Words and Photography (with exception of vintage photo) by Rich Nardo
In terms of iconic Long Island landmarks, the Long Beach boardwalk shares the same hallowed ground as the Montauk Lighthouse or Sagamore Hill. Ever since William Reynolds first orchestrated its construction in 1906-1907, the boardwalk has played a central role in the Long Beach community and served as a destination for New Yorkers looking to spend a nice day at the beach.
Today, the boardwalk remains as integral to the Long Beach economy and way-of-life as ever. It has survived several incarnations, but still draws thousands of people to enjoy its beauty and meet with neighbors.
Here are a few of the key stages of the boardwalk’s history.
What could be considered “modern Long Beach” could be traced back to 1880 when Brooklyn-based builder, Austin Corbin, formed a partnership with the Long Island Railroad to lay railroad track from Lynbrook to Long Beach with the idea of developing the island into a resort town. That same year, Corbin built the Long Beach Hotel and the island drew over 300,000 visitors that first season.
Long Beach continued to grow in popularity, eventually capturing the imagination of New York State Senator, William Reynolds, who had already found success in developing the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Borough Park, Bensonhurst and South Brownsville in Brooklyn. Most notably, Reynolds was the mind behind Coney Island’s Dreamland.
One of Reynold’s first initiatives in Long Beach was to break ground on the boardwalk. Imagine the looks on the faces of Long Islanders when Reynolds marched a herd of elephants in from Dreamland to help in the construction, effectively creating a highly original and effective publicity stunt. Once the 2.2-mile boardwalk was finished, Reynolds went to work building a casino at the corner of Shore Road and Long Beach Boulevard. He also opened the Nassau Hotel on West Broadway and National Boulevard on the spot of what is now the Ocean Club apartments. This was just the start of Reynolds’ plan to “Create an Atlantic City in New York” according to celebrated Long Beach historian, Roberta Fiore.
A Growing “City By The Sea”
Long Beach was soon one of the hottest summer destinations for the rich and famous of New York City. In 1912, Reynolds built the Castles By The Sea Theater for one of the day’s best known dance duos, Irene and Vernon Castle. Will Rogers and Sarah Bernhardt both spent time at the Nassau Hotel.
After a brief stint as a military hospital during World War I, the Nassau picked up right where it left off with the cultural elite of NYC. Several other hotels popped up during that period as well - the Brighton Hotel (now Aqua) at Lincoln and the Ocean Crest Hotel (now Hoffman Manor) at Laurelton. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rebuilt the boardwalk as an act of the Works Progress Administration and the first jetties were created to help protect the boardwalk from the tides.
America was a different place after we recovered from the Great Depression and Long Beach changed accordingly to appeal to the growing middle class. Arcades were built, and a visit to the boardwalk could mean greyhound races, skee ball and a consultation with a fortune teller among the many small businesses that went up. You could get custard or knish, deli or pizza, cotton candy and Italian ices: all while watching the waves crash on the beach. The boardwalk continued to grow in the 1950s with the arrival of amusement rides, a batting range, mini golf and even a bowling alley at Long Beach Blvd.
In 1965, tragedy struck Long Beach when a fire at the Tower Baths Complex on National Blvd destroyed a lot of the neighboring businesses. By the late 1960s, both the boardwalk and its beloved amusement park became home to shady activities. In the 1970s, the once proud community of Long Beach had suffered serious decline. Property values dropped and the lavish hotels had become decrepit to the point where they were converted to homes for the mentally disabled. Hard drugs ravaged the town and the arcades couldn’t attract customers. Then, in 1982, they were gone. What stood was the rundown town that served as the inspiration for the 2002 movie, City By The Sea, starring Robert DeNiro and James Franco.
Slowly but surely, the 1990s and 2000s saw the town rebound, and then...Sandy came to town.
Superstorm Sandy + Long Beach Rebuilt
October 29th, 2012 will be a day that those of us who lived in Long Beach (or the coastal northeast in general for that matter) will never forget. Described as a “100 Year Storm”, Sandy saw the waters of the ocean meet those of the bay as massive waves and biblical winds caused an estimated $250 million in damages to Long Beach. The city lost power and running water for two weeks, most residents were displaced for months and we’re still recovering today in a lot of ways. Emblematic of Long Beach’s reality during Sandy, the beloved boardwalk that serves as the heart of the city was destroyed.
That next February, the Polar Bear Plunge sweatshirts read “Bruised Not Broken” - perfectly encapsulating the people of Long Beach’s refusal to abandon their town. FEMA and New York State issued grants to help the city in its recovery and, most notably, rebuild the boardwalk.
The first two blocks of the new-and-improved boardwalk opened on July 26th, 2013 and the rest of it followed suit a few months later on October 25th. The total cost of construction was $42 million dollars in federal funding. The new boardwalk is concrete-reinforced and constructed of a Brazilian hardwood called, ipe. It covers the same 2.2 miles of land between the beaches at Neptune in the east and New York Blvd in the west and includes 700 benches and five comfort stations. In order to protect against future storms, the boardwalk is elevated 17-feet and dunes are being built in front of them that will stand 15.5 feet. The army corp of engineer is also in the midst of a $230 million project to fortify the beach and there is another $20 million project to protect the bay side of the island.
A New Boardwalk
Today, the boardwalk is thriving like never before. Everyday you can find people walking and laughing, exercising or taking pictures of a beautiful sunset. During the summer months you can get a bite at the Shoregasboard collection of food trucks, Danny Mac’s on the west end of the boardwalk or at any of the three food shacks on the boardwalk - Riptides, Shakes & Shuckers and Beach Local Cafe. Looking for something even more laid back? Grab a cup of coffee at Gentle Brew or a couple of cocktails at the Allegria Hotel and just watch the waves.
Every time I step foot on the Long Beach boardwalk, I think of Sandy. Not necessarily the storm or the aftermath, but the way the Long Beach community rebounded and how quickly we returned our favorite 2.2 miles of wood and cement to a hub for family, friends and strangers to have a special day and be reminded of how special of a city Long Beach is.
It’s well known that LBers have “Long Beach sand in our shoes”, but I’d also say we’ve got boardwalk fibers in our hearts.
Long Beach City Website: https://www.longbeachny.gov/?SEC=DFA71937-3AE3-4B88-AF18-63FEFC8AB2E2
Long Beach on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Beach,_New_York
Long Beach Patch Article on the History of Long Beach: https://patch.com/new-york/longbeach/long-beach-history-1869-1945
LI Herald Article on Boardwalk Ceremony: http://liherald.com/longbeach/stories/A-farewell-to-the-Long-Beach-boardwalk,45289?page=4&content_source=
NY Times Article on Boardwalk Ceremony: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/07/nyregion/long-beach-new-york-says-goodbye-to-its-boardwalk.html
I Love LBNY Article on Boardwalk Amusement Parks: http://www.ilovelbny.com/Amusements.html
Newsday Article on Hurricane Sandy: https://projects.newsday.com/long-island/sandy-hits-li-first-hours/
2nd Newsday Article on Hurricane Sandy: https://www.newsday.com/long-island/nassau/long-beach-sandy-1.14676685
CBS Local Feature on Sandy Aftermath (6 Years Later) https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2018/10/28/long-beach-6-years-hurricane-sandy/
NY Times Article on Long Beach Sandy Recovery: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/realestate/long-beach-comes-back-after-hurricane-sandy.html
ABC NY Feature on Sandy: https://abc7ny.com/archive/9300780/
LI Herald Article on 6 Years After Sandy: http://liherald.com/stories/long-beach-marks-sixth-anniversary-of-sandy,108829
Columbia University Paper on Climate Change in Long Beach After Sandy: https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/08/13/understanding-climate-change-long-beach-new-york-post-sandy/