Failure to Rebuild the Boardwalk Stalls Rockaway’s Recovery
City and State by Brendon Brosh
November 7, 2013

It is one of the most demoralizing aspects of the Sandy recovery for many in Rockaway.  Our community–for the first time in living memory–is without a boardwalk.  And now, word is filtering through the community that we won’t have a boardwalk until the summer of 2015, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.  For many of us, this is just too much to bear.

It is hard for outsiders to comprehend just how important the boardwalk is for our businesses and our sense of identity.  It is our Main Street and the heart of our peninsula, a place where children learn to ride bikes and where senior citizens meet their friends on the same bench for decades. Rockaway, up until the 1950s, was one of the premier vacation spots on the East Coast. The peninsula was home to dozens of world-class hotels and would swell with millions of visitors every summer.  A combination of neglect and bad policies led to Rockaway’s decline, and our last amusement park, Playland, was closed in 1985.  As a young person who grew up on the peninsula in the 1980s, there was a constant refrain from old-timers: “You don’t know how great Rockaway used to be.”

The past few summers, however, there has been a tangible feeling that things are finally getting better.  Young people with disposable income and day-tripping families are flocking en masse to the peninsula.  New businesses are opening and celebrity sightings are increasingly common. And some industrious young people even started their own bus line to transport people to our transportation-starved peninsula. In short, the elements of a nascent Rockaway Renaissance are in place.

The boardwalk has played a central role in this revival, with dirty water hot dog vendors replaced with more serious culinary fare. One New York Times article went so far as to liken the boardwalk to a catwalk. The neighborhood, to the laughter of locals, was dubbed “Bushwick by the Beach.”  Superstorm Sandy destroyed the most active part of the boardwalk from Beach 88th Street to Beach 126th Street.

The Parks Department, long distrusted by Rockaway residents, came to the peninsula and promised us input in the new boardwalk design. (I am still holding a grudge for a naturally occurring dune that was bulldozed by Parks in the summer of 2004.) We attended multiple meetings–despite the very real exhaustion of going to work and simultaneously rebuild our houses–and believed we were turning over a new leaf with the department.  Our input was largely ignored. Instead, narrow concrete boardwalk “islands” were built and supplemented with massive, unnecessary comfort stations for the 2013 beach season.  These stations, which can only be likened to floating box car diners, were incredibly costly and are universally reviled by resident and tourist alike. The rationale for these structures and the amount of money used to purchase them is completely lost on residents.  Two of them remain jettisoned in their plastic wrap next door to the wastewater treatment plant, while the rest along the beach are rusting away in the saltwater air.
Boardwalk concessionaires somehow managed to survive on their “islands” this past summer but it is unclear how they will last another season without a contiguous boardwalk.

Our peninsula has suffered an abnormal amount of setbacks in the last 12 years. The attacks on September 11th killed dozens of neighbors, and just two months later American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into our neighborhood, leaving 265 people dead. We lost Peninsula Hospital in 2011 and a tornado slammed into Breezy Point in September 2012.  Amidst the chaos of Sandy, at least nine people on the peninsula died and approximately 150 structures burned in three separate fires. We spent the first five days wondering if the city had forgotten about us.  Virtually all of us were displaced; some of our neighbors are still not home.

In times of great stress, Rockaway has always turned to the boardwalk and beach as a place for reflection and solace.  Our neighbors in Long Beach have rebuilt their boardwalk because it is a priority for their beach community.  To the next administration—please restore our boardwalk in 2014. Our spiritual and economic recovery depends on it.


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