Boss of the Beach

nymag.com
7 min read
fairly easy
For 40 years, the city's lifeguard corps has been mired in controversy, and for 40 years it's been run by one man: Peter Stein.
Peter Stein (left, circled) with lifeguards and the head of the Parks Department in 1996. Rockaway Beach lifeguard-competition team (right) in 1984. Joe McManus, third from right in the back. Photo: Courtesy of the Tamiment Library, New York University (Peter Stein)/Courtesy of Joe McManus (lifeguards)

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On 106th Street in Rockaway Beach, a lime-green bunker faces the sea. From this concrete outpost, Peter B. Stein oversees the largest lifeguard corps in the United States. His 1,374 guards protect 13.3 million annual visitors to 14 miles of beach and 53 outdoor pools, from Coney Island to the Bronx.

In a city flush with generous contracts for civil servants, Stein, 75, has earned New York Post headlines for his outsize pay. He earns about $230,000 a year combined in lifeguard and union salaries. In the early aughts, when he drew a third paycheck as a gym teacher, Stein made more than the police commissioner.

An empire this lucrative must be stitched together — and then protected. In the 19th century, William "Boss" Tweed created a vast patronage network and enriched himself through kickbacks and bribes. Gus Bevona, leader of the building-maintenance workers union in the 1980s, earned a $450,000 salary and lived in an extravagant Soho penthouse. Like them, Stein relies on a playbook of patronage, power brokering, and intimidation. Since 1981, his supervisors have rigged swim tests, shielded sexual predators, and falsified drowning reports. One lifeguard refers to his crew as "La Cosa Nostra." Through tabloid scandals, wrongful-death lawsuits, and 79 on-duty drownings since 1988 — at points, the city's drowning fatality rate has been three times the national average — Stein has hung on like a barnacle from a bygone New York, successfully sidelining anyone who challenges him.

Then last summer, a flyer appeared at Connolly's, a Rockaway bar…
David Gauvey Herbert
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