New York City was blessed with 11 miles of sand as its southeastern edge: The Rockaway Peninsula, one of the finest beaches on the East Coast. When Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012, Rockaway was flooded with a 15-foot storm surge. A massive fire took out 100 homes in the Breezy Point area. Another blaze knocked out a commercial block. Power was out for weeks.
President Obama signed the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 into law on January 30, 2013, a full three-plus months after the superstorm hit. Understandably, things have been slow to improve.
Like much of America, the peninsula's 130,000 people are split virtually in half economically. The poor areas run up to 116th Street or so. Relative wealth begins around there, when you hit Belle Harbor, a Jewish-Irish neighborhood of fine stand-alone homes, which connects to Breezy Point, a private Irish community dubbed “the whitest neighborhood in New York” by the New York Times and others.
Rockaway light is the best in New York. Because much of the peninsula is less than a mile wide, the double reflection off the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay creates a dome of hollow sunlight; soft hues dust the peninsula, creating a déjà vu feeling of nostalgia and romance. In winter, the light is even softer.
I took a train and a ferry out to Rockaway this past weekend. The peninsula reminded me of another gorgeous place I’d been after it was devastated by nature—the Kashmir Valley in Pakistan, after a 7.6-magnitude earthquake killed 70,000 in October 2005.
Unlike Pakistan, no U.S. Blackhawks are skirting the skies, dropping aid to the Rockaways. There are no white SUVs, the go-to auto of the aid community.
Still, gauging the level of response, the progress or lack thereof, on New York’s storied peninsula is difficult.
116th Street is the Rockaway’s Skid Row, a thoroughfare of faded pastel buildings, a true throwback with SRO hotels, rundown casino arcades, abandoned ballrooms, liquor stores and Chinese take-outs.
One 116th Street resident complained, “Nothing’s happening. I mean, we got power back, but…” He drifted off with that PTSD gaze. “Nothing else.”
A church down the block was still giving out aid, I was told, but it was closed when I visited.
Politicians and some media tend to portray Americans in outrageously positive ways. Well, we may not be the greatest nation in the history of mankind after all. But we are potentially the most unequal.
Rockaway is fine example of that, as "Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York" (Columbia University Press) points out: “The Rockaway poor received worse treatment than their counterparts in any other urban location outside the south.”
Rockaway is home to the second largest concentration of public housing projects in New York, outside of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, all of them situated below Belle Harbor.
Here’s Rockaway-born writer Michael Greenberg in the New York Review of Books:
The Rockaway public housing projects, many between fourteen and twenty-four stories high, were isolated and self-contained, a separate, forgotten world, with some of the city’s highest rates of infant mortality, infectious diseases, and unemployment.
By the end of the 1970s, the peninsula contained half the public housing projects in Queens, though it had only .05 percent of the borough’s population. It also became a dumping ground for group homes for the mentally disabled and last-stop nursing facilities for the aged. By the 1980s, Rockaway had more of these than any other part of New York.
Before the storm, Rockaway Beach had been rebranded as the “cool” beach. The first cool New York City beach since cool started to mean not just semi-cold but culturally great. There was a taco shack where Brooklyn young folks from outside of Rockaway waited an hour for hip fish. A new surf culture emerged; people lugged boards from Manhattan on the A train. A boardwalk revived: All the cool Brooklyn restaurants opened stands. There were punk concerts at sundown. The whole scene was called a “catwalk” by—who else?— the Times style section. Rockaway was hot!
Also, it is a place where this week the New York Times mourned the loss of a $5.1 million beachfront property. Woe is me, cries one poor broker who “…had received two offers on that crumpled home, both in the low $2 million range. If this had been put on the market in good condition this past summer, she said, she would have asked $4 million to $4.5 million.”
That $2 million is $1,983,000 more than the $17,000 per capita income in Far Rockaway, on the other side of the peninsula.
To me, America in all its disparity came together post-storm with three words in a community meeting: A developer still had the gall to refer to Rockaway as “the New Montauk.”
(Montauk, for those in other parts of the country, is a traditional summer hangout for Manhattan millionaires.)
The Rockaway this nervy developer was talking about was in severe crisis, and only now is emerging to critical post-crisis.
With the subway tracks destroyed, it takes up to five hours to reach Rockaway from Manhattan via public transport.
For residents who travelled to other parts of the city to see their doctors, the lack of subway service is more than an inconvenience. If a patient doesn’t have access to an automobile, a trip to the nearest hospital can easily stretch into a ten-hour round-trip journey. And that’s not counting the hours in the medical center waiting room.
Of course, not all of New York is thinking of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath in terms of real estate and marketing value.
In Miami, at December’s annual Art Basel fair, the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 held a fundraiser for Rockaway. It was personal: PS1’s director Klaus Biesenbach’s house in Rockaway was destroyed. The museum is donating a geodesic dome, and the several hundred thousand dollars raised will go to the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance (RWA).
Ideas as to what the dome can become are being tossed about. The fact that there isn’t one movie theater in Rockaway keeps coming up.
“All culture except beach culture was lacking in Rockaway, and the destruction of the boardwalk adds another layer,” says Mike Herman, who works with the RWA as a financial controller and business consultant. “Now we have to fix the beach too.”