Island Rail Road, and its own bus service. There is also a police station, a fire station and a hospital located on the island.
Over the last five years, Long Beach has enjoyed a very profitable housing boon. Here you can find diverse housing, from Mediterranean style co-ops and condos converted from the old hotels that lined the boardwalk, to newly constructed modern style co-ops and condos and townhouses. The mansions and bungalows are now year-round homes.
Demand for homes has escalated and prices have risen dramatically. The city is enjoying a renaissance as a popular residential area and home to an eclectic mix of lower- and middle-income families, wealthy singles, and the elderly. The city's year-round population is approximately 35,000, but it swells to past 50,000 in the summer. It's all a far cry from the vision that Reynolds had almost a century ago.
"Today, you could compare Long Beach to Manhattan's Greenwich Village," says Joyce Colletti of Long Beach's Ryan and Walis Realty. "We are a small community and we all know each other. Now more people who work in Manhattan are coming to live here and price seems to be no object."
According to Fran Adelson, a realtor with RE/MAX/Sea City Realty in Long Beach, prices have risen approximately 40 percent in the last two years. "Prices also range considerably, depending on whether you are buying an oceanfront property or if the building is not on the boardwalk."
One-bedroom or junior four (that's one bedroom with a dining room) co-ops start in the mid $200,000 range for non-oceanfront properties to mid $300,000's for an oceanfront view. Two-bedroom co-ops with ocean views start at $400,000 and can go as high as $500,000 depending on the amenities. There are very few three-bedroom co-ops available.
As it turns out, parking spaces might be just as hard as finding a place to live in. "Parking spaces are a popular amenity here," says Adelson. "It's very crowded and if you buy a residence, you have to be added to a waiting list of one to three years just for a parking spot."
Prices for one-bedroom or a junior four oceanfront condominiums generally begin at $350,000 and up. A two-bedroom condo sells for anywhere from $400,000 to $650,000. A newly constructed condominium building sells three-bedroom oceanfront units from $650,000 to $850,000.
"We don't have enough of inventory to keep up with the demand," says Adelson. "More people have been moving here, especially since September 11th. Our most recent population of people has sold larger homes in other areas and don't want to move to Florida because they have children and grandchildren in the area. So they are buying smaller co-ops and condos here instead."
Smooth Sailing Ahead
Adelson believes prices are leveling off, but the popularity of Long Beach continues - and it's not to everyone's liking. "There still needs to be work on infrastructure though and some people will tell you that Long Beach is being overdeveloped," says Adelson. "Others will tell you they want new things coming in. You can't say who is right and wrong, but there still need to be upgrades to accommodate the new development."
Some of that new construction includes plans to develop a large vacant oceanfront parcel of land located in the city's hub. A boutique hotel with restaurants, a conference center, and two new condominium towers would be added.
There is also plenty of culture, shopping and entertainment in Long Beach to keeps its residents busy year-round. Shari Ferrara, who has been living in Long Beach for a decade, loves the restaurants. "There are so many restaurants here that I could spend a month trying a different restaurant every day and still not have tried them all," says Ferrara, who lives on the east side with her husband and four-year-old son. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. It's expensive, but I like that you can just walk into town and there's something always going on or you can just sit on the beach."
The Long Beach Parks and Recreation Department organizes year-round activities for children and adults in the community, and the recreation center includes a multi-purpose room and Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool. The recreation complex includes a baseball diamond, two softball diamonds, three football fields, a roller hockey rink, basketball courts, an indoor skating arena, boat ramp and fishing pier. There are several playgrounds and schools for children and, of course, don't forget the beach, where residents can surf and swim.
"The summertime in Long Beach is great because there are also more activities on the boardwalk, including arts and crafts festivals and races," says Ferrara. "For nightlife you can always go down to the west side of the beach where pretty much the nighttime action is. Sometimes, I feel it's becoming a bit too congested. We love summer, but at the end of the summer, those who come to their homes just for the summer go home and it's quieter."
Ben Lido lived in Long Beach for over a decade before he had to move, but recommends the area to anyone. "There's a lot about Long Beach that's great," said Lido. "It's the place to live on all of Long Island. There are lots of shops, restaurants, a movie theater, and supermarket all in a self-contained island.
"Since having my family, I live 20 minutes away and find myself visiting the boardwalk and children's parks with my kids once or twice a month," says Lido, who wishes he could return. "I miss the view of the ocean from my apartment, coming home from work and taking off my shoes and socks and walking right onto the sand in a suit and tie. I also miss the sound and smell of the water and the fresh air."
Although it might not be a playground for the rich and famous that Reynolds envisioned it would be, Long Beach residents are still enjoying the wonderful amenities that living in the "˜city by the sea' has to offer.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and Web editor living in Poughkeepsie, NY.