The Canals: Built To Be The Venice of Long Beach

A look at the first 50 years of Long Beach’s other waterfront neighborhood.

  The Canals in Long Beach NY were built during the roaring 1920s. (Photo: Joseph Kellard) 

The Canals in Long Beach NY were built during the roaring 1920s. (Photo: Joseph Kellard) 

By Joseph Kellard

When Joe Lehr returned to the classrooms he attended at East School to speak to elementary students during the school’s 80th anniversary five years ago, he found that all that had changed was the blackboards. “Now they're green,” Lehr said.    

The school, at Neptune Boulevard on the west edge of the neighborhood known as the canals, is perhaps reflective of the general area: It has changed some, but retains certain distinct qualities from decades past. 

The most defining, of course, are its four canals (named Sarazen, Ouimet, Hagen and Bob Jones) and three arched bridges. The canals are named after pro golfers from the era when they were built, the 1920s. So are nearly all the streets, which are characterized by long, narrow one-ways and dead-ends.     

All this contributes to keeping the canals area — nestled in the northeast corner of town and bordered by Reynolds Channel to the north and Bob Jones to the east — relatively secluded and serene, a contrast to the bustling neighborhoods along the beach on the city’s south side.     

“There are a lot of people in Long Beach who are truly not even aware of the canals area,” said Karen Adamo, a Long Beach real estate agent who has lived at the end of East State Street since 1991. “There's really no reason to come back here.”      

Lehr and his wife, Bobbi, moved into their Doyle Street home, which faces the Sarazen canal, in 1960. They paid $21,000 for the four-bedroom ranch, where they raised three daughters and added eight rooms.      

The neighborhood's original homes were Moorish in style and, later, sand castles, and served as second dwellings for the upper middle class. William Reynolds, Long Beach's founder and a former state senator, used his own money, as well as that of his millionaire friends Otto Kahn, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Payne Whitney, to build the waterways in the mid-1920s, calling the project “the canals of Lido.”    

They were intended to complement the adjacent original Lido golf course Reynolds had built a decade earlier, all part of his vision to turn Long Beach into “the future Venice of America,” as he advertised it. Canals then, from Venice Beach, Calif., to Boca Raton, Fla., were a new resort concept, and Reynolds aimed to attract his rich and famous friends to the barrier island.

“People wanted an international feel,” Roberta Fiore, a city historian, explained.       

After World War II, more homeowners began to live in the canals year-round. At the time, flat-roofed bungalows (dubbed “daylight homes” for their picture windows) made up the majority of homes. Lehr's was originally built in 1945, and sold for $5,500 to veterans returning from World War II. When Lehr was a boy, he lived on Shore Road, but docked his rowboat on the canals.     

  A booklet that provides a history of the Canals. (Credit: Long Beach HIstorical Society)

A booklet that provides a history of the Canals. (Credit: Long Beach HIstorical Society)

The 1950s saw the canals become the least expensive area in the East End, attracting many blue-collar workers, who shopped at the supermarket that was always part of the strip of stores on East Park Avenue. Other notable businesses were O'Rourke's hardware and the Cozy Nook, a luncheonette where East School students could buy candy for a nickel. They played at the Clark Street playground near the bay.      

“One of the things we loved about living in the canals is that you can do your life in whatever social fashion you choose,” Lehr said. “You can do it in black tie or jeans or shorts. It's a phenomenally mixed community where you can have a major head of a hospital live next door to a policeman.”

The area drew the interest of the city's politicos, with Kerrigan Street turning into something of a “who's who” block in the 1960s, its residents including the likes of Larry Elovich and Arthur J. Kremer. Elovich, an attorney and Long Beach's former Democratic Party leader, bought his first home in 1963 on Kerrigan, across the street from Kremer, who, two years later, was elected to the state Assembly and became chairman of its Ways and Means Committee. Their annual summer block party included political dignitaries from around the state, including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.    

“We would have this huge party every year where literally a couple of thousand people would come,” Elovich recalled.          

At the end of Kerrigan, where former county Legislator Michael Zapson lives today, is a house overlooking the bay that was once owned by Joseph Ehrenreich, who had the exclusive rights to market Nikon products in the U.S. (Fiore said, however, that silent screen star Clara Bow neither honeymooned nor lived in a Moorish house on East Pine at Vinton Street, as is widely believed.)     

During the 1960s and ’70s, waterfront property became more desirable. “I think more families who liked boating recognized it, and the property values weren't really escalating at that time,” said Joe Ponte, a real estate agent who was raised on Barnes Street and attended East School with Billy Crystal.      

Lehr's house, like most “upland” homes on the canals’ east side, has a grassy strip of city-owned land between the street and the bulkhead — another feature that distinguishes the neighborhood, where residents typically put their lawn furniture and hammocks and build picket fences around the plots.    

When he moved to the canals, the original bulkheads were in terrible disrepair, said Lehr, the longtime president of the East End Civic Association. From 1970 to 1972, the city installed steel bulkheads, dredged the canals and overhauled the bridges.

* This story originally appeared in the Long Beach Herald in 2008.