PHOTO: Aude J. Lagorce

The pier at Smitty's bait and tackle shop, built on a rickety pier in Jamaica Bay.

Name: Broad Channel
Population: 2,630 (2000 Census)
Directions: Take the A train to Broad Channel Station. Or, take the Cross Channel Boulevard from Queens or Rockaway.
Size: 1.88 sq. mi. (4.86 sq. km.)
Borough: Queens
Origin of Current Name: Named after the "Broad Channel" leading to the Atlantic Ocean.
Current use: Residential


Brought Up in the Bay
By Jennifer Johnson

ou won't find a Starbucks or a Duane Reade on the island of Broad Channel. You won't even find a gas station. And this small island just south of mainland Queens — the only inhabited island in Jamaica Bay — is home to more birds than people.

Broad Channel used to be a fishing village for Jameco and Canarsie Indians, but now it is a tight-knit community made up of mostly Irish- and Italian-Americans. This is a community where people walk down the middle of the empty streets and park their boats or cars in their driveways. Almost every house flies an American flag. <Click here to see an animated slideshow of the mailboxes of Broad Channel>

The island, which is about 1,200 acres, is divided between the residential community in the south
and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in the north.

ntil 1880, Broad Channel was merely a stop on their way for vacationers traveling to the Rockaway Peninsula. A railway was built across the bay in 1880 and connected the island to mainland Queens. By the early 1900s, the trains were carrying 3.5 million passengers across the bay each year.

The area became known for its fishing — oysters, clams and other shellfish — and hotels and fishing shacks began to develop along the railway. But in 1912, seafood from the bay was blamed for a typhoid breakout in Brooklyn and Queens. Eventually, commercial fishing in Jamaica Bay was banned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bay became extremely polluted from untreated sewages poured into its waters, and in 1921 shellfishing was banned completely.

The fishing ban cost the island jobs and changed its way of life, but during Prohibition, Broad Channel found a new purpose. The island became known for rum-running, attracting more hotels, speakeasies and yacht clubs. Even more visitors made their way to Broad Channel in 1923 with the addition of Cross Bay Boulevard, which connected the island to Queens. The new thoroughfare and its affordable rents also brought year-round residents to Broad Channel.

n 1938, New York's infamous Parks Commissioner Robert Moses sought to develop a park on the island. He envisioned a wildlife sanctuary and a recreational area along the island's shores. A fire burned the wooden railway in 1950, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority offered to build a subway line in its place. Moses agreed as long as the MTA would build two ponds. A wildlife refuge — about 9,000 acres in size — was finally built on the northern half of the island, attracting birds with vegetation and ponds. Moses wasn't concerned with whether his project would displace residents already living on the island.

PHOTO: Aude J. Lagorce
Most all homes on Broad Channel are decorated with American flags — large and small.

Residents have defended their homes again and again — once when Mayor John Lindsay declared the island a health hazard because of its raw sewage and again when the Port Authority proposed extending runways from Kennedy International Airport into Jamaica Bay. The city finally installed a sewer system in 1988 and the city rejected the runway plan because it would displace birds living in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

Most families have been here for generations, often living in the same home. One such resident is Charles Howard, a fourth-generation islander who made quite a bit of money in the portable toilet business. Rather than move away, he built his $1 million home on Broad Channel. Some residents criticized the mansion, which seems out of place among the modest box houses that line the island's streets, but some believe the fact that he stayed on Broad Channel is proof of the residents' dedication to the island.

Broad Channel became infamous in 1998 when the island's Labor Day parade included a racist float. Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor, fired three city officials for portraying African-Americans in a degrading fashion.

OTHER JAMAICA BAY ISLANDS

uffle Bar hosted a resort in the first few decades of the 20th century and, later, a small residential community, which dwindled away during the Depression.

Yet most of these whimsically named islands, including Black Wall Marsh, Broad Creek Marsh, Canarsie Pol, Duck Creek Marsh, Duck Point Marsh, East High Marsh, Elders Point Marsh, JoCo Marsh, Little Egg Marsh, Nestepol Marsh, Pumpkin Patch Marsh, The Raunt, Silver Hole Marsh, Stony Creek Marsh, Subway Island, Winhole Marsh and Yellow Bar Hassock, have figured little into New York's history.

None of these islands are currently inhabited, and most are marshes. Some appear and disappear with the coming of the tide. They are all within the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

STATEN'S OTHER ISLANDS

n additional five islands belong to the borough of Staten Island: the Isle of Meadows and Prall's (to the west of Staten), Shooter's (to the north), and Hoffman and Swinburne (to the east, in New York Harbor). None is inhabited.

Swinburne Island, originally called Dix Island, was built in 1870 from landfill. Hoffman Island was created the same way three years later. Both served as quarantine stations for immigrants until the 1920s. Later, they functioned as bird quarantines and, during World War II, a Coast Guard station.

The Isle of Meadows was once farmed for salt hay and later used as a dumping ground for landfill. It was transfered to the New York City Parks Department in 2001. Eighty-acre Prall's Island, named after an early Dutch settler, Arendt Jansen Prall van Naarden, became Parks Department property in 1984. Shooter's Island, 51 acres large, straddles the border between New York state and New Jersey. During World War I, the island was home to Standard Shipbuilding Company, where cargo ships were built for the war effort. Later, many ships were abandoned off its coast. All three islands are important bird santuaries and nature preserves.

To Top