Living on Sand: The Rockaways & The Folly of Waterfront Development

New York City’s densely populated waterfronts may need a rethink in the future.

On a perfect beach day in August, Ed and I rode the subway to the Rockaways, one of New York’s oceanfront peninsulas, population 130,000-plus, that serves as a barrier—shielding Jamaica Bay, the southern extremities of Brooklyn and Queens, and even Kennedy Airport—from the ravages of the ocean. I hadn’t been there since the 1980s. I’ve always been more of a Coney Island girl, with a soft spot for the Russian restaurants that line the boardwalk in neighboring Brighton Beach. But from Williamsburg, where we now live, it’s easier to hop on the L train, change to the A at Broadway Junction, and then pick up the poky shuttle at Broad Channel.

Which is why many of our fellow passengers were 20-somethings wearing straw fedoras and vintage guayaberas. The hipsters got off at Beach 98th, where the boardwalk pavilion had been recently transformed into a trendy food court. We stayed on until the next stop and walked through a phalanx of featureless Band-Aid-colored apartment buildings, circa 1965, lined up perpendicular to the ocean, looking like they belonged in Brasilia, and found a wonderful beach. We followed our swim with beer and arepas from a Venezuelan restaurant that had set up shop in a boardwalk pavilion. The whole experience was utterly civilized. We swore we’d do it again.

On the way home, as the subway shuttle crossed Beach Channel, Ed pointed west, to a spot beyond the Marine Parkway Bridge. There was Roxbury, an enclave on Rockaway Inlet where his family used to have a bungalow. Amazing: Ed grew up on one end of Queens, in Jamaica, and vacationed at the other end. The bungalow was rudimentary—no heat or running water—a type that was once common in the Rockaways. Ed and his brother spent summers crabbing off the nearby jetty and putt-putting around the bay on a boat propelled by a Johnson five-and-a-half-horsepower outboard motor.

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Our next trip to the Rockaways didn’t happen until November, a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy. Naturally, we began at Roxbury. Like neighboring Breezy Point—where 111 homes, submerged in Sandy’s storm surge, were consumed by a wind-driven fire—Roxbury is a private, gated community. We parked outside the gate, snuck in a back road and discovered, no surprise, that Ed’s childhood bungalow was gone. It wasn’t destroyed by Sandy, but done in by real estate, demolished in the 1990s in favor of a more substantial house with two sprawling decks that represent more floor space than that of Ed’s entire bungalow.

This transformation—summer bungalow replaced by year-round home—is pretty much the story of the Rockaways and of many beachfront communities up and down the coast. Bigger and bigger investments are routinely planted on increasingly vulnerable slices of land. Here in New York City, this drive to populate the waterfront is policy. In the mayor’s PlaNYC 2030, “reclaim under-utilized waterfronts,” is a constant refrain. Disused waterfronts have become valuable real estate, putting more and more residents in the hazardous locations that the city’s hurricane evacuation guidelines refer to as “Zone A.”

Ed and I drove through Breezy Point, a bustling hive of relief efforts and repair work, and continued east along the Rockaway peninsula. We saw small armies of broom-wielding volunteers dressed in bright yellow vests, sanitation crews removing downed trees, and a mountain of storm refuse on what is normally the parking lot of Jacob Riis Park. We stopped on Beach 116th Street, a business district where most of the shops were still shuttered, ducked under some yellow police tape, and clambered onto what was left of the Rockaways’s five-mile-long boardwalk, a stretch that was crazily warped but still standing. Further down the beach, the boardwalk devolved into piles of wood, like sloppy Andy Goldsworthy sculptures, and then the wood disappeared altogether and all that remained was a series of concrete plinths. The pavilion where we ate arepas survived, but just barely. It had been gutted by the surge.

Once upon a time, the Rockaways were a serene coastal retreat for the wealthy. As soon as public transportation made it accessible—the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) got there in 1892—it took on a honky-tonk demeanor, with seaside bathhouses and dance halls. None of that exists today. In fact, there’s a weird lack of visible beach culture there. This is not Venice Beach, Miami, or even Coney Island. Much of the odd emptiness is attributable to (who else?) Robert Moses. In 1938, in the process of building Jacob Riis Park and the Shore Front Parkway, Moses bulldozed bathhouses and amusement parks. In the 1950s, when the IND line of the New York City subway system replaced the LIRR, he razed hundreds of acres of wood-frame bungalows to create superblocks for those Band-Aid-colored towers and land for a string of public housing projects that are now home to more than 10,000 residents. Of Moses, Emil R. Lucev, Sr., author of The Rockaways (Arcadia Publishing, 2007), wrote, “High-rise buildings and roads are his legacy here.”

The peculiarities of the Rockaways, however, aren’t entirely attributable to Moses. Despite the peninsula’s breathtaking landscape of white sand and open ocean, there’s virtually nothing about what has been built there since his time that acknowledges the natural setting. Breezy Point has an extensive beach club with acres of cabanas, and surfers come in droves, often via the A train. But most of the built environment could be anywhere, and it neither respects the danger of the ocean nor pays homage to its beauty. “The preponderance of what was built were primary residences in a suburban format,” observes the developer and planner James Lima. There’s also a conscious effort to make the beach less appealing to outsiders. Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer, the executive director of the Queens Council on the Arts, lives in a 1904 Rockaways home that’s been in her husband’s family for five generations. She says there’s a resistance to having public amenities of the sort you’d expect at the beach—especially parking—because the community fears that “people would come and trash the neighborhood. They’re fiercely residential beaches in the Rockaways. It’s not a public thing.”

In the early 2000s, Lima was assistant commissioner for new construction and large-scale planning for New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. He played an early role in the 117-acre residential project now known as Arverne by the Sea, working with the Architectural League and a group of university-based architects to explore new models for affordable housing. The best thing to come out of that process was the architect Michael Bell’s proposal for a dense cluster of glass houses on the site. As impractical as glass might be, they at least made the most of the ocean view and the buildings were mounted on stilts, a nod to the beachfront ecology. What was finally built was more conventional—semi-attached houses with shed roofs and white trim redolent of Seaside, Florida—but the homes are sited to take advantage of the ocean views, and the landscaping incorporated sophisticated drainage techniques and extra elevation to minimize flooding. On drive-by inspection, Arverne by the Sea looked pretty intact compared to everything else.

Krakauer’s house is on Beach 124th Street, closer to the bay than the ocean. “We looked up the block and we saw a wall of water,” she says. “We jumped into the house, up to the third floor, and watched the ocean meet the bay.” The force of the water broke windows and flooded the basement. “It’s the Zone A story,” she says. “No cars. No boiler. No furnace. No washing machine.” But Krakauer’s basement didn’t need to be pumped out. “I started to see the water sinking in my basement and thought, where’s it going? The plumbers told me that’s how they used to build houses. There’s a hole in my basement, with gravel. We have this natural trap where the water goes out to the water table.” Krakauer suggests that anyone who plans to build in the Rockaways look hard at both Arverne by the Sea and 100-year-old houses like hers.

Good advice. We could use an enforceable checklist of rules for smart seaside development, like LEED for the beach. Beyond that, I hope that by next summer the boardwalk is back. Ditto the arepas and the fish tacos. At the same time, I’m beginning to question the knee-jerk resilience that is the now all-too-familiar response to disaster. “Rockaway will be back strong,” a hand-painted roadside sign read. Maybe everything we lose in storms shouldn’t be rebuilt. Maybe we shouldn’t have year-round homes and housing projects on vulnerable peninsulas. Maybe sand isn’t real estate.

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