Not a city and barely a village, with just 600 houses and a wooden boardwalk as its main transportation artery, The Pines is one of the more unique human settlements in America.
It is, perhaps, the main attraction on Fire Island, the slim land barrier separating Long Island from the Atlantic Ocean; known as America’s first gay and lesbian town — “Chelsea with sand” — The Pines is just 55 miles from mid-town Manhattan, yet a world away from the concrete, the hustle, and most of the expectations that come with city life.
Summer at The Pines expands the population from just a few hundred full-time residents to a few thousand sun-loving, sand-strolling, party-seeking guests.
PT Editor-in-Chief Gordon Price spent a few days there, and as usual, passes along some of the cultural, architectural and historical nuggets behind this very special place.
That’s the first thing to understand about the place. Completely made of wood, withstanding harsh winters without heat, next to the salty ocean, it has to be constantly rebuilt. Midweek mornings are filled with the sounds of saws and hammers, providing work for a labour force on Long Island with plenty of lucrative work as they replace every board and shingle in constant rotation.
Indeed, it’s astonishing that Fire Island has not been periodically blown away by hurricane nor The Pines in particular burned down regularly, given all the aged, dry-bone wood that sits snugly in the ground cover, tightly surrounded by pine and bamboo. Every year, in fact, houses do turn to ash – four went up last year on this site, already being rebuilt. The volunteer Fire Department takes its job as seriously as the siren that occasionally slashes through the silence.
There is no doubt about what gives the Island communities their special ambience: the absence of cars, and the boardwalks that substitute for streets. While there is one sand-covered service road down the centre, all other access is by the grid of elevated wooden paths that are too narrow for anything more than feet, wheelbarrows and a few electric carts. Bikes prohibited.
The contemporary development of The Pines can be traced back to the early 50s – a real-estate development, of course. But its appeal as a gay vacation destination is credited to a New York model John B Whyte, who in the 1960s attracted prominent, if not somewhat closeted, celebrities and attractive young men to his commercial operations – The Boatel, Blue Whale and Pavilion – along with a sophisticated and upscale cachet. Some of the traditions (like Low Tea) continue today.
A spectacular fire in 2011 destroyed the first Pavilion, a dance hall that was the anchor of gay nightlife in The Pines. This is the phoenix. AIDS in the 80s and 90s was the social equivalent of the fire – more devastating on this square mile than perhaps anywhere in North America. Both the building and the community have rebuilt.
Beyond the location and the setting, the beaches and landscape, the most remarkable characteristic of The Pines that gives it an almost UNESCO Heritage quality is its past and current collection of mid-century modern residences. Is there any place in the world with as many such angular and gray, exposed wood-and-glass expressions of 60s and 70s architecture? – an architecture of seduction and hedonism, still serving its original intent.