What It’s Like To Live On A Hidden Island “No One Has Ever Heard Of”
When you think of New York City, you probably picture soaring skyscrapers, picnics at Central Park, maybe a posh Brooklyn brownstone on a tree-lined street.
But the city’s five boroughs are also home to small — often overlooked — neighborhoods that feel worlds apart from the fluorescent lights of Times Square.
Broad Channel, Queens, is one of those communities.
The island is about an hour by car or subway from Midtown Manhattan. You can even see the skyline from its shores.
But unlike the densely packed and fast-paced island of Manhattan, the mile-long Broad Channel retains a small-town vibe. The mostly working-class neighborhood is home to fewer than 3,000 residents — many families have lived there for generations. Kids play freely in the streets and swim in Jamaica Bay.
Photographer Maureen Drennan, a native New Yorker, first encountered the neighborhood in 2012, when its weathered clapboard houses caught her eye during a subway ride to the nearby Rockaways.
“I thought, Wow, this is such an anomaly,” she recalled. “So I just got off the train and I started walking around and photographing.”
Drennan has spent the past four-plus years documenting the lives of the neighborhood’s residents, including young women like Amy Mahon, a 22-year-old aspiring photographer.
Like many people Drennan encountered, Mahon harbors deep love and a sense of attachment to her hometown, even if it is “an island in the middle of Queens that no one has ever heard of.”
“It’s my home, my sanctuary,” she told Drennan.
Still, the families of Broad Channel have faced a great deal of hardship in recent years. Hurricane Sandy devastated the community, flooding every house and business. Residents suffered further from insurance companies denying their claims and the red tape of the Build it Back program. Some people are still waiting to receive insurance checks to make needed repairs on their homes in order to move back in. Due to rising flood-insurance costs and the enormous expense of rebuilding a home, many flooded buildings remain vacant and in disrepair.
Because many residents lost treasured photographs in the storm, Drennan has a practice of giving a family prints after she has taken their portrait.
Despite those challenges, and the threat of future flooding as sea levels continue to rise, many people living on Broad Channel remain committed to their neighborhood.
“What really struck me was how vulnerable they were environmentally and yet how resilient they were after Sandy,” Drennan said. “That vulnerability is still there. Climate change is still happening, and I imagine it’s just going to get worse. But they don’t want to leave. This is their home.”
Ahead, an intimate look at life in this “hidden gem” within New York City, through the eyes of the young women who live there.
Broad Channel is a multigenerational neighborhood, mostly blue-collar, with a rich history of being resistant to change. The local lifestyle is conditioned by water; vulnerable to storms, tides, and changing weather. And yet it is in close proximity to one of the largest urban centers, New York City. The Manhattan skyline is visible in the distance.
Gracie Groves, 17, has lived in Broad Channel her entire life and wants to leave after high school. She plans on going away to college to be a sonogram specialist. Currently, she works as a cashier in a local café, one of the few businesses in Broad Channel.
Liz, 12, is a fourth-generation Broad Channel resident. She loves all water sports but particularly surfing. She learned to swim in Jamaica Bay, just like the rest of her family. Her grandparents were in vaudeville acts, and she has inherited their charisma, singing, and dancing abilities. Liz says she wants to be an architect when she grows up.
Island living has created a safe and protected idyll for kids growing up in the area.
Gigi Gonzalez, 23, grew up in the Rockaways and has lived in Broad Channel for a few years. She works at the American Deli, one of the few businesses on the island. When asked about her future and college, she said that since her parents passed away, she cannot afford school. She needs to work hard to support herself.
Gonzalez shows her boyfriend’s police badge number on her necklace. They have been dating for a year. “He makes me feel so comfortable being myself,” she said.
Flooding from Hurricane Sandy devastated the community in 2012. Many lost their homes and possessions. The arduous recovery underscores the conflict of living close to the water, especially when leaving, for many, is not an option.
“Hurricane Sandy was a sad time. When we returned everything was ruined: our house, my bedroom; there was water and oil everywhere. All these things I loved were gone,” Groves recalled. Her stepfather is one of the Broad Channel residents who has had to pay out of pocket to rebuild the family home while he waits for approval from insurance. Four years later, he is still struggling to elevate and rebuild his home.
The neighborhood’s 12th Road regularly floods during high tides and full moons. The residents plan ahead by moving their cars and wearing high boots.
Annie Hande (left) moved to Broad Channel a few years ago, while Amy Mahon (right) grew up there. The two have been best friends since high school.
Hande says that she feels “a bit less like an outsider” now that she’s been in the neighborhood for a few years.
Still, she might not stay long. She works as a supervisor at Petco in neighboring Howard Beach, though she wants to return to college.
“What I want for my future is to be working for National Geographic photographing. That has been my dream since high school,” she said. “I want to live on my own without help from my parents. I want my future to be something my family will be proud of.”
“I love being in the darkroom,” Hande said. “I love the idea of being alone with something you created.”
Broad Channel’s small-town atmosphere puts it in stark contrast to the crowds and bustle of New York City. Every summer, a small carnival sets up in the American Legion Hall parking lot.
Mahon was saddened by the destruction of her family home and witnessing her parents pour their time and money into all the needed repairs.
But she says she loved growing up in Broad Channel, even though she didn’t appreciate it when she was in high school. When she moved away to Ohio for a year, she found she “was homesick almost every day.”
There is a delicate balance between the community and the natural environment. Although the young people have grown up protected and safe on the island, it’s isolated, and there are not many economic opportunities.
“It’s a beautiful place, especially in the summer,” Groves said. “But there aren’t many job opportunities here.”
Maureen Drennan is a photographer born and based in New York City and her work has been included in exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Newspace Center for Photography, and The Wild Project. Her images have been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, California Sunday Magazine, Photograph Magazine, Huffington Post, American Photo, UK Telegraph, Refinery 29, and the EHRP. She currently teaches at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York.
Co-published with Refinery29.