You Can’t Stop the Silver Gull: Cabana Club Shrugs Off Warnings Not To Rebuild Pier

The club, eight hours beo

The club, eight hours before Sandy hit.

The Silver Gull Beach Club likes to do things the old-fashioned way. When The Observer first saw the club it was the Fourth of July and there was a band of hefty middle-aged men in Hawaiian shirts playing “Sweet Caroline” and little kids flinging themselves into the pool and leathery old women in loungers deepening their already very-deep tans. Having wandered over from the hipster-strewn stretch of Breezy Point, the club seemed like a mirage—a vision of an earlier Brooklyn, another Brooklyn. In fact, it was—the club opened in 1963 and has managed to stay largely as it always has been, a cabana club long after cabana clubs’ cultural moment passed.

Nor does the club intend to let Hurricane Sandy do what time could not. While the storm destroyed some 200 of the club’s 460 cabanas—particularly those built on a pier that juts out into the sea—club management intends to rebuild the whole shebang, against the wishes of Gateway National Recreation Area, which owns the club and the rest of the beach, reports The New York Times.

The club management, Ortega Family Enterprises, has a 10-year contract with Gateway that started last year. Ortega was trying to get the whole operation up and running again by Memorial Day, but plans may be put on hold due to a federal stop-work order mandating that the cabana pier not be rebuilt (the rest of the cabanas are slightly set back from the water, up a short, but steep, rise).

As for the decision to rebuild the cabanas, general manager Bob Ordan pleads the “it’s our money, why shouldn’t we be allowed to do something stupid with it?” defense. Which seems, on the face of it, perfectly reasonable: Ortega is funding all the repairs to the wiped out pier, and understands that it may be wiped out again, why shouldn’t it, as lease-holder, be allowed to rebuild?

“It’s our risk,’’ Mr. Ordan told The Times. “If it gets destroyed again next year, then it’s our money gone.”

He estimated that the club has already spent $2 million of the $3 million needed to rebuild after Sandy, money that management will not be reimbursed for given that it did not have flood insurance. And a cabana club seems, at least to us, a nice compromise on the whole rebuilding the waterfront debate. The club is empty during hurricane season and the damage is purely material if it should be destroyed again: no families displaced, no emergency workers endangering their own lives to rescue those will not or cannot evacuate their homes. In fact, fewer waterfront homes and more cabanas sounds like an excellent way to address the “people are always drawn to the waterfront” argument of rebuilding. Let the people have their waterfront—as parkland, in structures that aren’t designed for permanent living and will be unoccupied after Labor Day.

Moreover, it seems that Gateway didn’t make itself entirely clear before issuing the stop-work order: the January memo sent to the club noted that rebuilding of the pier cabanas would be “not favored” in its comments and recommendations section. Hardly a prohibition. We just hope that Silver Gull and Gateway can work out their differences before the summer.

Alas, as Fort Tilden is expected to remain closed this season, few passerby will be able to witness the club’s splendor this year. And The Observer, especially, regrets that we won’t be able to witness any more exchanges in 2013, like the one we saw late last summer, during yet another long walk on the beach. A hipster couple stopped to ask a woman with a killer tan and short platinum gray-blonde hair what the place was.

“It’s cabanas,” the woman replied.

The hipsters pleaded ignorance. “You don’t know what a cabana is?!” the woman cried, setting aside the thick beach novel that she was holding in her ring-laden fingers and rising from her Silver Gull beach lounger. “Let me show you!”

kvelsey@observer.com