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The Canals: Built To Be the Venice of Long Island

A look at the first 50 years of Long Beach’s other waterfront neighborhood.

When Joe Lehr returned to the classrooms he attended at East School to speak to elementary students during the school’s 80th anniversary five years ago, he found that all that had changed was the blackboards. “Now they're green,” Lehr said.    

The school, at Neptune Boulevard on the west edge of the neighborhood know as the canals, is perhaps reflective of the general area: It has changed some, but retains certain distinct qualities from decades past.   

The most defining, of course, are its four canals (named Sarazen, Ouimet, Hagen and Bob Jones) and three arched bridges. The canals are named after pro golfers from the era when they were built, the 1920s. So are nearly all the streets, which are characterized by long, narrow one-ways and dead-ends.     

All this contributes to keeping the canals area — nestled in the northeast corner of town and bordered by Reynolds Channel to the north and Bob Jones to the east — relatively secluded and serene, a contrast to the bustling neighborhoods along the beach on the city’s south side.     

“There are a lot of people in Long Beach who are truly not even aware of the canals area,” said Karen Adamo, a Long Beach real estate agent who has lived at the end of East State Street since 1991. “There's really no reason to come back here.”      

Lehr and his wife, Bobbi, moved into their Doyle Street home, which faces the Sarazen canal, in 1960. They paid $21,000 for the four-bedroom ranch, where they raised three daughters and added eight rooms.      

The neighborhood's original homes were Moorish in style and, later, sand castles, and served as second dwellings for the upper middle class. William Reynolds, Long Beach's founder and a former state senator, used his own money, as well as that of his millionaire friends Otto Kahn, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Payne Whitney, to build the waterways in the mid-1920s, calling the project “the canals of Lido.”     

They were intended to complement the adjacent original Lido golf course Reynolds had built a decade earlier, all part of his vision to turn Long Beach into “the future Venice of America,” as he advertised it. Canals then, from Venice Beach, Calif., to Boca Raton, Fla., were a new resort concept, and Reynolds aimed to attract his rich and famous friends to the barrier island. 

“People wanted an international feel,” Roberta Fiore, a city historian, explained.        

After World War II, more homeowners began to live in the canals year-round. At the time, flat-roofed bungalows (dubbed “daylight homes” for their picture windows) made up the majority of homes. Lehr's was originally built in 1945, and sold for $5,500 to veterans returning from World War II. When Lehr was a boy, he lived on Shore Road, but docked his rowboat on the canals.     

The 1950s saw the canals become the least expensive area in the East End, attracting many blue-collar workers, who shopped at the supermarket that was always part of the strip of stores on East Park Avenue. Other notable businesses were O'Rourk's hardware and the Cozy Nook, a luncheonette where East School students could buy candy for a nickel. They played at the Clark Street playground near the bay.      

“One of the things we loved about living in the canals is that you can do your life in whatever social fashion you choose,” Lehr said. “You can do it in black tie or jeans or shorts. It's a phenomenally mixed community where you can have a major head of a hospital live next door to a policeman.”

The area drew the interest of the city's politicos, with Kerrigan Street turning into something of a “who's who” block in the 1960s, its residents including the likes of Larry Elovich and Arthur J. Kremer. Elovich, an attorney and Long Beach's former Democratic Party leader, bought his first home in 1963 on Kerrigan, across the street from Kremer, who, two years later, was elected to the state Assembly and became chairman of its Ways and Means Committee. Their annual summer block party included political dignitaries from around the state, including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.    

“We would have this huge party every year where literally a couple of thousand people would come,” Elovich recalled.          

At the end of Kerrigan, where former county Legislator Michael Zapson lives today, is a house overlooking the bay that was once owned by Joseph Ehrenreich, who had the exclusive rights to market Nikon products in the U.S. (Fiore said, however, that silent screen star Clara Bow neither honeymooned nor lived in a Moorish house on East Pine at Vinton Street, as is widely believed.)      

During the 1960s and ’70s, waterfront property became more desirable. “I think more families who liked boating recognized it, and the property values weren't really escalating at that time,” said Joe Ponte, a real estate agent who was raised on Barnes Street and attended East School with Billy Crystal.      

Lehr's house, like most “upland” homes on the canals’ east side, has a grassy strip of city-owned land between the street and the bulkhead — another feature that distinguishes the neighborhood, where residents typically put their lawn furniture and hammocks and build picket fences around the plots.    

When he moved to the canals, the original bulkheads were in terrible disrepair, said Lehr, the longtime president of the East End Civic Association. From 1970 to 1972, the city installed steel bulkheads, dredged the canals and overhauled the bridges.

Lance Littell April 12, 2011 at 05:15 PM
I've been to Venice, Italy. The LB canals although nice isn''t the canals of Venice. Don't insult a timeless area of the world by comparing it to an average looking region of Long island.
Karen Adamo April 12, 2011 at 09:54 PM
Hi, Lance. You are missing the historical point. Reynolds(the visionary builder of Long Beach) envisioned the canals to be reminiscent of Venice just as he envisioned the estates of Long Beach to be like the Riviera. We'd love to have you visit the Historical Society or take one of Roberta Fiore's(The City historian) classes!
Karen Adamo April 12, 2011 at 09:55 PM
Joe and Joe, great article!
Lance Littell April 12, 2011 at 10:26 PM
when I see the LB canals the last thing Im thinking is Venice, Italy!! Don't really care what the historical vision was or inspiration. My thinking is the hyping of property to capitalize on the real estate value that comes with that. Much prefer Baldwin harbor or even Island Park bay front over the LB canals. Long beach was one big sand marsh with a couple rows of houses on it a hundred years ago and was a haven for illegal bootlegged liquor. Nothing more or less. I have seen more awe inspiring places in the world than that little dinky twon.
Joseph Kellard (Editor) April 12, 2011 at 11:03 PM
Thanks, Karen. I have to agree.
Mr Dunes April 13, 2011 at 02:22 AM
My mom met RFK and shook his hand. She reminisced about how energetic she was. Also, my friend's father moved into Rocky Graziano's home on Curley Street. And on the other side of Bob Jone's Canal Long Beach itself extend into Lido's Backyard. Blackheath homes, on the North West side, pay two property taxes. One is for their backyard (In Long Beach) and the other property tax is for T.O.H. The other interesting thing about the canals, is that no municipality has nautical jurisdiction over the waterways up to the channel. Their still privately owned by the original developer/owner's estates. So Bay constaples can't issue tickets, nor (Like anywhere in the waterways surrounding the Long Beach Barrier Island) can the Long Beach Police "force."
Misty June 16, 2011 at 05:31 PM
I'm a canal resident and I love living there. It may not be Venice, Italy, but it's a great place to raise kids and I could not imagine living anywhere else in Long Beach. The article is well written and who cares if some naysayer can't grasp the charm of the area.
Les Singer June 18, 2011 at 03:06 PM
I grew up in the 50's with the Curley St. canal next to our backyard. The Bob Jones canal, the last of the four going east, extended about three houses longer than the others because id did not have to end at Chester St. As a results, low tide there was really low tide, leaving the glorious canal bottom bottom for a kid to explore about twice a day. Smashing mussels with rocks, hunting horseshoe crabs, and just getting really muddy was all part of the daily fun. Living in the canals also meant many kids had small boats that our parents actually let us take out into the bay! Incredible experience for a 12-year old. In all my searching and talking to people from all over America, I have never found another city as universally beloved by its former residents as Long Beach, NY. The beach, boardwalk, canals, Park Avenue, the schools, teachers and most importantly the FRIENDS seem to be very, very special. It's 2011 and I'm happily looking forward to attending my 50th (unbelievable!) high school reunion which will definitely include a visit to my much loved Curley Street and its canal neighborhood. Les Singer
Frank Alvarado July 09, 2012 at 09:45 PM
How about the canal that backs up to Lagoon Dr East and West in Lido Beach, was that one built at the same time?
Mr Dunes July 09, 2012 at 11:19 PM
Sorry Frank, LB Patch Editor Joe Kellard (As you can see in this deadpanned and shortened quote) has made it clear they stay away from the concerns of Lido Beach. "When we did the directory over the summer, we only learned later that we were not supposed to include anything outside of the Long Beach zip code, unless it was something specifically related to Long Beach, such as the Middle School and High School. Since we had already entered those Lido/E. Atlantic Beach business, we decided to keep them. ..With stories that directly involve and link Long Beach and Lido Beach, like the new high school sports facility, we obviously are going to include Lido Beach people who are directly affected by this. But once we start doing stories in which the ties don't necessarily included Long Beach residents or incidents that didn't happen in Long Beach, then that's going to open up people in Point Lookout and E. Atlantic Beach saying, look, you did a story on a Lido Beach guy, etc;, why not us?"
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