If You're Thinking of Living In/Sea Cliff, N.Y.; Walkable, Victorian On L.I. Sound
By John Rather
The New York Times, December 26, 1999, Sunday
There are no stoplights in Sea Cliff, a close-together, square-mile North Shore Long Island Victorian and Gothic village that has escaped the tyranny of the automobile by virtue of pedestrian-friendly narrow streets, veneration of the past and a just slightly out of the way harborside location.
"I call it the place you don't have to go through to get anywhere," said Henry Hollman, who was born in the village in 1916 and pronounces it "remarkably unchanged" in all the years since. Mr. Hollman is among village volunteers raising money to rebuild a boardwalk along Hempstead Harbor that was swept away in the hurricane of 1938.
Along Sea Cliff Avenue, the understated and visually appealing commercial area where shops and pubs offer art, crafts, grog and daily necessities, and on streets in the village's older shoreline sections above Hempstead Harbor where large and compact-sized Victorians rise, the ambiance of a century ago seems still in residence.
Closeness is measured in the village's easy-walking-distance scale, small lots that draw homes close together and a mood of enduring civic sociability among residents who are bound to one another in an array of groups and organizations.
For the Christmas season, the village beautification committee hangs live wreaths with red bows, but no gaudy glitter or lights. "There have never been lights, and so we have kept it that way," said Peggy Costello, the committee co-chairwoman. "It's more in keeping with the Victorian style of the village."
In a concession to what Mayor Claudia Moyne called the village's energetic devotion to classicism, there is an annual tree-lighting at a vest-pocket park next to the Village Hall, a former church that also houses the village historical society.
On a recent pre-Christmas Sunday, parents and children filled the park for caroling. Santa burst from the village office with a basket of candy canes for delighted small children, and then there were cookies and cupcakes for all. Mayor Moyne was among the cookie-makers.
On the same weekend, artists and crafts people opened homes for the village's 25th annual arts and crafts tour. (More arts and crafts were on sale for the village's annual street fair, which was held in October.)
At other times a degree of peace and quiet can descend here that is unusual for a suburban place less than an hour from midtown Manhattan, a community in which people out and about often stop and talk.
"It is the kind of place where all the shopkeepers know your name, and your children's names," said Terry Sciubba, owner of Sherlock Homes, a real estate agency here.
"It's almost like Mayberry. If your child rides a bike through a stop sign, five parents will call you at home."
Ms. Sciubba said house prices had risen substantially in the last five years in a market where listings are scarce. Victorians that might have sold in the mid-$200,000's in the mid-1990's, she said, are now as much as $100,000 more expensive.
Wayne Patrick McCann, the owner of Harmonious Homes, another Sea Cliff agency, said the market "has just gone gang-busters."
"I have had literally dozens of buyers just waiting for the appropriate homes to come on the market," he said.
There are no condominiums or co-ops in Sea Cliff, but apartments may be found in older houses, some of which were built as resort hotels. But demand is stiff. "We have 10 people waiting for every one," Ms. Sciubba said.
Village amenities include Memorial Park, where there are sweeping views over the harbor and into western Long Island Sound; Clifton Park, with ballfields and a playground, and more than a dozen other smaller parks and greenswards. There is also a municipal beach for village residents and outdoor ice skating at Scudders Pond.
Tappen Beach, which is owned by the Town of Oyster Bay, has an outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, a large playground, a harborside beach and a boat launch. Beach parking stickers are $30 and family pool passes are $130 a season. The town rents 272 boat slips for $30 to $60 a foot for residents and $35 to $65 a foot for non-residents. There is a waiting list.
Property taxes in Sea Cliff are kept comparatively low because of tax revenues from the Glenwood Landing power generating station, which is outside the village but within the small, 2,466-student North Shore public school district, which covers Sea Cliff children. The district superintendent, Dr. Robert W. Root, said the plant accounted for about 30 percent of the school district's $45 million current budget.
The district's solid academic record is an attraction for new residents in search of northern Nassau public schools for their children.
In the the College Board tests for the 1998-99 school year, average scores for North Shore seniors were 545 in verbal and 562 in math, compared with the state's 495 in verbal and 502 in math, or the national averages of 505 in verbal and 511 in math.
About 98 percent of the 167 graduates in the class of 1999 went on to higher education. About half of the graduates in recent years enrolled at colleges or universities whose admissions are rated very or most competitive, Dr. Root said.
One of the district's three k-5 elementary schools is in the village and within walking distance for students. The 6-8 middle school and the high school are both in neighboring Glen Head. The district also includes Glenwood Landing and parts of Roslyn Harbor and Old Brookville.
Seniors are required to take one of four special humanities courses in such subjects as Long Island area studies or the cultural history of the 20th Century. There are also arrays of honors and advanced placement classes, and opportunities for travel abroad to sister schools in England, France, Russia and Spain.
Last March district residents narrowly approved a $30 million long-range building improvement plan to meet enrollment increases of 3.9 percent in the last five years. The money will be used for 64 new or renovated regular and remedial classrooms, library enlargements and interior and exterior projects such as window replacement, re-pointing, and air-conditioner and heating-system replacements.
The small-lot, narrow road pattern of the village's older section was set in the early 1870's, when the Sea Cliff area became a Methodist campground where the faithful, many of them German-Americans from New York City, pitched tents on close-together sites during revivals. The Grand Metropolitan Camp Ground Association purchased 240 acres in 1871 from James Carpenter, a large landowner.
In 1883, the village incorporated with a lofty name that brought to mind its elevated harborside views of the Sound, if not exactly of the sea. By then Sea Cliff had entered a second phase of its history as a popular summer resort for city people.
Some of the more well-to-do visitors built generously proportioned Victorian and Gothic homes they called cottages, and elsewhere on the high terrain above the harbor resort hotels rose.
Many of these old houses still stand today, in mint condition and highly sought after when available. They can be seen, looking much as they do today, in the photographs of Henry Otto Korten, a prolific postcard photographer of Long Island places who immortalized, in hundreds of photographs, the life, times, people and buildings of Sea Cliff around the turn of the century.
Korten lived in the village from 1901 to 1915. The Victorian house where he raised his family still stands at Locust and Eighth Avenues, an older area.
In newer areas on the village's southern flank developed after World War II, there are ranches, Cape Cods, split-levels and colonials typical of many middle-income areas in Nassau County, and here and there some older houses. By 1950, the village population was nearing 5,000, about what it is today. But in a reflection of a place where parents have stayed on after children have grown, the village had 5,890 residents in 1970, the peak number recorded by the census.
While newcomers are swiftly integrated into the village's latticework of civic groups, they may long remain newcomers. "I have lived in Sea Cliff for 40 years and I am still a newcomer," said Rose Capuco, the president of Mutual Concerns, a group that stocks an emergency food pantry, runs buses for seniors, and hosts an annual gourmet Christmas dinner catered without charge by local restaurants.
"People often know you by the house you live in," said Nancy Rose, the village clerk and a native. "You live in the so-and-so house, and it doesn't become your house for maybe 25 years."
POPULATION: 5,048 (1997 estimate).
AREA: 1 square mile.
MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME: $66,321 (1997 estimate).
MEDIAN PRICE OF A ONE-FAMILY HOUSE: $361,341.
TAXES ON A MEDIAN-PRICE HOUSE: $4,675.
MEDIAN PRICE A YEAR AGO: $353,811.
MEDIAN PRICE 5 YEARS AGO: $253,961.
MIDRANGE RENT FOR A 2-BEDROOM APARTMENT: $1,200.
PUBLIC-SCHOOL SPENDING PER PUPIL: $16,334.
DISTANCE FROM MIDTOWN MANHATTAN: 23 miles.
RUSH-HOUR COMMUTATION TO MIDTOWN: 1 hour on Long Island Rail Road, $7 one-way, $48 weekly, $154 monthly.
GOVERNMENT: Mayor (Claudia Moyne), elected to two-year term; 4-member board of trustees elected to 2-year staggered terms.
CODES: Area, 516; ZIP, 11579.
FERRY FRAY: Sea Cliff is at odds with a neighbor, the City of Glen Cove, over high-speed ferry service to Connecticut. The Glen Cove mayor, Thomas Suozzi, signed a contract with Fox Navigation to make Glen Cove Creek the site of a Long Island ferry terminal. The service would accommodate quick-trip junkets to the Foxwoods Casino on the Connecticut side. But Sea Cliff fears that its now lightly traveled streets might become a scenic route or a short cut for ferry-bound motorists. Mayor Claudia Moyne said the ferry would also disrupt the harbor. "After all," she said, "Do we really want to wreck our harbor in order to make it easier for people to reach gambling casinos?"
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