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City Island: A Seafood Lover’s Haven


City Island is a small fishing community in the east Bronx, tucked away in the dense forest beyond Pelham Bay. This area has a long history of seafaring and fishing dating back to 1685. Although this tranquil island has recently become a culinary tourism destination, in the past, its fishermen protected ships in and out of New York's treacherous waters and pioneered oyster harvesting in the city. During the time that sailors flocked to City Island in search of Hell Gate pilots, the locals started another burgeoning industry: oyster harvesting. In the 1830s, oyster cultivation began on City Island. A strategy of planting seed oysters to maximize productivity was reinvented by Orrin Fordham, a shipbuilder who owned property on City Island. City Island was gathering the most oysters in New York City, thanks to an abundance of artificial and natural beds in the Long Island Sound. The oysters were sold to restaurants and the Fulton Street Fish Market in New York City.


The oyster industry benefited from the expertise of numerous City Islanders, who were migratory English fishermen. Small yards abound on the island, allowing a plethora of oyster boats to dock at private residences. Oysters quickly became the most popular seafood dish at the period, as they were a low-cost source of protein that could be prepared in a variety of ways. Nearly a hundred households on City Island made a living harvesting oysters by the mid-nineteenth century. Connecticut and New York intended to improve their sewage-treatment plants near the close of the twentieth century in order to reduce nitrogen outputs. This would aid in maintaining the needed level of oxygen in the Long Island Sound. However, just a few years after the agreement was signed in 1999, the western Long Island Sound had a large depletion of lobsters, resulting in a reduction in lobster boats and fishermen employed. Many people blamed the ancient sewage treatment plants in New York City, although the cause of the depletion was never determined. Nonetheless, this was a setback for local restaurants, which were forced to rely on far-flung suppliers for their fish. As a result, a fishing community noted for its seafood restaurants are unable to serve local, sustainable seafood. The boatyards, marine docks, and fishing industry brought a lot of business to this port town. Barbers, soda shops, gas stations, grocery stores, and butcher shops all contributed to meeting the needs of the city's citizens and visitors. Parts of the island were partitioned and sold throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, resulting in an increase in non-resident businesses. The entire island's City Island Avenue strip began to blossom with new seafood shacks, comfortable taverns, and gourmet restaurants. Many people were unhappy with the development, claiming that some of their fundamental consumer needs could only be met by leaving town. Currently, only thirty-five restaurants serve the area.


The last two restaurants on City Island are Johnny's Reef and Tony's Pier, which are located at the farthest point of the island. There has been an unspoken competition between seafood eaters for the past 60 years. There are more similarities than differences between the two eateries. Fried fish, steamers, raw oysters, and ice-cold drinks are served at both cafeteria-style seafood shacks. Visitors can opt to sit indoors or play with the hungry seagulls on the outside picnic tables, which overlook the same pier with the same view of the Long Island Sound. But, depending on who you ask, it's either Johnny's or Tony's. Never do both at the same time. Customer service, thicker shrimp, or just family tradition may be cited as reasons for disagreement. In any case, visitors to this location are aware of their surroundings. The locals are vibrant, eclectic, and bohemian, yet with a twist. Locals are frequently quite proud of their hometown. If you were born here, you're jokingly referred to as a "clamdigger." Locals who should have spent their childhoods digging clams from the local beaches may have coined the word. The term "mussel suckers" refers to non-natives.


For decades, City Island has been a renowned fishing community famed for its oysters, ships, powerful Hell Gate pilots, and laid-back way of life. As tourists travel further out of the city in search of the off-the-beaten path, their reputation as the "New England of the Bronx" and as a culinary destination will only grow. City Island will remain the cool, bohemian fishing community it is known for as long as there are "clamdiggers" dedicated to preserving their food and culture.

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