It’s been almost 60 years since Florence and Phil Celella first laid eyes on Long Beach. Their romance with the town began much the same way as their own love affair – just a simple introduction.
In the early 1950’s, the Korean War was winding down and the happening spot for young city-dwellers was 86th Street in Yorkville. Back then, the area was known as Germantown and blocks were filled with beer gardens, restaurants and dance halls.
Inside The Lorelie, Florence was drinking rum and coke with her girlfriends. “The men usually took their place at the bar, while the women sat at tables,” she remembers.
Phil Celella, a Merchant Marine, recently home after serving in Japan, was stationed at the bar. “When the music started the men would make their rounds, and I was walking around to ‘see what was available,'” he explains with his signature grin.
When he caught sight of Florence he went over to her and asked, “Would you like to dance?”
Florence looked him up and down and said, “OH YEAH!”
They married in 1953.
They set up housekeeping in Astoria and started a family. In 1960, relatives invited them out to Long Beach. They fell in love again – this time with The City by the Sea. The next year they began a ritual of summer rentals, first in The Walks and later The West End. Back then a summer rental was $600 – too expensive for them to afford on their own – so the whole family would split it.
In 1965, Phil’s mother purchased a home on Nebraska Street. “Six thousand was a lot, but it was a good house,” Phil remembers. “It was very good for me because I loved to fish… big stripers! And I taught all the kids to fish.”
“We loved it here. We would come out the day school stopped and leave the night before school started. The men went home during the week and the woman stayed with the kids,” says Florence. She remembers the block was full of children, with neighbors sitting in their front yards every evening. Their narrow one-way street was like its own little family.
Wanting to “give civilian life a chance,” Phil left the Marines and took a position as a Security Officer at the United Nations. Quite often, he would come home after a midnight shift, grab his rod and some bait, and head down to the ocean to go fishing.
Florence’s most vivid memory of those early years was the small kitchen she had to cook in to feed their large Italian family. “Oh mamma mia! How I would have to cook. All the husbands and their different tastes.” To get the laundry done, she and the other mothers would pile clothes into baby carriages and drag them down to the laundromat.
One of the special memories they shared is one that I wish was still the case – access to the bay in the West End used to be open to everyone. Florence and Phil were able to take their children down Pennsylvania Avenue and wade directly into the bay. Sometimes they brought nets to catch small fish that they later used for bait.
Additionally, the bay side of New York Avenue was home to a marina where the Celella’s moored a small boat. They took it out to the marshes to dig for clams. Another pastime was “jacking for crabs,” which involved scraping blue claw crabs off the poles at the marina.
All that amazing, fresh seafood found its way right into Florence’s homemade tomato sauce. Most meals in those days were eaten at home; since going out was too expensive. But once a year they treated themselves to a meal at a Papa Aldo’s, a restaurant on the bay at the end of Arizona Street. After dinner drinks would be sipped at Shines, which Florence recalled, “was always the main bar back then.”
When winter set in, they boarded up their home and went back to Astoria. “Very few people lived here year round. People couldn’t afford both,” they told me.
In 1986 their Nebraska bungalow was severely damaged in a flood, and after years of patching it back together they decided to knock it down. They built a charming one-and-a-half story home, which was finished in 2007. “We were worried about it being too big for the neighborhood back then. Oh well!” she exclaims with a wry smile. Unfortunately, their new house wasn’t high enough to escape the floodwaters. It took them nearly a year to rebuild after Sandy – and they’ve decided not to raise it.
Florence can’t help but be wistfully reflective of what The West End used to be. The towering homes have really shifted the character of the community. “Hurricane Sandy changed the neighborhood,” she says. “You used to sit in your yard, now you don’t see anybody.” She also remembers a much different beach than the one we see today. “It used to be such a big beach, I remember dragging that baby carriage all the way down the jetties. That’s what upsets me the most.”
Phil retired from the UN in 1989. In 2008 he was the Grand Marshall in the Long Beach Memorial Day Parade. A picture from his years in field service hangs along the back wall of the Long Beach VFW.
Florence recently took up painting – and it seems she has quite a talent for it. Her work has been exhibited at the Magnolia Center and their home is now running out of wall space to hang her many works of art.
These days, Florence and Phil spend a good portion of the winter in Florida. But Long Beach is and always will be home.
Phil still goes out fishing from time to time – but I think he knows that he hooked the best fish in the sea, a long time ago in Germantown.
Coming up next on Short Stories from Long Beach: The INN’s Rob Blau, whose latest life journey began with an actual journey.