Lunch at the Fort Hamilton Community Club

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    This is the Fort Hamilton Community Club, an oddly intoxicating mixture of history, architecture and geriatrics that qualifies as one of the most unlikely lunch scenes in New York. Located on the grounds of Fort Hamilton, the ancient military base at the foot of Brooklyn, the Community Club is one of those isolated subcultures that make you realize how little you actually know about the city. Technically speaking, it's only open to members (active and retired military members and federal employees are eligible), but the policy isn't strictly enforced at lunch. Act like you belong there, mind your manners and nobody will question your presence. This turns out to be an extremely benevolent loophole?who would have guessed that one of the best harbor views in town could be enjoyed over a plate of pork chops and mashed potatoes while surrounded by several dozen amiable senior citizens?

    The club's cafeteria-style homey food is, frankly, unremarkable. But it doesn't matter?the setting's the thing. The magnificent brick and granite building, which dates back to 1825, is all vaulted ceilings, iron doors and cannon ports, and its view of the Narrows rivals the vistas at the River Cafe and the Water Club (but, at $7.50 per lunch, comes much cheaper). The lunch crowd typically includes a smattering of office workers and fatigues-clad enlisted personnel from the base, but is dominated by military retirees and widows from the surrounding neighborhood, who tend to be a very colorful bunch. And in a city filled with shadowy social clubs, members-only American Legion halls and secret-handshake fraternal organizations, the Community Club adds an extra layer of isolation: not only is it an exclusive fellowship, but it's located on an out-of-the-way military installation that few New Yorkers are even aware of. Taken together, these elements give lunch at the club a pleasantly surreal aspect, like a visit to an unusually agreeable twilight zone.

    This unique atmosphere is not lost on the Community Club's manager, Suzanne DeVita. "This is a little haven that no one knows about," she says. A career caterer who came to Fort Hamilton in 1995, DeVita is in charge of much more than lunch; she's also responsible for dinner, Sunday brunch, Thursday-night bingo, the occasional stand-up comedy act and a steady lineup of larger shindigs like weddings, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. Faced with an obviously graying membership, she's made some attempts to reach out to the younger enlisted crowd, with mixed results. A few weeks ago she hired a pop band?a quiet, tasteful one, she thought?to play during dinner. "One person came up to me," she recounts, "and asked, 'Will we have this every week?' I said no, it's a one-time thing, and he said, 'Good?we're a little too old for that.'"

    This resistance to change only adds to the sense that the club exists in its own little world?a description, incidentally, that also applies to Fort Hamilton itself, which feels light-years away from New York despite its adjacency to a residential Brooklyn neighborhood. The fort was built between 1825 and 1831, although the site's historic import stretches back to July 4, 1776, when the first shots of the Battle of Long Island were fired on the British invasion fleet from a spot that later became part of the base. The post's position was once crucial to defending the harbor from naval attacks, but advances in military technology long ago made that a moot point. These days the facility serves as headquarters for operations like the New York City Recruiting Battalion and the North Atlantic Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, and is also home to about 1400 active military personnel who work in the metropolitan area. It's essentially a small town, complete with a post office, sandwich shop, gas station, gym, tennis courts, barbershop and dry cleaner, along with the small Harbor Defense Museum of New York City, which is open to the public.

    The real treasure, though, is the Community Club, where the spirit of good cheer continues right up through the moment when you're presented with the check: because this is a federal facility, there's no sales tax.