Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fire Island: You Can’t Go Home Again (Or Can You?)

The Belvedere
It’s been eight years since I was last on Fire Island and it seems to be experiencing a simultaneous renaissance and decline.
The Belvedere, the wedding cake of a hotel where I usually stay, has a fresh coat of paint and eye-popping new carpeting but, a block away, a showcase house near the beach seems abandoned and in need of serious maintenance.
The Ice Palace has gone upscale with video displays and a new dj booth, and there’s a newly rebuilt Pavilion (which was destroyed in a recent fire) in the Pines. But The Tides (formerly the Bay Leaf) sits empty, as does Sunsets on the Bay.
Promoter Daniel Naridicio has made headlines by bringing big-name entertainers such as Liza Minelli and Carol Channing to the Ice Palace on the weekend but, during the week, crowds empty out of the bar as soon as the show is over.
What is the message to be drawn here?
It’s ironic that the growing acceptance of gay people in society at large has caused the simultaneous decline of once exclusively gay places such as Fire Island and gay neighborhoods such as the West Village and Chelsea. The feeling now is that gay people don’t need those places anymore, but I would argue that they need them now more than ever, especially in a world where everything is increasingly homogenized.
I’ve heard reports during my most recent trip to Fire Island that the local police have been handing out tickets to people caught having sex in the infamous “meat rack” between the Pines and Cherry Grove. What could possibly be the motive for this? Are they attempting to make these communities “family friendly,” much the way the Giuliani administration did with Times Square in New York City? Isn’t it enough that there are already “family friendly” communities on Fire Island, such as Ocean Beach?
Some would argue (especially those older than I) that Fire Island peaked in the ’70s, before AIDS decimated an entire generation of gay men.
Being alive these days is like counting the rings inside a tree. You know how old someone is by how many places they can name that used to be something else. Before the Tides was the Bay Leaf, it was the Monster. (And before that, those older than I will recall, the Sandpiper.)
The restaurant that sits in the center of town in Cherry Grove used to be Michael’s before it burned down.
That other restaurant near the ocean used to be Rachel’s.
The new Pavilion

Who among the twenty-somethings now spending their first summer on Fire Island remembers (or cares) what the old Pavilion looked like?
This kind of change happens all the time in New York City but, for some reason, I find it more jarring on Fire Island.
I was devastated to learn that the first room I stayed in at the Belvedere (the Seasons) was recently cut in half to make room for a fire escape. Or that the pool was moved (and seems smaller).
Walking down the beach, I saw one house in the Pines that had its deck destroyed (probably in a recent hurricane) and another that had all the sand washed out from beneath its foundation.
On the other hand, I’m happy to report that my worst fears have not been realized and the Belvedere has not been turned into a Marriott (and it’s still, thankfully, all-male).
Fire Island will always have its natural beauty (I hope), but there are other things that may be even more fragile and cannot be replaced.
I will always remember my first time staying at the Belvedere. I was returning to the hotel at the end of a sensually overstimulating couple of days and, after climbing the spiral staircase to the second floor, noticed that the door to the room next to mine was slightly ajar and there was a full moon shining through the window.
Let’s just say that the vision shining through that window wasn’t the only full moon I saw that night.

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