Last Stand for a Bungalow Backwater
By WILLIAM L. HAMILTON
DIDN'T make the law! You know what I'm saying?" Richard George said recently, standing in his kitchen in Rockaway, Queens, serving lunch. Mr. George, a large Italian-American man, gets operatic when the forces of good and bad line up clearly in his mind. And nobody doesn't eat when they visit his bungalow on Beach 24th Street. Lunch was pizza and onion pie, recipes from Apulia that his grandmother taught him.
"They wish I would fall in a hole somewhere, right?" he continued.
Mr. George was talking about his 18-year, on-again-off-again battle with the powers that be — public government and private developers — to protect three streets of beachside bungalows, including his own, built in the 1920's. Development, long dormant in Rockaway, has reawakened in the last year in Mr. George's immediate neighborhood, Wavecrest, and farther away in Arverne on Beach 73rd and 74th Streets, where a village-like project, Arverne by the Sea, will extend east to Beach 62nd Street.
The bungalows between Beach 24th and Beach 26th Streets, three blocks between Seagirt Boulevard and the boardwalk, comprise one of the largest privately owned parcels of undeveloped land left on the oceanfront in Rockaway. But they also comprise one of the largest remnants of Rockaway's history as New York's seaside resort for the city's lower and middle classes. Rockaway was, and is, accessible by subway. You take the A train.
Monumental clouds, like Mount Rushmore afloat in the sky, are still there over Jamaica Bay. And the sea still stretches to the horizon, silver under the sun like the scales of leaping fish.
"You basically walked out your door and the street in front of you was sand," recalled Joel Meyerowitz, the photographer and author of "A Summer's Day" (Random House), whose family spent a summer in Rockaway in 1947, when he was 9.
"It was a sensual, easy kind of life," he said. "Little markets and people who came by with fish on ice, and fruits and vegetables.
It was rustic, rural seaside. For poor middle-class families like mine, who couldn't afford to go anyplace, this was a big deal to try bungalow life."
Mr. George, 51, a producer for QPTV, the Queens public access television station, has two federal lawsuits pending against developers and New York City, and he has presented a majestic forest of paperwork to government agencies. Harold Lebow, a neighbor of Mr. George's, who with his wife, Lee, has spent 40 summers in Rockaway, reprised a common observation about it.
"This is the poor man's Riviera," he said, sitting with Mrs. Lebow in a living room crowded with packed boxes waiting to go back to the Bronx for the winter. "Have you been on the boardwalk? It's beautiful."
But Rockaway is not a preservationist's dream. Today, on the other side of the boardwalk from its 11 miles of beach, are vistas of vacancy and sporadic development. From Beach 24th to 26th Street, empty lots or unarrested decrepitude at some addresses are interspersed infrequently by repaired and painted bungalows at others.
Viewed from the empty boardwalk, where people strolling 40 years ago were offered hot dogs and silent movies projected on flapping sheets, the area looks like something fighting for its life.
Mr. George has written to Community Board 14, the City Landmarks Commission, the City Department of Housing and Preservation, the City Planning Commission, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Department of Commerce, among other agencies. Officials at each office, when called, were well aware of his name. He has familiarized himself with what he believes are the relevant issues by studying them at the City University of New York's School of Law library in Flushing.
As decay has settled in, so has a small resurgence of homeowners' interest during the last several years, by New Yorkers looking for inexpensive seaside weekend houses. A bungalow on Beach 25th Street was sold in July, setting a record at $189,000. The four-room bungalows typically sell for $90,000 to $150,000. "This is the last fort," said Albert Frankel, a local real estate broker. "Everything else has been destroyed. If they want to preserve that history, this would be the last place to do it."
Andrew Dolkart, an associate professor of historic preservation at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, agreed, saying, "There's nothing that comes close to being as intact as this little group, not in New York City. This kind of development — working-class seaside communities - is a really important part of the city's history.
Anthony C. Wood, a local preservationist who is the former president of the Preservation League of New York State, called Mr. George's beachside neighborhood a "diamond in the rough."
Like many local activists elsewhere, Mr. George's view of his neighborhood's significance has, over time, expanded like an obsession. When he steps into the street and looks to the beach a half-block away — the view from his porch was eliminated in 1999 by the construction of Wavecrest Gardens, a six-story apartment building whose developers Mr. George took to court unsuccessfully he sees the past, present and future of Rockaway: a magnificent, troubled and valuable piece of New York City.
Few would argue with the unlikelihood of such a large undeveloped beachfront in the metropolitan area, or the surprise of its actually being in New York City.
"I'm dumbfounded," said Jay Tanski, a coastal specialist with the New York Sea Grant Institute at Stony Brook University. "Something that desirable would be highly developed if you went to any other coastal area with any population."
Development, preservation's nemesis, is Mr. George's other issue. His two current lawsuits name developers on Beach 26th Street who are constructing low-rise town houses, which Mr. George claims obliterate historical public access to the beach safeguarded by federal coastal policies.
In an unusual pre-emptive move, Mr. George is also sounding alarms, through a letter-writing campaign, about public access farther down the beach at Arverne by the Sea, a 117-acre condominium development that broke ground last year. Its adherence to coastal policies will be publicly evaluated at a meeting in New York on Oct. 30.
Activists like Mr. George, a mild, genial man, often seem like the toads of fable who had jewels in their heads — ordinary citizens with a rich vision imbedded in them.
"Public participation?" he said, referring to the quiet caveat that often accompanies government review processes. "I am the public."
Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization for New York City's historic neighborhoods, said of Mr. George's initiatives: "It's really tough out there. Once you leave the confines of Manhattan, land use regulation becomes harder. There is a lot less attention paid to things that happen in the far reaches of the city. Beach communities are so strange and so fragile. To have a protector of this vaguely arcane thing is important."
Mr. George, who owns seven bungalows that he rents, in addition to the tiny house he lives in, grew up in Corona, Queens, and bought his first house in Rockaway, as a summer residence, in 1982. He moved there permanently in 1986.
In the 1920's, when the bungalows were built, colonies of them thrived on Rockaway, up and down the beach. In 1929, Groucho Marx owned 24 as an investment.
By midcentury, two bridges and rail service had made the peninsula accessible to working-class families in the other boroughs.
"My mother nagged to go to water," said Mr. Meyerowitz, whose father was a dry cleaning salesman and whose family lived in the Bronx. "I slept on the screened-in porch, cheek by jowl with the other bungalows. It was like an opera set. There were 15 bungalows on each side of an aisle of sand, four to six people stuffed in each bungalow."
The post-World War II advent of inexpensive automobile travel, which allowed trips to points farther away, led to the steady decline of the Rockaways as a summer destination.
In the 1960's, the city razed most of what was left of the deteriorating colonies.A series of plans for the land, including a $1 billion sports, entertainment and hotel complex, came and went for lack of cooperation or funds.
As he cleared the table three weeks ago, Mr. George repeated what he recalled as a comment by Jimmy Breslin, the Daily News columnist.
"Rockaway is where wood rots and people waste," Mr. George said laughing, with a kind of suspended grief.
The Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association of Far Rockaway, a group of 27 people, founded in 1984 and of which Mr. George is the director, has also become largely his mouthpiece. Dues are $25 a year. The association raised $40,000 in contributions and hired a lawyer for its lawsuit against Wavecrest Gardens. Members have also donated money for Mr. George's self-representation in the two new lawsuits, which have cost $1,407 to date. The association's latest letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which he drafted, was sent this month. The letterhead design is a drawing of an old-fashioned life preserver.
"It's an interesting part of New York, undoubtedly," said Robert B. Tierney, the commission's chairman. Mr. Tierney added that no comparable beach community has ever been designated a landmark, which could be good — or bad — news for the Wavecrest bungalows.
When Mr. George was asked if he felt that he had somehow unfairly singled himself out to bear the responsibility for the bungalows' fate, he shrugged his big shoulders as if used to a great weight on them.
Outside, on his porch, as an autumn wind came up and rustled the striped awning, two stray cats ate from an aluminum pie dish in a corner.
"Why not me?" Mr. George said. "If nobody else is going to do it?"
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