Freeport’s Nautical Mile: The Surge After Sandy

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There’s a sense of quiet desolation and abandonment on a raw December morning at Freeport’s historic Nautical Mile. Just weeks earlier, Superstorm Sandy tore a murderous path along the East Coast, bludgeoning the dozens of restaurants, crab shacks, fish markets, bars and boutiques that comprise the popular summer destination.

A solitary runner jogs past discarded furniture and waist-high heaps of sodden trash. The smell of rancid fish and salt water lingers. A scrap truck cruises the street, and one can just pick up the tinny sound of a distant radio playing holiday carols. Windows of restaurants—noted for Long Island’s most coveted seafood—are boarded up. Massive waterside docks—that would typically welcome summer revelers—lie mangled like discarded scrap wood in the adjacent Woodcleft Canal.

At Captain Ben’s Fish Market, a black-and-white magazine clipping of Ernest Shackleton is taped inside the front door. The legendary explorer wears a stoic expression and beneath him is the quote, “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

Jerry Bracco, the crusty owner of Captain Ben’s and Bracco’s Clam and Oyster Bar, seems less optimistic. “The Nautical Mile has been set back 50 years in time,” he declares.

At the south end of the Mile, Fiore Brothers Fish Market is a pile of charred rubble. The night Sandy came ashore, an electrical fire engulfed the business, which had operated a fish market and restaurant since 1946.

“We were the oldest fish market on the Mile,” says owner Anthony Fiore. “There’s a long history here and it’s all lost.” A distinct burn mark is visible on the exterior where the fire met the five-foot-high flood caused by Sandy’s surge. A multicolored aquatic mural that decorated the facade is now scorched, and plastic picnic tables are melted and mutilated. Fiore stands shivering amidst the ashes and recalls a typical summer scene before Sandy’s scourge.

“Customers would buy fried fish sandwiches and fish and chips, and they’d sit out here, and we’d talk and have a beer,” says Fiore. “We’d have a good time. It was a nice place to hang out and enjoy the summer.”

Rumrunners, Oysters and a Summer Playground
Freeport, seafood and the lure of the ocean have been inextricably linked since the village first settled in the mid-1600s. The local backstory is sprinkled with tales of Colonial smugglers and rumrunners. During the Civil War, a thriving oyster industry emerged but later waned due to water pollution. The Nautical Mile sits on the Woodcleft Canal, which served as the largest working waterfront on the South Shore of Long Island at the close of the 19th century. The strip was home to boatyards, commercial fishing fleets, fish markets and restaurants. In the early 20th century—as rail service increased—Freeport was promoted as a coastal destination. Recognizing the value of a good slogan, the village proclaimed itself the “Boating and Fishing Capital of the East” in the 1940s.

In recent decades, village leaders focused on preservation, redevelopment and improving pedestrian access at the Mile. Despite its rich maritime history, the district is no stuffy museum piece and is recognized as a summer playground for drinks, dining, local seafood and recreation. Many Long Islanders will only purchase fresh fish at one of the Mile’s several venerable fish markets. An eclectic mix of high-end dining and casual joints, sandy beaches, palm trees and neon lounge chairs prized by summer worshipers, the Nautical Mile is an intoxicating cocktail consisting of one part Fulton Market and one part Margaritaville, finished with a splash of Disney World.

“You can find a variety of different flavors here in one stretch, so whatever you’re looking for is right here in Freeport,” says Ilona Jagnow of Otto’s Sea Grill, which has occupied the Mile for 85 years. “It’s a multicultural, multi-flavorful taste of Long Island, and it’s the best thing we have to offer.”

The Surge After the Storm
After Sandy, the prospects for the Nautical Mile’s recovery seemed grim, but on the first day of June 2013 the scene is dramatically different. It’s the kind of sultry weather that lures you to the waterfront for a lobster roll and an ice cream cone. The annual Nautical Festival—established in 1984—commences at the north end of the Mile with a ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by Freeport Mayor Robert T. Kennedy. Everywhere you look there are tank tops, tans and tattoos, and people are asking, “Sandy Who?” Kennedy announces that nearly 90 percent of the restaurants and shops are restored and opened for business. The mood is deliriously festive as it’s a milestone many never imagined would happen so quickly.

The Woodcleft Crab Shack sports a fresh coat of aquamarine paint, and its picture windows sparkle. Inside, diners enjoy the “Fried Fisherman’s Platter” and “Broiled Captain’s Combo.” At the Freeport Fish Dock, beefy men in oilcloth aprons shuck clams. Party cruise boats glide along the canal. The Bamboo Bar & Grill is still wrapped in Tyvek, but toned young staff members scurry to prepare for an influx of afternoon diners. A slender young woman walks down the center of Woodcleft Avenue hawking pink T-shirts with the slogan, “The Mile is Back Baby! Sandy Made Us Stronger.”

The transformation is nothing short of miraculous—a surge after the storm driven by the sheer force of economics, civic pride, family ties and a communal will to survive. The summer season is short but lucrative and draws hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders to the Mile. From an economic perspective, recovery was essential.

“It’s important to the lifeline of the village,” says Kennedy, who attributes the comeback to the grit and determination of small-business owners, slashing red tape and the spirit of teamwork between local officials, contractors and public utilities.

“These businesses have been working literally 18 hours a day for the last six months to get back on track,” says Kennedy. “It’s a tremendous feat.”

At Captain Ben’s, the Shackleton clipping is gone and Jerry Bracco is welcoming patrons to a newly revamped Bracco’s Clam and Oyster Bar, featuring a 100-foot sand beach and a tiki bar. He’s hoping visitors will celebrate the Nautical Mile’s comeback with a two-pound lobster and a plate of tuna nachos. For Bracco, the reopening is a hard-won personal victory and required months of round-the-clock work to restore the business.

“It’s the human spirit,” explains Bracco, whose father first worked the region as a commercial fisherman. “I’m second generation and my sons are third generation. It’s our family history here. You don’t just pack it up and leave.”

Kevin Halton and Tony Terzulli of Two Cousins Fish Market welcome returning customers with a dockside seafood buffet featuring a raw bar, lobster rolls and shrimp and spicy calamari salad. Halton believes it’s the fresh catch that draws visitors to the Mile.

“We get beautiful, fresh, local Long Island fish from here to Montauk,” says Halton. “We get fish seven days a week.”

At Pip’s Ice Cream Parlour, the gregarious Donna Arca has been dishing out luscious cones and conversation for a decade. Originally a 1940s tavern, Pip’s is an oasis of bright pastels and dozens of delectable flavors. “It’s a happy place,” Arca laughs. “I’m a smile in every scoop.”

Pip’s is all about family. Arca named the ice cream parlor for her late mother, and her children helped run the business. The surge flood cast two industrial-size ice cream freezers adrift that were later found broken in half. The whimsical Pip’s sign—depicting a giant pink ice cream cone—was presumed washed away. Once she’d assessed the damage, Arca considered shutting down for good, but she was on the fence. She told herself: if her mother’s sign were recovered, she would attempt to reopen.

“Some fishermen found the sign and put it back up,” explains Arca. “I said, ‘now I’m going to reopen my ice cream parlor.’”

That serendipitous event was the motivation she needed. Arca’s insurance was seasonal and not in effect during the October storm, but her extended family assisted in the restoration. Local students helped with landscaping, a supplier provided new ice cream freezers, and seasonal employees voluntarily returned from other jobs to help her reopen.

“I did it,” says Arca, proudly. “I came back.”

Perseverance and Local Legends
Not every story on the Nautical Mile is so neatly resolved. The popular lobster house the Schooner closed permanently. In early June, there was nothing left of Fiore Brothers but a scrappy sign and remnants of the building’s south wall. Reached later in the month, Anthony Fiore confirmed he had a building plan but was still navigating a labyrinth of permits, funding, insurance claims and red tape. He hoped to begin rebuilding by summer’s end.

If Fiore succeeds in reviving the family business, he will likely become part of the folklore of the maritime center. After all, the people of the Nautical Mile love nothing more than a couple of cold beers, a steaming bowl of clams and a ripping good yarn about seaworthy folks who battle the elements and survive to tell the tale. Among the nautical relics enshrined for visitors at the Esplanade on Woodcleft Avenue is Al Grover’s boat, The Spirit of Freeport. In 1985, the Freeport resident and his sons sailed the locally built, 26-foot outboard-powered craft on a record-breaking, 33-day transatlantic crossing from Nova Scotia to Portugal. Before reaching their destination, they persevered against harrowing obstacles, including a man overboard, 25-foot waves—and, yes—even a hurricane packing 100-mile-per-hour winds.

Freeport’s Nautical Mile
Woodcleft Avenue, Freeport

Captain Ben’s and Bracco’s Clam & Oyster Bar
319 Woodcleft Avenue

Otto’s Sea Grill
271 Woodcleft Avenue

Pip’s Ice Cream Parlour
250 Woodcleft Avenue

Two Cousins Fish Market
255 Woodcleft Avenue

Woodcleft Crab Shack
150 Woodcleft Avenue