The Heart of Fire Island

There are few restaurants and no cars, and many homes still have rotary phones. Fire Island, just 60 miles from Manhattan, quietly but fiercely maintains its right to live in the past. And that’s why its future looks so bright.

By Peter Greenberg

Geologically, it is just a sandbar—a 32-mile-long strip of a barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean that separates the sea from New York’s Long Island. But the separation goes well beyond the ocean. Fire Island has been my refuge from the very first day I can remember.

My parents took me here on vacation when I was 6 months old, and on through the summers of my teenage years. Childhood afternoons were spent in the sun on my bike, swimming, and crabbing. In late August, when the bluefish were running, we would grab our makeshift bamboo poles, go to the dock, and wait for the little red-and- white bobbers to suddenly submerge and (hopefully) emerge with a baby bluefish.

It was on Fire Island that I saw my first sunset. It’s where I had my first kiss, and when I fell in love, it’s the first place I wanted to share with my significant other.

If this sounds a bit overly romantic, it’s because that’s what Fire Island does. Time stands still here. Doors aren’t locked, shoes aren’t worn—rotary phones still exist (and work!). It’s a place where children can be children for as long as they want, and where I often return to relive my youth.

In fact, every time I come back to the island, I revert to being 13 years old again, and my teenage rituals return. I’m still guided by the Fire Island Lighthouse, first built in 1858. I follow the exact route of the original ferry boats (and former rum runners) and pull in to the Seaview Market in the community of Seaview to stock up on snacks, beverages, line-caught tuna, and sweet Long Island corn. The small, squat structure is the only commercial building here, and it’s the market where I worked for four summers to start a savings account and buy my first boat, which I still have today. The Little family runs the place, now in its third generation—and thinks nothing of me going behind the counter to get what I need. But it’s not just me: To those in Seaview, this isn’t a grocer-customer relationship; it’s an extended family.

From Seaview—within minutes of my house—I’m on my bike with the rusted handlebars to meet up with old friends, and sail down the bay for an early lunch of crab croquettes in the Pines on the eastern end of the island.

With no cars (except emergency vehicles) on the island, you get around the old-fashioned way—on foot. I’ve spent hours at the beach watching couples pedal to the ocean with picnic essentials, and helping friends pull their small children in red wagons to the store.

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