A Small Town in The City

Rushing down the streets of Manhattan through thick crowds of people, it is easy to forget that New York City isn’t all that way. Ride the A train out past John F. Kennedy Airport, out to where the Manhattan skyline is barely visible. There you will find a small, quiet island community called Broad Channel, which started out as a summer getaway and fishing community around the turn of the 19th century. 

The faint scent of salt hangs in the air and the only sounds heard are seagulls calling and planes flying in and out of JFK Airport. The main drag is Cross Bay Boulevard, which connects the island to the Rockaway Peninsula and Howard Beach. Along the boulevard are two bars, one pizza joint, a small grocery store, and a couple of hair salons. Very Good!

On the west side of the boulevard, channels run behind the houses so residents can dock their boats. On the east side, there is an entire cluster of houses that can only be reached by a narrow boardwalk. Perched in the grass under these boardwalks are nests of swans. Good!

The contrast between Broad Channel and Midtown Manhattan is striking. “You’d never know you were in New York City if you were helicoptered in, in the middle of the night and you woke up here. You would think you were in some small New England town that had fishing boats,” said Barbara Toborg. 

Toborg is the chairperson of the Broad Channel Historical Society and has lived in the community since 1985. Her house on 6th road is a few blocks from the train station in the oldest section of town. Her street, like many in Broad Channel, is below sea level. If a storm comes during high tide, the streets flood. That’s why the calendars that the Historical Society sells list the time of the tides on every day of the year.

She and her husband chose to move to Broad Channel because of the quiet community and the low real estate prices. The Toborgs, though they’ve lived in Broad Channel for 24 years, are newcomers to the community. Most families have lived here for generations. 

Because of the way that Broad Channel was originally settled, the land under all of the houses was actually owned by the city–residents only owned their homes. “People couldn’t get mortgages from banks, so they could only sell their homes to relatives,” Toborg said. 

The residents of Broad Channel fought the city for 40 years until finally; in 1982 they were able to buy their land from the city. This fight and many similar fights are the defining feature of Broad Channel history. Residents have fought to keep their elementary school, to stop expansion of JFK airport and to keep the town from being split into two council districts.

“It’s like the little town that could,” said Toborg. “Everyone is very involved in the community associations. There’s a yacht club, a sports club for children, an environmental group, a volunteer fire department, a VFW, a Legion club”

“You know your neighbors. You see them on a regular basis,” said Liz Guarino. Liz and her husband, Dan, moved to Broad Channel 20 years ago from just down the subway line in Far Rockaway. “We were drawn to the community,” Guarino said. “People trust each other. Kids leave their toys out in the yard for days.”

“It is an island, geographically, and it is also kind of an island in community, in that, you know most neighborhoods sort of edge out at the end of wherever the line is and blends into the next neighborhood,” said Dan Guarino. “Here, they’re very much tighter knit. Because it’s a community in one place they’re very close to it, they’re very tied to it, they’re very involved in it.”

At the monthly Broad Channel Civic Association Meetings, Captain Thomas Barrett gives a crime report. The 100th precinct is the only precinct in New York that has a decreasing crime rate. According to who? 

In March, however,  there were several burglaries along the boulevard in Broad Channel. Captain Barrett warned those at the meeting to lock their doors and keep their windows shut when out of the house. 

“But I don’t feel like I need to lock my door or shut my windows in Broad Channel,” said Tracy Harper. “That’s what I like about living here.”

This kind of security seems extraordinary to many New Yorkers, but it is a common feeling among the island residents. The lifestyle of Broad Channel residents is slower paced with more time spent worrying about their neighbors than the common New Yorker. No hustle and bustle here, just a lot of looking out for each other.

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