There are photographs of Bill Nimmo as a baby in the arms of his father at 12 West 5th Road. But it wasn’t until he was 4 years old that he started spending whole summers there, in the fishing shack perched over Jamaica Bay that his grandparents had bought for $400 in the late 1930s.
They were Scottish immigrants, driven by the Great Depression to New York, where Thomas Hughes found work as an elevator operator and Mary cleaned rooms at the Warwick hotel. Almost as soon as they had settled down at an apartment in the Bronx, they reinstated a family tradition: Back in Glasgow, they had spent every August at Largs Beach, 30 miles west. But in New York, where would they go? Scottish friends helped them find a bungalow for rent on a spit of land you could reach by bus: Broad Channel. The places were affordable because there weren’t any perks: no sewage, no gas. It was good enough for Mary. She first took her six children there in 1936 and never stopped going — staying in rentals until she spotted a house with her ideal qualities: a wide, south-facing deck with lots of sun and bay views. The owner was willing to sell.
The house always needed upkeep, and for a while Nimmo’s uncle Tommy had been in charge. But after 1963, when Nimmo graduated from college with a degree in engineering, he inherited the duties. He was up for the job because he was attached, maybe more than anyone else in the Hughes family. His mother, the middle daughter Anne, had married a stagehand for the Metropolitan Opera who toured with the company every summer and liked to take Anne with him; “Everyone loved her,” Nimmo said. “She became, effectively, the surrogate mother for the chorus.” Meanwhile, Nimmo and his sister got “shipped to Broad Channel.”
It was paradise: They could jump off the back deck at high tide and swim; a boat Mary bought for the family to fix up was tied off the dock and could be taken out for parties. Nimmo befriended the neighborhood kids, who would troop down to Rockaway Beach, where he eventually worked part-time, operating carnival games. Uncles and aunts would drop in for a weekend, hauling in cousins, who caroused with the parade of Mary’s friends: workers from the Warwick, ladies she knew through a Roman Catholic guild. After dinner, anyone staying over was expected to entertain the group — tell jokes, sing songs. There was even a player piano. But the real pleasure, for Nimmo, at least, was time with an adult who adored him, who had time for him. “Affection, attention, and approval all came from Mary,” he said. “I didn’t need anything. I didn’t realize at the time it doesn’t get any better than that.”
But nothing was permanent. The Hughes family, like every other family in Broad Channel, had never owned the land their house sat on. They owned the structure. The land had been owned by a developer whose leases were taken over by the city — which had toyed over the decades with ideas of razing the fishing shacks to make way for airplane runways or parkland. The land leases were renewed with residents on a yearly basis with a cruel clause: With just ten days’ notice, the city could take over. “Living under the lease arrangement has meant living under constant pressure,” a Broad Channeler said. Meanwhile, hurricanes and tropical storms dumped water on the low-lying strip. Still, “having two feet of water in the house was not an impediment to Mary,” said Nimmo, who remembered his father and uncle heading down once to rescue her. Those storms never stopped coming: In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit some homes with up to six feet of water. But at least negotiations over ownership were resolved; in 1982, the city agreed to let residents buy the land under their homes, which brought a cascade of services: a sewer line, a public school, and even a library. The Hughes family bought the land under their house for around $12,000.
Nimmo inherited the house in 1993, traveling there once or twice a month with his wife, Kizmin Reeves, from their home in Manhattan. In Broad Channel, they would reconnect with Nimmo’s troop of childhood friends and host any relatives stopping through. As the next generation of Hughes kids grew up, Nimmo planned an informal family reunion to get to know them, hosted on the back deck. The event grew so big and so formalized that, when a next-door neighbor considered selling, Nimmo made an offer: He needed the space to house reunion visitors. In 1992, he bought No. 14, modernized it, and joined the homes at the deck where Mary had once sat to keep an eye on the kids. Which always reminded Nimmo of one of her rules: He could swim out as far as he wanted as long as he could still see the deck. “If you could see the deck, she could see you,” he said.
The family is now selling for the simple reason that it isn’t easy to keep up the houses from afar, and the fifth generation of Mary Hughes’s descendants have flown away. But once Nimmo sells, he has a new job for his broker: Find an August rental big enough to hold everyone. The reunions will go on, and they have the houses to thank for those, Nimmo said: “It kept us connected.”