Replete with housing projects, retirement centers and curious rows of crowded, weed-ingested bungalows, Rockaway Beach is the quintessential everyman’s urban beach town. Even as Beach 116th Street holds more (sub)urban standards such as Duane Reade, a local firehouse and the Rockaway Diner than surf and swim shops (Blue Bungalow apparently only traffics enough business to open one day a week), the crumbling duplexes continue to bear proud front door plaques with statements such as “If you’re lucky enough to live at the beach, you’re lucky enough,” while tan kids with sun-bleached hair terrorize the boardwalk on bikes and skateboards. So what if Playland (the poor man’s Coney Island) closed in 1985 and half of the neighborhood’s housing is government supplemented? Rockway Beach still has (somewhat crunchy) sand, a boardwalk and beachfront snacks and, perhaps most importantly, real (dangerous!) waves and a Ramone’s song.
Brief history: A century ago, Rockaway Beach was the vacation spot of choice for wealthy Manhattanites (do the names Vanderbilt, Longfellow and Irving mean something to you?), who stayed in The Marine Hotel (destroyed by fire in 1864) and partied at Playland’s pre-cursor, Seaside (also burnt to a crisp, 1892). But after WWII, New York’s newly prosperous middle-class sunbathers were drawn to the more modern facilities offered at Coney Island, and Rockaway began to transition from a resort to a residential community—a transition aided by the New York Housing Authority, who purchased much of Rockaway Beach for the construction of low-cost shelter.
Despite some comfy, tree-lined residential streets with mostly kept-up old houses that sprawl a block from shore, Rockaway Beach is a tough love kind of place. Okay, so maybe a ritz cracker wrapper and a black plastic bodega bag joined me in my swim, and maybe, when I pricked my toe on something sharp under the murkiness, the thought that it might be a hypodermic needle flitted across my mind, but I found Rockaway’s gritty ‘tude, the energetic local teens and the hyper-conscientious lifeguards vivid, colorful and oddly peaceful—particularly as the afternoon grew late, the beach grew more crowded, the wind picked up, and I plopped in the (disconcertingly grayish) sand with a sugary, milky coffee from the Sand Bar to watch kids drag each other into the freezing surf while the sky turned as bruise-purple as the water.
I have this dream of living in a low-rent beach town, perhaps in Latin America (and perhaps nurtured by a month in Costa Rica and a particular dinner scene in Y Tu Mama Tambien), where the mantra of the new Levi’s ads (the ones currently blasting the NYC metro stations) rings true—“All I got is all I need.” Some place where people don’t worry so much about getting ahead, where living is just living and the ocean is as nourishing as Mississippi soul food…it’s not the same, and I’m sure I’m romanticizing and projecting in the most undignified manner, but watching the sunset over Rockaway Beach gave me something of that feeling…and that longing.