Forgotten paradise: Welcome to South Beach, Staten Island

South Beach, Staten Island, 1973, photographed by Arthur Tress

As a resort and amusement mecca, the time of Staten Island’s South Beach has come and gone.  The waterfront community south of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge still has a classic old boardwalk, built in 1935 as New Deal project and appropriately called the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Boardwalk.  And there are still recreational facilities for baseball and hockey found just off its old boards.

But priorities have changed here. Similar to the fate of Rockaway Beach, most of the amusements were gone by the 1970s,  Several sections of neighborhoods along the shore were gravely damaged in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy.

Its doubtful this area will ever return to its glory days of the early 20th century when Happyland Amusement Park brought a bit of Coney Island magic to the shore.  Further inland, real estate developers were changing the landscape with planned communities that eventually appealed to New Yorkers of Italian, Irish and Hispanic descent.

Here’s some views of South Beach and adjacent Midland Beach from early in the century and then some drastically different views from the 1970s. Photos are courtesy the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library:

From a 1908 advertisement: “A delightful ferry sail down the bay and trolley ride through Staten Island’s verdant hills will bring you to HAPPYLAND, on South Beach, looking out toward the ocean.  The new combination ticket feature provides, for a quarter, admission to the park, vaudeville, dancing pavilions, Bill’s Ladder, Paris by Night, Foolish House, Georgia Minstrels, Dib Dab Slide, Electric Slide, Hippodrome, Circle Swing, Fat Saidy and the Human Roulette Wheel.”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle ad from 1913 (courtesy the blog wagnerowitz)

Below the beaches in 1973, photographed by Arthur Tress

  • Anonymous

    We summered on South Beach when I was a kid. My father owned Burn’s Beach Club in the shadow of the boardwalk. We loved it,tho the passing ocean liners did a job on the ocean, dumping their garbage into it. No fun swimming amidst orange peels and whatever else was being tossed. Polluted water aside, I loved those carefree summers.
    Lorraine Diehl

    • My Memories of South Beach were Great. I was born in South Beach. My entire Family lived there only a few blocks from the Happyland amusement park on South Beach. My Grandfather, Salvatore La Rosa, had an enormous Pastry Shop in Staten Island, New York City at 11 Olympia Blvd, The Pastry Shop was very large. It was a combination of a Coffee Shop and Pastry Shop. The Coffee Shop was in the back of the store and the Pastry shop in the front. His store was so large that the politicians would hold their political rallies there.
      Sometime between 1918 and 1925, Grandpa and Grandma moved to to South Beach on Staten Island. There they settled.
      While living on Elizabeth Street, Grandma gave birth to three additional children, 2 boys and a girl. They were named Salvatore (aka) known as Tutti and Frank (aka) Chicco and Ninfi (aka) Eva. Grandpa had done extremely well on Elizabeth Street. In South Beach, he opened Huge Pastry Shop & Café. The shop seated at least 100 people. People could come in and have coffee, Espresso, or regular and have a pastry and socialize as well… In fact, the Politicians’ on Staten Island would hold Rallies in my Grandfathers Store, because it was the only place on Staten Island, that they were able to gather a large crowd. This worked out well for Grandpa’s business.

      Grandpa also brought had with him in South Beach, the a large Picture of La Madonna della Divina Providenza. It was about 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. Grandpa had the Statue adorned with a Velvet banner behind it with the name Madonna della Divina Providenza at the top above the Pictures head. For the Feast, They would mount it on large wooden blocks and lead by a musical band parade it through all the streets in Little Italy. Then they would rest it in front of the Pastry shop, so people could come and adore it. Many people made money donations, which would go mostly to the Church Holy Rosary R.C. Church, South Beach, and partially to pay for Festival Expenses.
      Every year, for a Weekend he held a 3-day Festival in her honor with approval of the local Italian Parish Holy Rosary R.C. Church in South Beach, Staten Island, New York City. Well the years passed and Grandpa was still holding the Festival. Most of the money went to the Catholic Church and partially to Grandpa for the Festival expenses. Well then it came. I don’t know how old I was. A new Pastor was assigned to the local Parish Church. The Pastor was an Irish Priest. Irish Priests did not hold with celebrating Saints days with a Festival. Well all hell broke out. He told My Grandfather that he no longer had the Church’s permission to hold the Street Festival. Without the Church’s backing. Therefore. Grandpa could not obtain the City permits to hold the street Festival. Well, Grandpa was a stubborn and shrewd businessperson. He had acquired a lot of property around where his Pastry Shop was. He did not need the Church’s backing to have the Festival on his own property. He had the Politician’s behind him because the Festival brought many people together and gave them an opportunity to politic and brought into South Beach additional revenue to all the businesses nearby… He received all the permits he needed. For many years’ Grandpa held the Festival on his own property right across the Street from his Pastry Shop. As for the Church Parish, Grandpa always gave them a generous donation from his pocket and not from the Festival revenue. In the 1950s, the Parish closed down, as the town could not support it. By the way, I was baptized in this Parish.

      New Years Eve and New Years day were always spent with my
      Fathers’ Mom and Dad and their whole Family and Friends.

      From Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island the Family would converge on the Pastry Shop on New Years Eve at about 7pm. My Grandparents had five children. Those children would be there with all their families. Uncles, Aunts and Friends would also be there.
      There were warm greetings, hugs, and kisses for all.

      The festivities would begin between eight and 9 o’clock. A number of family members were musicians. Uncle Chicco was the piano player, Cousin Joey was the drummer, and Cousin Sal played trumpet player and another cousin Sal who played the Clarinet. Uncle Tom, who was known as the family Casanova in his younger days, played the guitar player and sang some racy Italian songs and everyone sang.

      They would start playing and everyone would be singing and dancing. It was here that I first learned to dance. My cousin Rosena and her friend, who we called Red because of her Red hair. Uncle Tom would play the guitar and sang songs in Italian. His songs were in Italian but were always funny and sometimes serious. Then as always, my Dad Nathan and My uncle Freddy who was my Aunt Eva’s husband would get up and do their comedy routine. They would lock left arms and walk in a circle. They would sing in Italian “Compari Juan, Compari Franchese” and then as they circled the would sing funny sayings in Italian. When they finished whatever they were singing, they would switch arms and walk in the opposite directions and start over again with “Compare Juan, Compare Franchese” and new funny lines. Campari means your relationship to one another because one or the two of them were Godfather to one of their Children. They would have the floor for at least a half hour. It seemed like everyone was waiting for them to get started. They both had several glasses of wine and were in a happy mood. Everyone was hilarious every year when they did their routine.

      The Sausages we served may have come from a New York City Sausage Store, but we considered them the equal of the very best Sausages you could get in Italy. For poor Italian Peasants and Laborers, the Sausage once represented opulence (Wealth, Affluence).

      Most Southern Italians eat Sausage after Midnight on New Year’s Eve. Sweet Pork Sausage or Hot Pork Sausage lavishly spiced with Red Pepper. Pork Sausage includes the proverbial everything-but-the-squeal portions of a pig. Sausage may very well have been the inspiration for Winston Churchill’s remark “that anyone interested in laws and Sausages should never watch them being made”.

      Earlier in the day my Grandmother Rose and her Daughters and Daughter in laws, would cut Green and Red Bell Peppers and Onions. Each year just before the stroke of Midnight, they would put trays of Sausages and trays of Peppers and Onions into the large Pastry Shop Ovens

      A minute or two into the New Year, my Grandfather would round up the older grandchildren and off we went to the Bread Store down the block to pick up about 25 – 50 loaves of Italian Bread for Sausage Sandwiches. By the time, we got back with the Bread, the Sausages, Peppers, and Onions would be ready to eat.

      After everyone had their full of Sausage and Peppers, the men would pick their tables and pair off to play Cards. Fourhanded Pinochile was their game. The Women would set up a couple of Poker tables and would play Poker for Pennies.

      If any of the kids were old enough, they could play poker. The rest of the kids just played games around everyone else. Every now and then, one or two of the kids would sneak over to where the instruments were and try to play an instrument.

      The games would go on for most of the night. The Men played until 5-6 in the morning and then went to right to work. They were in the Pastry Business and had to make Pastries for special orders on New Years Day. They would finish by 12 o’clock and then a take a 2 or 3-hour nap. New Years Day The women played until 2-3 in the morning and then went to bed.

      At 9 am, My Grandmother was waking them all up. They had a big meal to make for the New Years Day Meal and it had to be ready by 4pm. My Grandmother had a job for every woman and for all the children, male, and female who were old enough to help.

      A big meal had to be made. They had to feed about 75 people. For my Grandmother, this meal was her Pride and Joy. She had all her Family around her all at the same time.
      She was cooking for an Army, All her family, all her children and all her grandchildren as well as other relatives.

      Sauce had to be made. Meatballs had to be made. Sausage had to be cooked, Broccoli’s had to be made, and they had to be big ones. Pig’s feet had to be prepared. Potatoes had to be peeled. All of these went into the sauce. Then there were the vegetables that had to be made. I didn’t care for vegetables so all I can remember was Carrots and String beans. Some of the older kids were sent to the bakery to get loaves of Italian Bread. My Grandmother had to make sure there was more than enough food so that everyone would be overstuffed. You could imagine how much food went into her giant Pots.
      Then there was Salad for everyone and Spaghetti for everyone.
      Tables had to be set up and the tablecloths and plates, knives and forks and napkins (in those days there were no paper napkins, so small cloth napkins were used). Chairs had to be put in place and finally the table places had to be prepared. She had to be sure to make enough room at each table for each whole family to sit. Some families were four people. Some were 6 to 10 people. My grandmother had plenty of work for everyone. I remember seeing her give orders to the girls and also watching what each one was doing. She was like an Army Sergeant.

      At about 12 pm the men closed the Pastry shop and went to clean up and take their naps. Dinner was always served at about 4pm. Everyone ate. No one left the table hungry. To be honest I don’t remember any food ever being left over. After dinner, Espresso Coffee was made and everyone had coffee and Italian Pastries from the Pastry Shop and we had not only an abundance of Pastries but also a wide variety of Cookies. You were so filled up, that you could hardly move.

      Dinner was over by 8 O’clock and clean up began. Everyone pitched in, Men and Women. Can you imagine, A four hour Dinner. When everything was cleaned up and table and chairs put in their places. Everyone started to say good night and Happy New Year. Those who had to travel packed up their kids and left. They had to catch the Ferries to Manhattan or Brooklyn. Others lived right on Staten Island, around the area of the Pastry Shop.

      As we all left, there was a great Camaraderie among everyone. We all left content that we had a wonderful Holiday and we all had smiles on our faces.

      That was just New Years Eve. Every Summer my Father Closed his store at 15 Kenmare Street which was called Nats Lunchenette and Ice Cream Parlor and we would Spend 3 weeks with his Family in South Beach. I would get together with my cousins. We were all named Sal. When someone called we all aske “what”. We spent our days at the Beach and our evenings at the Amusement Park. We were Great Friends and together we had great times. As a Matter of fact, It was here that I had my first from a distance Silent crush on a girl . My Cousin Babs. She was a few years younger than me but she was a cute as can be. I could go on and on but I think I said enough. By the way Our family had Italian Pastry Shops in Manhattan on Kenmare Street in Brooklyn at Fort Hamilton and in New Jersey. The Last La Rosa Pastry Shop still exist today JULY 7 2016 AND is i currently in Shrewsbury, New Jersey and is Called the La Rosa Bakery. It is run by my uncle Franks Grandchildren Sal & Frank.