Saturday, May 31, 2014

Rockaway Boardwalk of the Past

Pile of surfboards on Rockaway Beach with a girl sitting in the background
Surf Beach at Beach 67th Street
Although Rockaway Beach is not in Brooklyn, it is a favorite spot of many Brooklynites and doing a blog post on the beach made famous by the Ramones seems appropriate. 

Rockaway beach was once a summer resort destination but like many summer getaways of the early 20th century it saw a decline after WWII when mass car ownership fueled an exodus from urban centers. Although, parts of Rockaway have remained a vibrant community with year round residents other parts of the peninsula suffered from urban decay. At its peak the boardwalk hosted amusement parks, food vendors and a summer bungalow community.  More recently there has been a renewed public interest in Rockaway Beach and growing crowds of visitors are coming to the boardwalk, a wider range of food options are being offered and a growing community of surfers are visiting and moving to the area.


Abandoned basketball court next to the Rockaway boardwalk
Abandoned Basketball Courts
Rockaway Boardwalk and adjacent abandoned neighborhood
Rockaway's Forgotten Neighborhood Facing West
Rockaway Boardwalk and adjacent abandoned neighborhood
Rockaway's Forgotten Neighborhood Facing East
Along the eastern end of the Rockaway boardwalk lies the specter of an abandoned beach bungalow neighborhood. The bungalows are gone but the infrastructure, including crumbling streets, telephone poles and and basketball courts remains. Most of the beaches' visitors that come from outside of the Rockaways never venture much further east than Beach 67th Street. The first time I walked east of Beach 67th Street on a beautiful late summer Friday I was surprised to see a large swath of vacant land and an underutilized boardwalk. Much of the boardwalk on the eastern end survived Hurricane Sandy; however, in spite of the good condition of the boardwalk and beautiful weather, there wasn't anyone in site and an eire silence persisted. I must have walked a mile without seeing another person. I was told by some local residents that before hurricane Sandy this area was home to a pack of feral dogs. Fortunately for me they were no longer there. This area between Beach 56th Place and Beach 32nd Street used to be home to a summer bungalow community.

Rockaway bungalow refinished in sand colored stucco
Rockaway Bungalow (Beach 24th Street)
Looking down the street at a row of Rockaway Beach bungalows
Rockaway Beach Bungalows (Beach 25th Street)
There used to be thousands of bungalows on the Rockaway Peninsula; today there are fewer than 400. Construction of the bungalow community began in the early 1900s to supplant tent communities that began to pop up along the boardwalk.[1] The neighborhood of Wavecrest is home to the Far Rockaway Beach Bungalow Historic District. The district is the largest intact portion of the original bungalow community, spanning 3 blocks between Beach 24th Street and Beach 26th Street.[2] Most of these homes were designed by architect Henry Hohauser and constructed by Isaac Zaret in the 1920s.[1] Henry Hohauser is better known for designing Art Deco hotels in Miami.[2] The beach side bungalows were modest summer homes built to meet the recreation demand of working class Russian, Italian, Irish and German Jewish immigrants.[1] The bungalows are all 1-1/2 stories with 3 bedrooms, a kitchen, porch, bathroom and many windows.[2]

There were many factors that may have led to the decline of the beach bungalow community like the closure of the main rail bridge after a fire during the 1950s[2], crime, redlining, cheaper transportation to destinations outside of the city and changing demographic trends. Whatever the reason, many people stopped coming to the Rockaways as a summer getaway and a large swath of bungalow property was abandoned and repurposed for public housing. Not winterized, the bungalows were inadequate as public housing, so their use by the city was short lived and most of the bungalows were demolished in the 1960s under commissioner Robert Moses to make way for apartment complexes, housing projects and the widening of Seagirt Boulevard.[1][3] In place of much of the bungalow community, a derelict land is all that remains.

Although the Rockaway bungalow community has State Landmark Status, it is still vulnerable to demolition by developers and there has been a long running battle between developers and preservationists. In 2011 Bootleg Productions, the producers of Boardwalk Empire donated $10,000 to help preservationists like Richard George and the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association with preservation efforts for the remaining bungalows.[2]


Boardwalk Empire Set
Boardwalk Empire Set
At the end of my walk through the forgotten bungalow neighborhood where there wasn't a soul in sight, I came across a scene of old cars and men in period clothes wielding shotguns. It was the set of Boardwalk Empire. The show began filming in the Rockaways in 2009. 
Postcard from Rockaways' Playland

Although Rockaways' Playland (formerly located next to the beach between Beach 98th Street and Beach 97th Street) is the longest running and best known of the Rockaway amusement concessions, it was not the first. George C. Tilyou's Steeplechase Park and L.A. Thompson's, Thompson's Park preceded Rockaways' Playland. Both Tilyou and Thompson made names for themselves in the amusement industry. Tilyou was known for helping to make Coney Island one of the most famous amusement parks in the world and Thompson was known for his innovations related to roller coasters. Known by many as "the father of the modern coaster" he held numerous roller coaster patents and his company, "L.A. Thompson Scenic Rail Company" built 50 roller coasters in the United States. Among the various attractions of the two mens' parks were a fun-house, shooting gallery, ski-ball, a two story bathhouse, and the Gravity Wonder (or "Hurricane") roller coaster.[4] 

Eight years after Thompson's death Thompson's Park was sold to a company that added an arena, gymnasium and olympic size swimming pool, as well as other upgrades to the park and reopened it as Rockaways' Playland on May 30th, 1928. The arena was used for boxing matches and circus performances; the pool was once used for international olympic tryouts for female swimmers. Over the years the amusement park was renovated, rides were added and additional transportation options to get the park were offered; however, by the 1970s park attendance was declining. After 86 years of operation, Rockaways' Playland closed its doors for the season in 1985 never to reopen again.[4]


Rockaway Boardwalk (2 Weeks after Hurricane Sandy)
Street Next to Boardwalk (2 Weeks after Hurricane Sandy)
In 2012 the Rockaway Peninsula suffered the wrath of Hurricane Sandy which destroyed much of the boardwalk, as well as many homes and businesses. The community is bouncing back though and beach attendance continues to rise in spite of there being missing sections of boardwalk. Today, Rockaway beach is being redeveloped and new businesses including surf shops, surf schools and summer food vendors like Rockaway Taco and Roberta's are setting up shop at the beach. One interesting vision for the future is a tent hotel based on the original tent communities of the early 1900s. The potential "Camp Rockaway" hotel proprietor is currently raising money for design development on Kickstarter.


References:
  1. "Far Rockaway Beachside Bungalows" A Guide to Historic New York City Neighborhoods Historic Districts Council.
  2. Laterman, Kaya "In Far Rockaway, Recognition for Bungalows" Wall Street Journal. Online. 28 January, 2013.
  3. "Hamilton, William L "Last Stand for a Bungalow Backwater" New York Times. Online. 23, October 2003.
  4. Gottlock, Barbara & Wesley Lost Amusement Parks of New York City. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2013.

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