Dating back to 1685, the quaint nautical community of City Island has fought hard to retain much of the charm that makes it an anomaly in the heart of the bustling Bronx. So perhaps it is fitting that one of the island’s most colorful natives—and once a bit of an anomaly herself—shares her memories of growing up in New York City’s sleepy little fishing village.
Larger-than-life personality and drag queen extraordinaire Coco Peru’s life today couldn’t be much further from her years spent as a child on the quiet streets of City Island. Based in LA and traveling the world to bring her often irreverent but hysterically funny brand of storytelling to the masses, Coco’s tales from her youth often steal the show.
But it’s probably safe to say the majority of Coco Puffs (her beloved fans) have never even heard of this small island in the Bronx—and that most New Yorkers haven’t made the trip over the 113-year old soon-to-be-replaced bridge that represents the only point of access by car or foot. Which is why we are quite excited to bring you this exclusive peek into two of the city’s most unique treasures: City Island and Miss Coco Peru.
When did you live on City Island? When did your family originally move there?
Coco: I was born in Pelham Bay General hospital in August of 1965 and brought directly home to City Island. I lived there until sometime in the mid-1990s. My father was born on City Island. He is a true “clam digger” as he was actually born in a house on Tier Street. Those born on the island are called Clam Diggers and those who are born elsewhere and moved to City Island are called Mussel Suckers. Therefore my mother and her family were mussel suckers.
My mother’s family moved to City Island when she was young. My parents were the same age and went to grammar school together. Back then my mother had red hair and when my father saw my mother for the first time he called out to her, “Hey Red! Hey Carrot Top!” Of course, my mother thought my father was just a rude punk so she ignored him, and he finally called out, “Well, whatever your name is, someday I’m gonna marry you.” And he did!
My mother and her family had to later move off the island back to somewhere in the Bronx because my grandmother had health issues and the dampness on the island bothered her, so my parents dated “long distance.” My parents married when they were both seventeen, just before my father left for WWII. When my father returned they had three children and moved all over the Bronx, finally returning to the island where they built a house and eventually had me, their fourth child. Yes, I was a mistake. My parents never hid that from me, and I loved it because it made me feel special.
Did you or your family have any favorite places?
Coco: Our favorite place was our backyard. My parents loved to entertain and I remember a lot of good times in our pool. The pool also gave me a lot of cachet with the other kids that grew up on my block.
We also loved the restaurant Artie’s. My parents’ friends, whom I called Aunt Joan and Uncle Artie, owned it. My mother was a waitress there when when she was younger before I came into the picture. My Aunt Joan was my Auntie Mame. She taught me how to curse and would sit with me at the bar and serve me Shirley Temples with extra maraschino cherries. She always treated me like a little adult and I loved her for that. I also loved that she named her three cats Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
The food at Artie’s was delicious and I never knew how good it was until I moved away from City Island. To this day I have been on a quest to find chicken parmigiana as delicious as Uncle Artie’s.
Of course, Johnny’s Reef, at the end of the island for a fried shrimp basket and Manhattan clam chowder was always a guilty treat too. Having grown up squeezing lemon on fried shrimp, I would inevitably drench the French fries underneath the shrimp in lemon too. To this day I prefer my French fries with a splash of lemon. Not that I eat French fries often; I do have to squeeze myself into dresses! But if I do, a wedge of lemon is nice and brings back memories of Johnny’s Reef.
What did you like most about living there? What did you like least?
Coco: I loved City Island. I loved the sunsets. I loved the smell of the salt air. I even loved the smell of low tide! I loved that I had about 40 “aunts” and “uncles” on the island and I was really quite upset as a young kid when I found out I wasn’t really related to any of them. I loved the small town feel that City Island had while still being close enough to Manhattan.
City Island was also a place where friends just dropped in and everything you were doing stopped. The tea and coffee were made, an Entenmann’s cake was cut, and you had a lovely, impromptu visit—and sometimes those friends even ended up staying for dinner. It was a place, too, where children could play outside without their parents worrying.
There is the main avenue that runs the length of the island and shooting off that avenue are the smaller streets. Each street was its own playground and at the end of each street was the water. I think anyone who grew up on City Island would agree with me that we have a connection to water that never leaves us. I grew up surrounded by water and being a kid and just being able to go to the end of your street and jump in the bay—and fish, and go clamming, and search for horseshoe crabs, and go sailing—that was normal. We spent hours outside every day and when it was time to go home all my father had to do was whistle. Each kid on my block had a specific whistle or call that their parents had for them. I can still hear all of them! Again, it was only when I left that I realized it was different than how other kids grew up in the Bronx.
As for what I liked least? Well, there were a few people I didn’t care for, but I won’t mention any names. Besides, if there is one thing my mom taught me, it’s to not hold a grudge.
How did summers compare to winters?
Coco: I never liked winter, except if there was a major snow storm, especially if it meant school was closed. As soon as it started snowing I would sit in front of the radio listening to 1010 News WINS (“YOU GIVE US 22 MINUTES, WE’LL GIVE YOU THE WORLD”) for the school closures and praying on my knees for my school to close.
Now, as much as I hated winter, I loved summers. I spent all the year longing for summers. I loved everything about summer; the smell of barbecues, skinny-dipping in my pool at night. City Island also always had a wonderful breeze off the water and I remember we would sit in our yard and, even though we would feel that breeze every day, we would marvel at how much luckier we were than the rest of the Bronx for that breeze.
Also memorable were the flavors of the tomatoes, zucchinis, peppers, eggplants, and other fresh fruits and vegetables we grew in our yard, as well as the figs that our old Italian neighbor, Mr Maritato, grew on his tree. Every fall, Mr. Maritato patiently and delicately wrapped his beloved tree so that it would survive the harsh winters. The Maritatos were also the last of the folks that actually had cold milk delivered to their doorstep every morning. I loved that little metal box on their doorstep and it fascinated me to open it and see the milk sitting in there from a mysterious milkman that I never saw. It seemed in those days on those summer nights there was an abundance of lightening bugs at night that I would catch and, I regret to say, sometimes smear on my eyelids and body so I would glow for one magical second. And of course, summer meant that the sexy boys up on the main avenue wore their short cut-off jeans and no shirts and strutted their stuff for the Island girls! To this day, I’m embarrassed to say, the memory of that look can still make my heart flutter.
I also think part of the reason I loved summer was because summer meant I could escape. Early on I began to learn that I was different and when I was in the second grade I figured out that it was because I liked boys. When I imagined getting married, I pictured a boy in the fourth grade. By the time I was about nine I was bullied every day at school and on the walk to and from school. This continued throughout grammar school and into high school, so summers were also an escape from some of that.
Are there any businesses that are still there from when you were a kid?
Coco: Yes, many restaurants are still there. However, sadly, when I was young a lot of the local businesses closed when people started to shop off the island in the larger supermarkets and malls. One of the businesses that closed while I was still young was the City Island Movie Theatre. I was crushed. I know that by the time the 1970s rolled around the theatre had seen its better days, but I saw through all the dirt and grime to what it had once been and what it could be. I was devastated when that little movie house was completely gutted and transformed into a supermarket. For years afterwards I would dream that it was turned back into a movie theatre and then I’d wake up and be crushed all over again.
There was also a wonderful, old-fashioned 5 and Dime store as well as other original storefronts that were destroyed in the 1970s. I don’t think people back then had the vision to preserve the look of the island. In fact, when I finally did come out as a gay man I would fantasize that gay men with money would move onto the island and transform it back to what it was or even better, because, let’s face it, gay men do “quaint” well. It’s our nature!
One historical building that did survive was the old Public School 17. This is where my parents, my siblings and I went to school until I completed 4th grade and it was closed. The old building now houses the City Island Nautical Museum and supposedly this is the highest point on City Island and was also the old burial ground for the Native Americans that inhabited the island. In fact, when my brother was a young boy in the 1950s he actually dug up a few arrow heads on the island.
What’s something a local would know (or would have known when you lived there) about City Island that the rest of us might be surprised to learn? Any local secrets or folklore?
Coco: Well, it’s very haunted. I have heard of many people on the island who have visits from the dead. We had friends that often saw ghosts of Native Americans that, as I said, once inhabited the island. Once, the mother of this family shared with me a story about how one night their family along with the family next door all witnessed several ghosts in their yard. I can remember how emotional she got as she tried to explain the unexplainable and how this otherwise very strong woman looked so vulnerable when sharing this with me.
There are some wonderful ghost stories up on that island, and as a kid, I was fascinated hearing adults whisper about these paranormal visits.
When were you back last? Were you back as Coco?
Coco: I can’t remember when I was last back there. I know I was in NYC doing a show so it was a few years ago and no, I was not as Coco. Coco Peru is something I do to entertain. I don’t walk around dressed up as Coco. In fact, I kind of hate putting on all that makeup! It’s a lot of work so if I’m going to do it, I had better be getting paid. However, I do remember that on my last visit to City Island I did my usual ritual which is to visit my father and sister’s grave in the beautiful waterfront cemetery, and afterwards walked a couple of blocks past the old school where my parents first met to The City Island Diner for lunch. The City Island Diner, when I was growing up, was The Donut Shop and my “Aunt” Rose co-owned it, which meant a lot of free donuts as a kid. The hustle and bustle of that little diner was like the center of the universe back then. For me, it was the heart of City Island.
What did you think the last time you went back?
Coco: I always have very mixed emotions when I go back. I am always flooded with memories and like anyone, some memories are good and some aren’t. However, it will always have a very special place in my heart as it was home for me for so many years. I know that I’m grateful that I grew up there and I’m grateful that I was surrounded by so many characters and wonderful storytellers who inspired me and gave me a great sense of comedy—and drama. I’m grateful, too, that I grew up with good neighbors who taught me how to be a good neighbor. As I grow older, I see the value in having grown up there, but it no longer feels like home. I think the explorer in me always wanted to get out, to get over that bridge to the other side.
I hear there is a big change coming to City Island: the bridge, which I’ve read was opened in 1901, is being demolished for a new bridge. It’s sad, as that bridge was a part of our landscape for so long. You grow attached to those things and change is never easy.
What, if anything, do you miss the most about living there? The least?
Coco: What I miss most is a buttered roll with coffee, the bagels with vegetable cream cheese and the pizza! But more than missing anything I wish I could travel back in time and see City Island the way it was. I would love to see myself and the kids on my street as we were back then and have them walk the adult me through the neighborhood. If that could happen I would take the opportunity to tell myself not to worry so much and that that one day he would see the world beyond this island, so that I might more fully enjoy and appreciate the island while there. I might also kick some of those bullies’ asses too!
I do not miss winters.
How was City Island like the rest of the Bronx? How was it different?
Coco: The accent was the same. The attitude was the same. We were all terrified that summer with Son of Sam. We loved the Yankees and/or the Mets and we were serious about our pizza. And like other Bronx neighborhoods that have their “borders” we had our border but it just happened to be water. People think of NYC as diverse and it is, but people were very clear about what neighborhood they were from and City Island was its own “hood”.
I guess it was different because it is an island and it has this nautical history and that is not what people think of when they think of the Bronx. Even when you told other people from the Bronx that you were from City Island you often heard “City Island?” as if to say “There really are people that live there?” Recently I was taking a car service here in Los Angeles from the airport and the driver was also from the Bronx (same accent) but when I told him I was from City Island he said, “Wow! I used to go up there for seafood, but you’re first person I ever met from City Island!” He was really amazed! It kind of makes you feel “other” in your own city. But I do think City Islanders embraced that feeling of being other and celebrated it. Our identity is deeply wrapped up in that island.
You’ve travelled all over the world. What are people’s reactions when you tell them you’re from the Bronx?
Coco: When I first travelled around Europe in the early 1990s and I told people that I was from the Bronx, eyes would grow wide, a few mouths fell open, and most people would then ask, “Like the movie Fort Apache, The Bronx”? (A Paul Newman movie released in 1981). Sometimes I would just say, “Yep, like Fort Apache.” and let them believe I was a lot tougher than I appeared, but most of the time I would yet again explain that I was from a pretty, little, nautical island in the Bronx and then with eyes still wide they would ask, “There’s an island in the Bronx?!?!?”
Things to Do on City Island
Although it only measures approximately 1.5 miles by .5 miles, this little “island in the Bronx” is packed with fun things to do.
- Start your day with breakfast at the City Island Diner, an island mainstay since the 1930s–and no, they still don’t have a website! Coco says “City Island Diner reminds me of the City Island I grew up in; the people eating there all know each other and it seems like it’s a place where you “catch up” with others.”
- Grab a quick lunch at Papa John’s Deli and you’re ready for a leisurely stroll through the still-friendly streets, even if you are a Mussell Sucker.
- Try one of the many seafood restaurants that continue to be a staple of the island: take your pick from Sammy’s Fish Box, City Island Lobster House, Lobster Box, or as Coco mentioned earlier, Artie’s Steak & Seafood, to name a few.
- If seafood isn’t your thing, more recently opened food establishments such as Don Coqui and Ohana Japanese Restaurant offer a wider range of fare.
- Find sweets at Lickety Split or visit The Black Whale for dessert.
- City Island Nautical Museum will acquaint you with the island’s colorful past, including exhibits dedicated to the famous yacht-builders who contributed to the successful defense of the America’s Cup.
- Visit one of the many galleries that now make up a thriving arts community. Coco says: ” A photographer by the name of Ron Terner still has the Focal Point Art Gallery on the island that often features local artists, and Ron’s photography of the island over the years really captures it uniqueness and its characters.”
- Visit the City Island Theater Group, which back in Coco’s day was called the Island Players, and where she got her start as one of The Young Island Players.
- Grace Episcopal Church Hall has hosted shows since Coco was a kid.
- Go fishing and catch “the big one”
- Plan a moonlit cruise to take in the inimitable New York City skyline–First Light Charters and Island Current Fishing Charters are among the many charter services available to help you set sail.
All this and more–antique shops, scuba diving and sweets–await your arrival. Visit the City Island Chamber of Commerce to plan your day. And tell them Coco sent you!
To learn more about Bronx native Miss Coco Peru check out her website.