Saturday in the Rockaways
Written by Bwog Staff
A week ago, bwogger Armin Rosen traveled to the ends of the earth–at least for a New Yorker.
You’re a long way from Manhattan by the time the A train finally reaches the most scenic stretch of track in the entire New York subway system. Once it finishes plodding 25 miles of subterranean darkness, the A speeds through a national wildlife refuge, and passes scenery more suited to New England or tidal Virginia than New York’s largest and second most populous borough. But people don’t travel to the Rockaways looking for a typical New York experience–while The L Magazine once deemed the Nassau Avenue G station (not far from the Rockaways, relatively speaking) one of the foulest-smelling places in New York, the Broad Channel station treats passengers waiting for Rockaway Beach-bound shuttle trains to a scent they probably never imagined encountering within the MTA system: salt air.
Broad Channel is an island in the middle of Jamaica Bay. Roughly 3,000 people live there, and many of them have backyards with access to the Bay, or views of the Rockaways or nearby JFK airport. If you squint you can almost see the Manhattan skyline towering incongruously in the distance, a reminder of how simultaneously close by and far away Broad Channel’s few thousand stalwarts are from the city’s chaos.
I was always half-curious as to whether or not the vaguely phallic protrusion of land jutting out of eastern Queens and into the Atlantic Ocean was actually there; whether it wasn’t just a proverbial “conspiracy of cartographers” stuck onto the edge of the subway map to taunt grizzled city-dwellers with the possibility of escape. It does exist, and on first glance there isn’t anything particularly spectacular about it: high-rise apartment projects and empty streets lined with low-lying neatly-organized single-family homes. If it weren’t for the word “beach” on all the street signs and in the names of the subway stations I’d swear I was in Bay Ridge.
But Rockaway Beach’s placid normalcy only establishes it as one of the last great unexploited places in New York. At 14 miles long, it’s one of the largest urban beaches in the country, only 45 minutes from Manhattan’s financial district. Yet while Coney Island has aquariums, baseball teams, amusement parks, music festivals, parades and the original Nathan’s, Rockaway Beach has nothing–just some handball courts, some changing rooms, and the occasional Helado cart. It’s this emptiness that gives the beach its charm–it boasts nothing but the unadulterated meeting of ocean and sand, and tries to be nothing other than a place to lazily watch the day go by or lazily get pummeled by the surf, which is thankfully freezing.
After hours spent relaxing, throwing back drinks and acquiring what would turn out to be some absolutely horrific sunburns, a once far-off thunderstorm ominously hovers over the south Rockaways and my group decides to call it a day. Our walk down the beach takes us past evidence that somebody’s discovered the lethargic charm of the Rockaways after all, as the beach’s pleasantly undeveloped boardwalk gives way to vast, vacant tracts reserved for yet-to-be-built upscale housing developments.
An hour later we’re back to the world of psychotic taxi drivers, panhandlers and hotdog stands; to Manhattan and its sometimes unbearably grueling pace of life. It’s a little strange to be walking down St. Mark’s Place while digging grains of sand out of my scalp, and stranger still to be in the same city as a place so literally and figuratively remote as charmingly languid Rockaway Beach. Yet it’s also gratifying to know that even in a place as gigantic as New York City, escape is only a subway ride away.