While we wait for the latest issue of The Blue and White to come back from the printer, we’ll be posting most of the articles on Bwog. Today, Liz Naiden visits New York’s forgotten beach town.
The beach is not quite “beautiful.” The calming tide and unending shore of Rockaway may appeal to the cramped spirit of a visitor escaped from Manhattan for a day, but the ocean is no sharp, stunning, turquoise. The sand is not gold. White sunlight coats the water’s surface; pale green seafoam turns beige dunes to brown, and a smooth grey boardwalk frames the scene. Absent the alien oranges, reds, and greens of umbrellas and towels in the height of summer, Rockaway Beach is like a washed-out photograph.
Two hours away from the city by subway or car, “The Rockaways” is a lonely peninsula hanging off the bitter edge of New York. The Atlantic stretches south to the horizon, and to the north the bay is wild with the desolate sandbars and forested islands of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Its physical and visual isolation make Rockaway perhaps the closest thing to a small town accessible by subway.
Rockaway feels like a small town because it once was. The area first developed as the waterfront sanctuary for 19th century New York’s richest families, but as rail reached the island in the 1890’s so did middle-class vacationers and a new wave of permanent residents. Immigrants of Irish, Italian, and Jewish origin especially settled there throughout the early-century boom that turned New York into the world’s city and Rockaway into a bustling community with a notable beachfront tourism industry.
But by the 1960s the upper classes had abandoned their Rockaway villas for the Hamptons and middle-class patrons of the boardwalk, hotels, and small amusement park were leaving the city in droves. Competing Coney Island became the convenient day-trip of the working class while Rockaway’s beachfront declined. In its place rose a rigid row of more than a dozen modernist towers. Like their look-a-likes citywide, many of the towers would become low- and middle-income housing. As crime and unemployment increased in the city through the 1970s, so it did in the Rockaways.
Shuttered warehouse buildings and swaths of high grass are all that remains of the former beachfront boom. But at Far Rockaway, the wide end of the peninsula at the end of the A line, remnants of the small civic and commercial center remain. Far Rockaway has aged without becoming derelict; most buildings have been slowly run down but have never fallen out of use. The result is not the distraught ruins of urban decay, nor is it a rehabbed, redeveloped, “cool” district. Addicts of apocalyptic abandonment will find Gowanus; fashionable rediscoverers congregate in the Lower East Side. Those enthralled by neither extreme–the nostalgic historians–find Rockaway, where the former life of many outer borough neighborhoods is preserved as if sealed in a bottle.
Past Far Rockaway convenience stores and restaurants dot the main streets, but much of the space that beach-goers walk – from the subway to the water – remains barren and deserted. These empty swaths have played host to chunks of multi-unit residential development over the last two decades. An influx of new residents, attracted by new and relatively inexpensive condos, have injected a jolt of money and intrigue into a mostly forgotten place, and in 2008, the New York Times published a guide to eating, sightseeing, and apartment hunting in Rockaway.
But it may be years before the new arrivals change the character of the Rockaways and bring activity back to this sun-bleached husk of a once-vibrant area. For now, only the drone of countless jets en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport disturbs the calm.
Illustration by Liz Lee