Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Rockaways

Location:   Queens
Year:   1639

The Rockaway Peninsula (known locally as just "The Rockaways," a collective name for the small communities that thrive there) is a long, narrow, low-lying peninsula that forms the extreme south shore of Long Island. It forms the lower jaw of Walt Whitman's "fish-shaped Paumanok." The peninsula separates Jamaica Bay to the north from the Atlantic Ocean to the south. 

Topographically, the peninsula is an extension of Long Island's south shore barrier beaches. Tidal action has connected the Rockaways to the main body of Long Island at its eastern end. The "neck" of the Rockaways is the area known as The Five Towns.  At its western end, the peninsula is separated from Brooklyn's Coney Island by the Rockaway Inlet (the western end of which is also known as Coney Island Channel). The rest of the peninsula is separated from the islands in Jamaica Bay by Beach Channel. 

Breezy Point Shopping Center

Historically, the Rockaways belonged to the Lenape Indians (some older sources say "the Rockaway Indians," though this was a tribal community, not a tribe), who called the area "Rockawocky," meaning "The place of sand." The inhabitants fished and clammed for self-support, and traded with the Canarsies across the channel. In 1639, the area was sold to the Dutch (and in 1665, sold again, to the British).  The Rockaways have always been part of Queens County, and were originally part of the Town of Hempstead. The peninsula is the only area of New York City (excepting islands) that is non-contiguous. When Greater New York City was formed in 1898, eastern Queens voted not to join the city, and seceded to form Nassau County. The borders of the new county did not allow for a land connection between western Queens and the Rockaways.

Given the Rockaways relative isolation from the rest of New Amsterdam/New York, the area was barely settled. The only access to the Rockaways from Manhattan or Brooklyn was by boat; the land journey meant a visitor had to travel around Jamaica Bay and through the fens that existed in modern-day Cedarhurst. The area became an outlier, populated by an odd assortment of folk who, for one reason or another, sought seclusion. 

Apartment houses in Far Rockaway

The Rockaways remained an outlier until the 1830s. As New York and Brooklyn grew, the eyes of the well-to-do lighted upon the Rockaways as a nearby, yet private, area for escape from the hustle-and-bustle of the cities around the harbor. Resort hotels began to be built. The immense amusement park Rockaway Playland opened in 1901 and closed in 1985, unable to compete with the Six Flags organization.  With the hotels and Rockaway Playland came housing for service personnel. The first formal communities grew up in the Rockaways. Growth was further spurred by the coming of the Long Island Rail Road, institution of regular ferry service in the early 1900s (which still continues), and the construction of the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge in 1937 and  the Cross Bay Bridge in 1939, all of which made the Rockaways far more accessible. 

Aside from the large hotels, small beach bungalows became a signature of the Rockaways. Some still stand, though urban renewal efforts have replaced most of them. Two sections of the peninsula --- Breezy Point Tip (at the extreme western end) and Jacob Riis Park (a popular public beach in the center) are now part of Gateway National Recreation Area. With the advent of cheaper airfares, the Rockaways lost their allure as a resort area and became residential.

Neponsit, with the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge in the background

The communities --- neighborhoods --- of the Rockaways are diverse. Breezy Point, on the western end, is predominantly Irish-American, as is nearby Rockaway Beach, also known as "The Irish Riviera."  

Bayswater, a working class area, is shared by African-Americans and Orthodox Jews. Belle Harbor is affluent and almost exclusively white. Most of its Irish-American and Italian-American residents are civic employees of the NYPD and the FDNY. 

The great fire at Breezy Point, 2012

Neponsit is, and always has been, an expensive beach community of upscale and sturdy homes. It was the site of the origin of the first transatlantic flight in 1919 (with stops). For lack of a proper runway or airport, the pilot used Beach Channel Drive to lift off. 

Arverne, on the other hand, originally a resort community, has always struggled to maintain itself, and underwent extensive urban renewal just prior to Hurricane Sandy.
The Rockaways immediately after Superstorm Sandy

Weather and the sea have always impacted life in the Rockaways, going back to the days of the Lenape. In 1893, Hog Island, one of the numerous barrier islands adjacent to the peninsula, was completely drowned in a storm. The hotels and homes in the Rockaways were built to withstand the constant surrounding marine and weather conditions. In October 2012, much of this building came to naught as Hurricane Sandy (sometimes called Superstorm Sandy) swept over the Rockaways, submerging many areas, flooding others, and causing a raging, uncheckable fire in Breezy Point that destroyed 111 homes and damaged 20 more. Renewal efforts have begun, but the pace has been disturbingly slow, hampered by the stagnant national economy. 


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