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It's a Simple Kind of Life in These Shacks by the Sea

The faithful swear by tiny N.Y. beach club that's a world away from the Hamptons.

September 01, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTIC BEACH, N.Y. — The first time Don Pasinkoff saw the Silver Point Beach Club, a row of rickety cabanas stretching out to the ocean, he shuddered. Why would people spend time here, in barracks that looked like they were condemned by Napoleon?

But the woman who was showing him around the private Long Island club smiled: "That's what you think now," she said. "In three weeks, you'll be hooked."

This Labor Day weekend, as his 17th consecutive summer at Silver Point draws to a close, Pasinkoff -- a retired New York City English teacher -- speaks proudly of his hot-weather home away from home.

As he stood by a railing near the ocean, families he had known for years began serving elaborate dinners cooked on small burners and pouring martinis for neighbors; packs of kids ran in from a late-afternoon rainstorm, roaming happily from one cabana to the next.

"This club," Pasinkoff said, "is our stoop by the sea. It's not fancy. It doesn't look like anything special. But it's just as human, just as real as the old neighborhoods we all came from as children. It's a place where everybody can come home."

Call it the anti-Hamptons.

Instead of celebrity mansions and snooty attitudes, you've got tiny but tidy shacks where longtime neighbors swap gossip, read summer novels and keep a watchful but relaxed eye on each other's children. There are no trendy stores, no highways packed with road rage -- just a beautiful, sandy beach, a large swimming pool, a communal bathroom and showers, and one tiny boardwalk.

Forget those Hamptons restaurants where people wait two hours for a table, even with a reservation. Tonight the cabanas are filled with the aromas of chicken Marsala, eggplant parmigiana, marinated pork tenderloins, beef enchiladas, Irish stew, tabbouleh salad and meatballs. Feel free to take a taste from your neighbor's pot.

"You want some brisket? Take, take," a man implores a reporter.

The Silver Point Beach Club and 11 others like it sit on a small stretch of beach just past the New York City border. They have been fixtures since the 1930s, when middle-class families began looking for an inexpensive place to escape to during the steamy summer months, long before the advent of air conditioning. The relatively inexpensive clubs lured shopkeepers, teachers, civil servants and others eager to escape the city with their families, just like Borscht Belt resorts in the Catskills Mountains north of New York.

But unlike those fabled hotels and bungalows, which have all but disappeared, the beach clubs grew more popular. They have become a magnet for countless families who have been coming here for decades and wouldn't think of spending their summers anywhere else.

Or anywhere fancier.

The typical rent for one of Silver Point's 850 cabanas is $4,400 for the May-to-September season; many tenants split the lease with two or three other families. Most of the 8-by-10-foot units, a little larger than someone would get in solitary confinement, are rented by the same people year after year, and waiting lists are common, said Bill Baumert, vice president of the Silver Point Beach Club Inc.

"This weekend, we have more than 6,000 people at the club, and that's a lot for such a small space," he said. "For some reason, a lot of the clubs here have really taken off in popularity in the last few summers."

It takes less than an hour to drive from Manhattan to Atlantic Beach, and longtime club patrons laugh at the notion that people are spending four and five times as much for vacation space in the Hamptons.

Take David and Cynthia Mittleman. David, a retired dentist, spent his first summer at Silver Point during World War II and has been coming ever since. Cynthia, a retired teacher, confesses that she's "a newcomer" because she's only been coming to the cabanas since 1960.

Key points in their lives have been marked at the beach: David Mittleman remembers U.S. soldiers patrolling the shore, looking for German U-boats, when he first splashed in the surf. He and Cynthia rented their own cabana soon after they married. They brought their children to the beach just weeks after they were born and now watch their grandchildren play in the same sand.

"This is not just a cabana or just a beach," said David Mittleman, fiddling with an old radio, trying to tune in the Yankee-Red Sox game. "It's a way of life. You're either in love with a place like this or you can't stand it."

Getting along with your neighbor isn't just an option at Silver Point, it's a requirement. But inevitably there have been times when war breaks out among families.

"We had a lady once who just started screaming -- at her husband, at her kids -- and she threw a redwood table out of her cabana and onto the beach," Mittleman recalled.

Two doors down, Claudia Haug shook her head at the memory of a neighbor who never forgave her for failing to get space in a cabana for the woman's friend. "It was a catastrophe," she said.

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