Publishers Noted: in which our publisher reviews the building of another publisher.
I have long believed every publication is a community. But can you have a community without a publication? In October 1971, some of the 4,500 residents of City Island—a mile-and-a-half long island dangling by a bridge into Long Island Sound off the coast of the Bronx—decided they could not. The opening editorial of the publication’s first issue cuts to the chase: “City Islanders: ‘What this place needs is a newspaper.’ Here it is, THE ISLAND CURRENT.”
The Current does not have a publisher on its masthead, but it does have a building: 21 Tier Street, the home of its copy editor and writer, Barbara Dolensek. “Her house is definitely the pivotal one,” said Lauren Nye, a longtime City Island resident whose father, Tom Nye, wrote one of the lead pieces in the most recent issue. The shingle-style house was built in 1896 by a Tammany Hall operator known as “Whispering Larry.” By 1977, when Dolensek and her husband were shopping for a house, it had been a rental since 1906, and her realtor called it “mildew manor.” Dolensek recalls the decision to purchase it:
We went to look at it, and we each had had a couple of scotches. The moon was out, it was dark. We looked at the house, we looked at the water, we looked at the boats on their moorings, and we said, “We'll take it.” And she [the realtor] said, “No, no, no… It’s been on the market for four years. Nobody wants it.”
They paid $78,000. The house has had a film career. Its appearance in the 1962 Sidney Lumet film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer-winning play Long Day’s Journey into Night inspired Wes Anderson to feature it in his 2001 breakout The Royal Tenenbaums, in which it plays the role of the Tenenbaums’ summer house.
As the all-volunteer staff of The Current primarily works from their homes, it is not an office. In-person meetings tend to be at the home of the editor in chief, Karen Nani. 21 Tier Street’s service appears to be more as a hub of the immediate and extended community the paper serves. Every January Dolensek hosts a holiday party for the staff. A photograph of the home also appears in the July/August 2023 issue of The Current, in an item about the upcoming Water Jubilee, an annual race around the island. Every year, Dolensek opens the house’s yard and 300-foot water frontage so they can serve the race’s starting point: “I share it as much as I can with the community. I can’t say I feel obligated, but it makes me feel good to justify living here.”
In 2000, Dolensek got her house landmarked. “I was afraid that, once I croaked, my son would immediately tear it down and put up condos.” She might have not needed to. Her son insists he would never do any such thing. Plus, the year she bought it—six years after the founding of The Current—residents petitioned for and were granted designation as a special purpose district, the second such district established in New York.
As City Island is a predominantly white community at the edge of the Bronx, several sources I talked to suggested racial tensions may have played a role in the 1977 campaign to establish the special purpose district. Dolensek links its establishment to the construction of Co-op City nearby and the 1964 construction of a seven-story apartment building on the island: Pickwick Terrace at 30 Pilot Street, which New York Magazine described as a “luxury Hi-Rise” in a 1977 profile of City Island. The profile did not mention the new district but alluded to “the infighting between the group that wants more commercial expansion and the isolationists who, in their hearts, would like to tear the damn City Island Bridge down and go back to a slow ferry.”
The district tried to split the difference, “to preserve [the island’s] nautical heritage and low-rise residential character” by partitioning the island into industrial and residential areas. Today, the zoning code for the district prescribes the maximum height of houses (thirty-five feet) and even the minimum pitch of their roofs (seven inches for every foot). It is a vision for the island that The Current literally drew: its early issues from the 1970s feature full-page covers with hand-drawn, village-like scenes of local stores and bungalows and boats. The shipyards, however, have dwindled, leading some to advocate for the construction of more housing. One of these advocates is Lauren Nye, who is also the director of operations for the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development and recently finished a capstone project on the special zoning district. She has been campaigning for better transit options—specifically, a ferry stop—and for the construction of housing on the former shipyards: “That’s my life’s mission, to try to make a dent in changing the housing stock in City Island, given that it’s changed so drastically.”
If City Island does chart such a course, it would be bucking a pattern among New York’s other predominantly white coastal enclaves. At the tip of Coney Island, the gated community Seagate built a barbed wire fence between its bungalows and the neighboring Sea Rise, a 1970s affordable housing complex. At the tip of the Rockaways, Breezy Point came into being as a gated cooperative when, in 1963, local activists stopped a development that included two already topped-out apartment buildings. They broke out the champagne in 1979, when the fifteen-story sandswept skeletons were demolished.
Dolensek says the founders “started up the newspaper with a very specific purpose, which was to pull the community together and point out what some of the problems were and get some people to pay attention to them.” Or, as the founding editors put it in that inaugural issue: “The opportunity to present a problem, solution, opinion, or just local news has been left to the grapevine, which is often more colorful than accurate.”
Though The Current is run by volunteers, they bring expertise to their pursuit of accuracy. Before she retired in 2001, Dolensek served as an editor at Viking Press, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Abrams. The Current’s July/August 2023 issue features a thoroughly reported front page article on June’s eighth-grade graduation at PS 175 (eighth being the highest grade from which one can graduate on the island, which does not have a high school). The issue’s other contents include a story about two divers who reunited a wedding ring lost in the ocean with its owner; a piece about the past pastors of the local church; and a historical vignette about a tall tale from 1902 describing a “terrible sea monster that has its haunts off City Island.” At the heart of each issue is material submitted by residents: obituaries, classifieds, a column previewing upcoming local events, and a full spread of organization and community news, including, for instance, updates from the local Jewish temple (the rabbi has retired) and auxiliary Coast Guard flotilla (it has four new vessel examiners). Almost every business on the island runs an advertisement because the advertising manager, Margaret Lenz, introduces herself each time a new business opens. She got the job thirty-five years ago, when the previous advertising manager, her neighbor, was moving and asked if she could take over. The businesses, in turn, each take a pile of papers to distribute.
In the latest issue of The Current, Cai Hall, organizer of the local Pride Picnic, wrote a letter sharing that in the middle of the night someone ripped down half of the forty Pride flags that hung along the island’s central avenue. Stating that the flags will return next year, Hall ends with a note of optimism:
This is a love letter to our City Island home and a statement of faith in our neighbors and ourselves: that we will all, even in the absence of understanding or agreement, defer to the acts of love and respect, which every human being deserves, instead of divisiveness and destruction. … We love you, City Island!
If City Island is to evolve, love—grounded, of course, by an accurate paper of record—seems like a good point of departure.
Nicolas Kemper wishes his eighth grade graduation had been front page news.