A Day in Davis Park, Fire Island
Overly dressed they were not. A bathing suit with tongs could have been considered formal wear. Without them, it could have been considered informal. But what they carried was far more diverse, from a bottle of water to a trunk, which actually was too heavy to carry and was therefore designated “freight.” It required both early check-in and the payment of supplemental fees-if it was a departure on which cargo could be carried at all.
The destination was hardly across the globe. In fact, I almost felt as if I could stretch my arm across the water and touch it. But it was remote and isolated in its own right-almost other-worldly.
The vessel I, along with dozens of others, boarded at the sandspit next to the Brookhaven Town Recreation Park on Brightwood Street in Patchogue was also less than a luxury liner. Once christened the M/V Kiki many years, if not decades, ago, and operated by the Davis Park Ferry Company, it stretched 70.7 feet, displaced 46.55 long tons, sported two decks (the upper of which was open), and accommodated a maximum of 277 passengers, or four more if crew members were included.
Bathroom facilities consisted of the 20-minute “hold it” during the journey’s duration from one island (Long) to the other (Fire).
Passengers continued to filter through its hatch as if they fed the boat’s insatiable appetite: parents, children, grandparents, college students, dogs. Whether they had two or four legs, the purpose was the same-to bridge the gap to Fire Island. This was not a pleasure cruise. It was a necessity-basic transportation-and the only scheduled public means of getting there and back.
“There” was pleasure, escape, and, ironically, home, at least for most of them during the summer season. What most do not do is escape to home. This was different.
The Davis Park Ferry Company offered up to a dozen roundtrips during summer weekends to its namesake destination. If you are not a Long Islanders, you would be forgiven for not having heard about this frequently served community.
Laterally separating itself from the dock on a crystal blue, 80-degree, late-August day amid a grinding protest from its engine, the M/V Kiki crept down the last few yards of the channel, a comparative behemoth next to the tiny boats cowing in the opposite direction.
Bathed in slipstream and boring into the deeper blue of the Great South Bay with its bow, it proved no opponent for the multitude of sailboats, whose bloated sails and minuscule wakes indicated more of an aquatic ballet than a relay race.
A slender line, as if drawn with a dark green felt tip pen, appeared across the horizon, the ferry’s Fire Island destination.
It hardly seemed exotic, but was certainly evocative in name.
“Combining the excitement and drama of fire with the tranquility, isolation, and mystery of an island, the term suggests three of the ancient elements: fire, earth, and water,” according to Madeleine C. Johnson in her book, “Fire Island: 1650s-1980s” (Shoreland Press, 1983, p. 1). “In two short, memorable words, it evokes the powerful, frequently opposing attractions presented by the barrier beach.”
Formed by currents carrying eroded glacial debris, Fire Island itself is anything but static, as wind, waves, and weather continuously mold and reshape this narrow ribbon of sand and scrub, as if it were a string of clay. Its fragility, however, is more apparent from the air than the water.
“Seen from the air,” according to the National Park Service, “Fire Island looks fragile and isolated. Atlantic waves beat against the white beach. Gnarled trees embrace its barely visible homes… Centuries of devastating storms off the Atlantic Ocean have battered dunes, opened inlets, and threatened to destroy (it). Yet this barrier island is resilient. Beaches eroded by winter storms get replenished by sand returning from off-shore sandbars. Beach grasses stake footholds again on slowly growing primary dunes.”
Today’s brief journey was, in a way, some two centuries in the making. Although it is now primarily a summer destination and domicile with a skeleton population clinging to its shores the rest of the year, its pre-1850s inhabitants would hardly have made the debutant list. Indians, pirates, and ghosts, making temporary and sometimes more permanent appearances, were considered either frightening or downright dangerous.
Tourists, needless to say, were in no hurry to book rooms there. Then, again, there were none to book, until David Sammis purchased 120 acres of grassland east of the Fire Island Light Station in 1855 and constructed the sprawling, 1,500-room Surf Hotel complex on it, seeking to establish the barrier island as one of the Atlantic Coast’s opulent, celebrity-attracting resorts.
Access to it, of course, was as mandatory as the sand and sea which characterized it, prompting the inauguration of the Great South Bay’s first ferry service, operated by the steam-powered yacht, Bonita-or “pretty” in Spanish it was-and the trolley line from the Babylon Station to the dock from which it departed. Sammis had to think of everything and, in terms of air access, the Wright Brothers were a half a century too late.
Enjoying the pinnacle of its success between the 1860s and 1880s, it attracted attention and people, who began piecing together small summer communities.
Fire Island represents the most fundamental conflict-man against nature or nature against man, depending upon which came first and which can be considered the greater perpetrator. It is conflictive. It both attracts and repels-in the former case, man, and the latter, the sea.
It provides a balance between sea and sand. It protects and harms, in the latter case if residents are present during raging weather.
That balance hinges upon the elements. While the trans-barrier island Ocean Parkway proposed by Robert Moses in 1927 would have improved access to and through it, facilitating day trip travel and same-day mainland return, its very protecting status would have assuredly caused its surf, wind, and hurricane demise. The highway itself, representing the inextricable man-and-nature symbiosis, would have marred its aesthetics, eroding the isolated nature which defined it. For this reason, it has often been labeled a “treasure.”
Spurred by Moses’ very attempt to introduce pollution and over population and thus weaken its already inherent fragility, President Johnson signed a 1964 bill, creating the 32-mile Fire Island National Seashore between Robert Moses State and Smith Point County parks located, respectively, in the west and east, with a federally protected zone between them for the purpose of preserving its natural beauty and thwarting any degree of excessive infrastructure additions.
Development of then-existing communities, whose building guidelines and restrictions had already been established, could continue on a limited basis. Other than the extreme boundary vehicular causeways, ferry travel, which I availed myself of today, remained the only scheduled access.
Hardly a young concern itself, the Davis Park Ferry Company was established in 1947 and has been “ferrying” ever since.
Projecting white, avalanche-resembling crests from its sides, the M/V Kiki bored bow-high through the otherwise deep blue of the Great South Bay, at times seeming to crack the sun-glinted, crystal-like wave peaks, now paralleling, but outpaced by, aerodynamic-hulled speedboats.
Greater speed fetches the destination sooner, but less of it affords more journey to enjoy until it does-that is, a person can either arrive to thrive or coast to contemplate. In either case, Davis Park, the easternmost of the 20 Fire Island communities and one-and-a-half miles from its nearest neighbor, was approaching or, perhaps, I was approaching it. Even here, perspective amended perception.
On June 8, 1945, when Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, so, too, did the first structure of the eventual community land on the beaches of Davis Park. A transplant from Blue Point, Long Island, a restaurant was relocated, by tugboat and barge, across the Great South Bay, literally putting the town on the Fire Island map and the building on its shores.
Taking root next to the marina, the grocery store-cum-snack bar became the first of its kind on this stretch of sand.
Civilization, if such a single facility could be so labeled, attracts civilization, but not immediately. Despite its outpost status and ultimate victory of overcoming its electricity and drinking water shortages, it was initially unable to surmount its shortage of customers. They were few and far between, sporadically alighting from the handful of sailboats that moored off the patch of sand, until the Town of Brookhaven constructed an open-pile dock for the motorized variety on land donated by the Davis Brothers of Patchogue.
Fighting Fire Island storms and winds may cause people to shed a pound or two, but they equally caused the originally-named Casino Café to lose a deck or two in 1962. Enlarged, it was relocated to the east.
Build it and they will come, it is said, and they did, with the ferry, each feeding the other. I was part of that “food supply” today.
Closing the gap after its 20-minute sprint, the M/V Kiki witnessed the line marking the island enlarge into civilization, the short wakes of the boats ahead serving as kindred spirit thresholds to the harbor-footprints, if you will, to follow.
Threading through the green buoys defining the approach channel, the ferry reduced speed, its bow and engine instantly falling and the wind sweeping the upper deck reduced to only a brushstroke.
The line of marina-docked boats and yachts, presided over by its dock master tower, indicated that the ferry was almost at its turf-aquatic though it was-a nautical magnet drawing it to its location of spawn and giving it a sense of belonging, as it now gently glided to its kind and kin.
If it could have spoken, it would have yelled, “Ma, I’m home!”
Negotiating the rows of white, sun-highlighted fiberglass hulls with ginger sped and rudder movements, it slowly rotated 180 degrees, positioning it for its return to Patchogue and mainland Long Island.
Mooring lines, like outstretched arms, were cast to the dock and when caught and secured, could themselves have proclaimed, “I’ve got you. Now send me your weary.”
And when the hatch was opened, it did. Fire Island may have been slender, but land it was. It supported life. And we were part of it.
A step on to the dock, amid the throng of disembarking passengers, verified my transport, brief though it had been, to another world, and my nose-and not my eyes-confirmed it. Sweet suntan lotion perfumed the atmosphere, as if it rode invisible, olfactory air waves. This was a place of sun, sand, sea, and swimming, and the bathing suit bonanza created by every size, shape, and age gave my eyes a purpose this time.
Davis Park is the collective name for a cohesive trio of communities.
Slowly siphoning people off the mainland in 1948 when it inaugurated trans-Great South Bay service, the ferry transported day trippers. Transformed into community, the area witnessed rise to homes during the 1950s and 1960s, whose eastward movement, albeit it a builder’s snail pace, shifted the fringes from Davis Park in the west to the eventually named Ocean Ridge settlement in the east. Although it mostly considered itself a separate satellite, its commonality with its sibling was the handful of stores and services it shared in the third-named Leja Beach section.
As a self-supporting community collection, it retained the original Fie Island characteristic lack of electricity, becoming the last to relent to the modern utility, as it attempted to create a sense of freedom and escape. Perhaps demonstrating the fact that what you lack without you find within, the spirit of this considerably separated outpost from other Fire Island clusters was expressed through lively social interactions.
That spirit, however, required some time to cultivate.
“Davis Park has long been a rallying point for young singles,” wrote Johnson in “Fire Island: 1650s-1980s” (Shoreland Press, 1983, p. 138). “Friendliness, permissiveness, and occasional rowdiness have been characteristic of the resort, but that has been changing.”
From an early social interaction dubbed the “sixish,” in which inhabitants and bottle would gather at various locations, its composition was predicted to change and ultimately succeeded in doing so.
“It would appear… that organizations are in place around which a mature summer family colony could evolve,” Johnson continued in “Fire Island: 1650s-1980s” (Shoreland Press, 1983, p. 138). “Most likely the public facilities provided by Brookhaven will continue to attract day trippers who will keep Davis Park… forever young.”
My own sojourn provided proof of that prediction.
Although a person would be forgiven for ascribing to the “all dunes look alike” axiom in this tripartite community, they would soon realize that they feature their own topographical distinctions. Davis Park, for instance, is shrubbier, with both thick and abundant pine, while Ocean Bridge is flatter, and Leja Beach offers cohesive commercial aspects for both. Finally, the marina, with electric hookups and slips for some 250 boats, may be considered a fourth, aquatic in nature though it may be. Nevertheless, those vessels serve as permanent, albeit moveable homes for many.
The dock led to Trustees Walk, the cross-island boardwalk, which stretched from the Great South Bay to the Atlantic Ocean, a local version of the Long Island Expressway for souls and soles-human and shoe kind.
If ferry disembarking passengers make landfall with a considerable amount of luggage and provisions-and just how else would they get them here?-there are wheels, as in the wagon type, to ease the burden, racked and stacked just off the main walk, and the passengers themselves serve as drivers. “Pullers” may be the more accurate term here.
And while main land lubbers may count their daily commutes in hours as they negotiate construction and battle rush hour traffic jams, they can be measured in minutes on this side of the water.
The first structure encountered, on the right, is the Davis Park post office, almost a doll house version of the real thing. Then, again, its tiny size was actually representative of this tiny community, and its operating period was also none-too-long-July and August-or, again, proportionate to its primarily summer occupation.
Opened as a windowless hat box in 1956, it has since let the light in through a paned luxury, while the flowerbox-surrounding seating area to its left provides a pleasant place for a person to read his mail or even a book, since the building doubles as a lending library. In fact, a hand-written sign on a box of books outside of it informs, “Help yourself.” Reading here is both clock-consuming entertainment and education.
Another of the community’s realities was evident by the fire department across from the post office. Also established in 1956, it consisted of some 40 well-trained and -provisioned, all-volunteer members, explaining, “Our houses are close to one another, constructed of wood, and are not near paved roads. Getting fire fighters and equipment to a fire is time-consuming.”
“Fire is the great scourge of Fire Island communities,” wrote Johnson in “Fire Island: 1650s-1980s” (Shoreland Press, 1983, p. 114). “… A fresh wind off the ocean blows almost constantly, making Great South Bay a good sailing area, but at the same time making fire hard to control.”
Other than the sand and water, everything is flammable here and, as the United States’ only paved road-devoid barrier island, there are no traditional arteries fire engines can use to race to conflagrations.
Despite its lack, doctors and nurses are also available-in this case, in Bedside Manor, a summer season provisioned, house-based, basic medical center in Ocean Ridge.
A brief walk leads to the community’s other, non-human life, the living dune.
“A sand dune is ever growing and changing,” according to its sign. “A clump of beach grass captures wind-blown sand. Pushed by gentle breezes or mighty storm gusts, sand grass builds higher and higher until a hill or dune is formed. The growing dune creates a natural windbreak, where hardy plants knit a patchwork of roots and stems in this desert-like environment.”
Streets, like those in most towns, form intersections and lead to the community’s more than 500 stilt-propped houses, which protect them from storm and sea surging caused floods. But here, of course, they are all of the boardwalk variety and, in some cases, serve as dead ends into the sand.
Speed limits are set by how fast a person can travel them in sneakers, tongs, or with bare feet. Then, again, what would be the reason for a rush? That is the very antithesis of the community’s raison d’être.
Music, seemingly the live kind, suddenly filled the air, and a rotation of my head was all that was needed to find the origin of it. Ironically, it was the origin of the entire Davis Park community-the stilt-supported Casino Café, and one of Fire Island’s very few full-service restaurants and bars.
The “in” and “out” venue-with its outdoor deck-was the seed that planted the community shortly after World War II and in 2015 it celebrated its 70th anniversary, a significant milestone in a place where wind, storm, and flood promise tomorrow to no one.
While its cash-only menu offered appetizers, salads, entrees, sides, and desserts, its live band provided the island’s beat, whose waves on this tail end of August day somehow played beat the clock. The season was beginning to wind down, at least for the bulk of its summer residents, and the sidewalks would soon have to be pulled in. (They are boardwalks here, of course.)
At the end of Trustees Walk is the end of Long Island, Fire Island, and land itself, marked by three-quarter-mile-long Davis Park Beach. There is no rush hour here. Instead, this is where everyone rushes to rest, bathed by the sun and sea spray and salt. Most of the community’s population, as diverse as the unending array of multi-colored umbrellas, were here today. On Long Island, people went to work. On First Island, people went to the beach. On Long Island, signs read, “Please keep off the grass. On Fire Island, they read, “Please keep off the dunes.”
The eastbound cross street-if this designation could be considered appropriate here-was the very appropriately named “Center Walk,” leading to the stilted barrier island homes and an opportunity to escape the earthly light and bask in the eternal one in the Roman Catholic Church of the Most Precious Blood.
The nucleic Casino Café was even instrumental in its creation. The original, albeit Sunday-only location of worship, it was transformed with the use of a small, makeshift altar and a convenient camouflage of the liquor bottles with a drape of cloth, and led by Sunday-commuting priests from Patchogue.
The parish planted more permanent and appropriate roots when the current church, built by Hobbie Miller and reflecting the Fire Island theme with a whale-shaped building and rustic, wooden interior, opened its doors in 1962. Its 31 imported, mouth-blown, stained glass windows, replacing the original Plexiglas ones during a 1998 renovation, are ecclesiastical, however.
“Because parishioners of Most Previous Blood Church are surrounded by the elements of creation, Genesis is a natural theme for this environment,” according to the church. “The seven days of creation are symbolically represented, not as a planned total event, but as one that continues to be operative in this world, in our time and in all time, now through us.”
According to Father Francis Pizzarelli, administrator since 1997, when the worship season was extended to the May-to-October period, “I have been blessed as a priest to see firsthand the power of God’s love within the people… here at Davis Park (and) Ocean Ridge. I have spent 16 seasons as the local shepherd of this community… I have witnessed the power of this little community of faith make miracles happen-change and transform peoples’ lives.”
Despite its minuscule size, unique topographical features, weather challenges, and remote location, this was what the community was all about: the souls behind everyone and the physical area never beyond their Creator’s reach if they reached within themselves to nurture them and identify the commonality that stitched everyone in the community together. Fire Island, in the end, was no island when its spirit was connected to God.
Slipping out of the church’s cool, dark, stained glass window interior and removing myself from the continually played ethereal music was almost an assaulting act and immediately re-established my physical location. The blaring sun, heavy heat, and putting propeller from a seaplane above instantly re-oriented me.
Obviously conducting one of its inter- or intra-island flights, the aircraft itself had no shortage of runways on which to land, since its floats used the same aquatic surface that the ferries did. God created and man innovated to use it.
But, despite its speed advantage over water craft, I could only generate my single previous, but unanswerable question, as I had begun to ebb and flow with the leisure-paced energy of the inhabitants: what’s the rush?
Retracing my steps down Trustees Walk and re-approaching the marina, I poked my nose into the Harbor Store, not to buy, but to absorb the atmosphere. Reminiscent of a small, earlier-century country mercantile, it offered everything in moderation-a deli, a mini-market, ice cream, beer, tee shirts, shovels, and toys-a provision point for local residents, which, like the Casino Café and the church, fostered a degree of connectivity. Its motto could have been, “If you can’t find it in here, then you’ll have to get it out there-across the bay in Patchogue.”
By late afternoon, the sun was inching toward the west earlier than had become accustomed. The day was waning and so, too, was the season. The hand-written sign in the post office’s window advised, “Friday, September 2, is last day for outgoing mail.” Labor Day and the first day of school were closer to my reach than the ferry at the end of the dock. The water surrounding the marina had been reduced to a single sheet of glass and the multitude of multi-million dollar yachts seemed to skate on top of it.
“Life on Fire Island through the winter… is arduous. The isolation and bleakness of… beach life can try the soul,” wrote Johnson in “Fire Island: 1650s-1980s” (Shoreland Press, 1983, p. 121).
And when the bay freezes over, there is no surface way in or out.
But, despite these repelling winter conditions and the many attracting ones in the summer, there is a draw here. Less is more. The more you have, the more you want less. What you do not have, you substitute for what you are and perhaps–just perhaps-you rediscover your own essence.
As the ferry pulled away from the Davis Park marina laden with baggage, supplies, and some 200 souls, I knew they would return next season, and so, too, would I.
Johnson, Madeleine C. Fire Island: 1650s-1980s. Mountainside, New Jersey: Shoreland Press, 1983.