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A tale of two neighborhoods

By Peter McDermott

They once pitched tents on rented sites for the summer in Breezy Point, now they build expensive homes. But through all the changes, the neighborhood has remained predominantly Irish.

Indeed, based on data from the 1990 census, 63 percent of the residents of Breezy Point, ZIP code 11697, claimed Irish heritage -- the highest percentage for any code in the country, according to Census Bureau projections.

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Many families in this seaside community in the Rockaways have local roots going back to an era long before ZIP codes. Chris Stokes's grandparents, for instance, began spending summers there in the 1920s. "There were only eight families with cottages before them. They had the ninth," Stokes said.

By the time his parents bought a summer place in the 1960s -- when he was 8 years old -- his grandparents had retired there.

For Stokes, who spent most of the year in Brooklyn, Breezy Point was the place for barefooted summers. Now it's his home year-round. The 41-year-old programmer-analyst and his wife are raising three children there. And some of the friends he played with in those carefree days are also married with families in the community. "I'm still friendly with them and see them socially," he said.

As Breezy Point, a cooperative of 2,800 single-family homes, has become a year-round community, it's changing in other ways, too. In recent decades it has been associated with what one resident, Rita Shea, calls the "civil service middle-class" employees in the police and fire departments and the utilities. "But the children of the people who founded the cooperative in the 1960s are professionals," she said.

This upwardly mobile neighborhood, however, has clung to its sense of Irishness. Though residents are generally third-and fourth-generation Americans, descendants of early-century immigrants, a remarkable number of Irish tricolors flutter in the seabreeze together with the stars and stripes. On many streets and narrow walks, every second home declares both its patriotism and its heritage in this way. "I fly the Irish flag every day with the American and the MIA flags," said Donald Ryan, editor of the weekly Rockaway Point News, a grandson of immigrants, and now himself a grandfather of 11.

Shea, whose Dublin-born parents immigrated in the 1920s, also flies both national flags. "And we display the Shea family crest," she said.

And all the evidence suggests that these residents' emotional attachment to their heritage goes beyond flag-waving. Most civic groups, for example, have an annual Irish night; the best-known and best-attended -- a concert in the ballpark -- is promoted by the cooperative itself.

Much cultural activity, though, is low-key and takes place in people's homes. "If you are interested in learning anything -- the bagpipes or the tin whistle or Irish dancing -- there is a lot of opportunity there," Dolores Mulholland said.

She and her husband recently attended, in a friend's home, the Fourth Annual Arts Fest, which was billed as an evening of "music, soliloquies, poetry and recitation."

"There were readings from Joyce and Yeats," Paddy Mulholland said. "The fest began as just a recital on someone's deck; now it attracts a big crowd from the range of ages."

Said Tom Mitchell, a lawyer active in the community: "If anything, there seems to be an increased interest in things Irish."

However, like many residents, Mitchell believes that Breezy Point's ethnic character is also seen in the high attendance at Mass on Sunday. In fact, the community's origins lie in the tight-knit Irish Catholic parishes of a neighboring borough. "Most people are out of Brooklyn. I sometimes feel like an outsider here, being from the West Bronx," Mitchell said.

Shea said, "Many came from Bay Ridge, which was an Irish enclave going back to the 1920s."

But, in Breezy Point, it isn't a question of keeping it within one's ethnic group, so much as keeping it within the family. "Everybody is related in some way, it seems," Stokes said.

His two sisters are also married and raising their children in Breezy Point. And his wife, Nancy, has an extended family -- her mother, stepfather and her maternal grandparents -- living in the community.

With strong family values in place, the Italian Americans, the second-largest ethnic group, are content to stay in the cultural shadow of the Irish. "I'm Irish by environment," said John Abbracciamento, the son of Italian immigrants, who became a summer resident in 1962 and a full-time resident in 1984. "With the Irish it's one for all and all for one. It's a great community here. I'm proud to live here, proud of a community that has put its kids through college the way it has."

"Almost all or our children -- 95 percent -- graduate high school and go on to college, and some of them the best schools in the country. Ryan, the newspaper editor, said. "This is the kind of place where people sit down together for Sunday dinner. Breezy Point is a village within the city."

For Mitchell, life in Breezy Point is like that of a typical suburban community, but with more advantages. For example, it takes him just an hour to commute to his law offices in lower Manhattan each morning. "And it's 35 minutes at other times," he said. "And, of course, we have the sea."

Said Ryan, "We're not Utopia, but we're the closest thing to it."