The Point O'Woods beach at Fire Island with some of...

The Point O'Woods beach at Fire Island with some of the private community's homes in the distance. Credit: Getty Images/Atlantide Phototravel

Point O'Woods is the oldest of Fire Island’s 17 communities. It's also the most private.

The chain-link fence, unlocked only with a key, helps keep it that way.

Members and their guests only. No alcohol for sale inside. A strong preference for families, some of whom have summered there for six or seven generations.

A photograph from 1976 of a gate outside the entrance to Point...

A photograph from 1976 of a gate outside the entrance to Point O'Woods. Credit: Newsday/Don Norkett

In December, Point O’Woods got an award from New York State for the community's documentation of its history, which dates to the 19th century, casting a spotlight on one of Fire Island's most insular places.

Established in 1894 as a temperance resort destination by the Methodist-inspired Chautauqua movement, the deed to the land came with a prohibition on alcohol sales, according to a 2019 New York State Parks Recreation & Historic Preservation document evaluating the property for a national historic register.

Though the Chautauqua connection officially ended with the Long Island Chautauqua Assembly Association’s bankruptcy in 1898, its legacy endures, albeit without the thousands of daily visitors of the past, according to the document.

"The other communities are more integrated with other communities," said Lesley Herrmann of neighboring Seaview. "Point O’Woods is not. … They kind of stick to themselves."

Point O’Woods now has about 133 residences, according to the state. The owners sign 99-year leases with the Point O'Woods Association. At any given time during the summer, there are about 500 people living in its beach cottages and shingled bungalows, said Janet Hurley, president of the association, which runs the community and owns the land and decides who lives there.

"They had this kind of 19th century utopian view of the world that you should have a healthy mind, a healthy spirit and a healthy body. And you came to the beach, and got out of the slums in the city, right? Or the bad airs of the city," Hurley said.

Luggage piled on a Point O'Woods dock in the summer of 1976...

Luggage piled on a Point O'Woods dock in the summer of 1976 as passengers board a ferry bound for the mainland. Credit: Newsday/Dick Yarwood

A 'tight-knit' small town

There is sailing and tennis and church and camp; lectures (a past talk dealt with the history and ecology of ticks on Long Island) and book discussions ("Frankenstein"); a yacht club; and of course, the beach.

In June, then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office announced Point O’Woods’ nomination to the State and National Register of Historic Places.

The state subsequently granted the designation — which can make a recipient eligible for certain preservation programs, services, grants and tax credits.

Jennifer Betsworth, who is listed as staff on the 2019 document, didn't return a message seeking comment.

A sense of small-town tradition, built and maintained over more than a century, is at the heart of why Hurley and others see Point O’Woods as special, and a community worth protecting and preserving.

Members of a children's choir leave The Church at Point O'Woods...

Members of a children's choir leave The Church at Point O'Woods after Sunday morning services in Aug. 1976. Credit: Newsday/Don Norkett

Neighbors host neighbors, husking corn and cutting lemons for lobster parties — one in July, another in August — that serve as fundraisers for the fire company, Hurley said.

"Part of the reason we are so tight-knit is because we have this long history with each other — that people have been there for generations. You know their parents. You know their cousins. It’s sort of the best of a small town because we all know each other," said Hurley, who is retired from finance and lives in Florida during the winter.

Most of the Point O'Woods homes are not winterized. And as on the rest of Fire Island — the 32-mile-long long, thin barrier off Long Island’s south shore — automobiles are banned except in rare cases. Commuting to and from Long Island’s mainland is done by ferry, and Point O'Woods, which is more than 150 acres, has one for its own use.

An absence of automobiles influences the architecture, Hurley said. The community lacks garages, gas stations and roads. Those in Point O’Woods get around on foot or by bicycle.

"When you have a car, you get in your car and you’re enclosed in a capsule," she said. "You pull into your garage, you close the door, you go into your house; there’s no interaction with people. It’s a very private way of existing. When you don’t have cars, when you’re riding your bicycle and walking, you interact with other people. You see other people. You say hello to them."

Suzy Lawrence Goldhirsch, who grew up in Point O’Woods during the 1950s and 1960s, described the community as "an entirely different world."

"There was one pay phone down at the post office, and somebody would answer the phone and take a message and ride it up to your house. I mean, it was very rustic, even into the ’60s," said Goldhirsch, president of the Fire Island Association.

Her family is in its sixth generation in the community, with four homes; her great-grandmother was one of the original residents.

"It’s a modern community now. They have their televisions, they have their game consoles. But it sort of has that aura from a long time ago of families enjoying outdoor sports and enjoying being at the beach," she said.

Hurley makes no apology for the fence, which she said stops nearby bar patrons from trespassing.

"We’re a private club. And we’re a gated community. And those things exist in the world. And that’s what we are," she said.

Reports of discrimination in the past

For much of the 20th century, Point O'Woods was reputed to exclude Blacks, Jews and Roman Catholics.

Protesters in Aug. 1969 demonstrate against allegations of racial and religious...

Protesters in Aug. 1969 demonstrate against allegations of racial and religious discrimination at Point O'Woods. Credit: Newsday/ del Toro

It was the site of a 1969 protest over the alleged exclusions: Demonstrators threw ethnic food, tied to handmade parachutes, over the fence — gefilte fish, bagels, black-eyed peas and cornbread, Newsday reported.

A New York Times account of the protest, which drew 200 people, described the demonstration as an "invasion" of a community "long regarded as a fortress of exclusiveness in this freewheeling vacation spot." Protest leaflets called it a "restricted, racist enclave" and an "oceanfront concentration camp."

Back then, the newspapers reported, there were some Catholics and two or three Jews among the owners, but no Black people, "except for maids and kitchen help," according to the New York Times.

Due to protests, the federal government wound up leaving the Point O'Woods post office after objections that it wasn't accessible to the public.

The Point O’Woods Association has long denied discriminating. Hurley said she's never seen evidence of overt discrimination in the community's past.

"The United States has for many years, for far too long, been a highly segregated country, and patterns that existed on Long Island also existed on Fire Island … People of similar races and religions tended to socialize together, and I would say that was true in Fire Island and in Point O’Woods," Hurley said. "But just as we’re seeing the larger society change, we see change … We see more interracial marrying. We see interreligious marrying. All of that goes on. We mirror the larger society."

Historically, among those in wealthy communities, explicitly discriminatory language and animus being written down tended to be less common and was considered to be déclassé — beneath their class status, said Professor Richard R.W. Brooks of New York University School of Law, author of "Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms."

"I think that it’s probably very, very common that they were not explicit in the wealthier neighborhoods. That it was a nod and a wink, because everyone understood it was sort of what was required to be a member, that you understood this," Brooks said in an interview.

Hurley declined to provide a current demographic breakdown, and the U.S. Census Bureau does not provide the statistic for Point O'Woods. But Hurley said that the community rejects discrimination and welcomes those regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. She noted, for instance, that the community welcomes same-sex families.

"It’s been quite simple to respond to same-sex marriages because they’re marriages, so we have same-sex families," she said.

As for integrating the community, she said: "It’s happening slowly, but it’s happening, and we welcome it."

Latest videos