For Gina Marie Moravcik, Long Beach's boardwalk is where she first told her husband she loved him -- and where, four years ago, she went into labor with their first son.
Old-timers remember when seagulls once pelted the planks so furiously with clams that the boardwalk was partially closed to the public. Generations of others recall the amusement park that drew throngs to the boardwalk in the '60s and '70s.
The famous 2.2-mile boardwalk built a century ago was collapsed by superstorm Sandy, and city officials have determined it must be removed -- a process that began Wednesday and was marked by a ceremony Saturday.
Moravcik -- who spent hours there playing as a child in the '70s and '80s, meditating by herself, and more recently walking with her newborn sons -- was among many who said the demolition marks the end of an era in Long Beach.
"It was and always will be the place I felt the most peace and calmness any time of day or night," she said, "sun-drenched or covered in snow."
Long Beach's boardwalk was finished in 1914, the city's website says, by developer and former state Sen. William H. Reynolds, who also built Coney Island's Dreamland amusement park and developed several Brooklyn neighborhoods. He wanted to turn Long Beach into "the Riviera of the East."
Long Beach officials have said the demolition likely will take a month, and that the new boardwalk will be more resistant to high winds and flooding.
Officials have set an ambitious timetable. They would like to see the new boardwalk ready by summer, said city Councilman Scott Mandel.
In contrast, state officials acknowledge their plan for a Memorial Day reopening of the Jones Beach boardwalk is optimistic -- and they have started work on damage that was less severe than, and half the length of, Long Beach's promenade.
Councilwoman Fran Adelson said the Long Beach project, expected to cost $25 million, is integral to the city's economic health -- and to the community's pride. Officials hope to recoup most of the cost of the rebuilding and demolition from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"It's the beginning of the rebuilding of Long Beach, to take it away," she said. "It's a symbol of moving forward."
A colorful history
The boardwalk, which fronts the Atlantic Ocean and is referred to as an "iconic landmark" on the city's website, had character from the beginning.
Reynolds, seeking publicity, brought in elephants during the construction, ostensibly to help builders. Whether the elephants actually performed labor is a subject of debate in the city.
It's where Prohibition-era rumrunners paid kids a quarter to row alcohol to shore, where a stunt pilot and city official landed a biplane during the Golden Age of Aviation, and where fun-seekers played a mechanical greyhound racing game. Their operation sparked a court battle in the 1940s over whether paying to maneuver the dogs constituted gambling; the court ruled it was a game of skill, not chance.
Over the last century, the boardwalk has drawn people from all over. Some jog, some stroll, some ride bicycles. Some simply sit on the benches looking out on the white sand beach.
Entertainer Billy Crystal, who moved to Long Beach as a toddler in 1951, wrote in his book "700 Sundays" that the boardwalk contributed to the city's image as "a sort of Atlantic City without the saltwater taffy and the diving horse" and recalled fondly its batting cage and games of chance.
"It was second nature to us. It's just something that was always there," said Greg Fried, who grew up in Long Beach in the '50s and '60s. "That was part of growing up -- the boardwalk."
Looking to rebuild
The boardwalk has been damaged by severe weather before, including a 1927 hurricane that almost destroyed it. The storm forced a major rebuilding.
That is not an option this time because the damage is too extensive, said Jim LaCarrubba, the city's public works commissioner. The boardwalk is collapsed in several places, such as Lincoln, National and Neptune boulevards, and the wooden beams underneath are twisted beyond repair, he said.
The concrete pilings under the boardwalk, set 18 feet apart for its entire 11,300-foot length, appear to be intact, LaCarrubba said. But some city officials, including Mandel, are waiting to see whether the demolition -- to be performed by Thomas Novelli Contracting of Farmingdale, for $1.435 million -- reveals more damage.
Friday was the deadline for proposals from engineering firms to design a new boardwalk. The bids will be reviewed this week, said City Manager Jack Schnirman. Once a design is chosen, officials plan to solicit construction bids, he said.
The area around the boardwalk -- once home to an arcade, a bowling alley and food vendors -- is now largely populated by high-priced condos.
The city has recently come under fire from residents who felt it was not maintaining the boardwalk. Complaints came from joggers who tripped on loose planks. Before Sandy, city officials -- already trying to dig out from a $10 million deficit discovered last year -- struggled to find a way to pay for repairs.
"The thing wasn't in the best shape," said Paul Gomez, a Point Lookout resident who said the rebuild represents a chance for a fresh start. "It was really pretty aged."
Moravcik, 38, of Island Park, said she is sure the new boardwalk will be special. But nothing will top her memories of its predecessor.
"Will I, my husband and my kids miss it," she said. "Dearly."
"It will be restored," she added, "but after surviving Sandy I'm afraid that my view of tranquillity seaside has forever changed."
-- William Reynolds acquired the land for the boardwalk in 1907. It was finished in 1914, according to the Long Beach City website.
-- In the early 1930s, controversy raged about whether men could walk on the boardwalk shirtless. (Long Beach’s police chief ruled at the time that the men could not.)
-- City official and stunt pilot Fred Knob
-- Developer Reynolds also built Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park and developed much of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
-- Twenty-five concessionaires and amusement stalls lined the boardwalk in the early 1970s.
-- The boardwalk is 2.2-miles long.