“Maybe we shouldn’t have year-round homes and housing projects on vulnerable peninsulas. Maybe sand isn’t real estate.”
This half lament, half “clear-eyed appraisal” of Rockaway’s post-Sandy future appeared in a recent column in Metropolis titled “Shifting Sands.” Many conversations and panel discussions among planners and environmentalists in Sandy’s aftermath have voiced similarly sobering projections about the future of entire swathes of the city. The ideas of managed retreat and absorbing the cost of living in flood zones have gained great currency, highlighted quite starkly by Governor Cuomo’s proposals for buyouts of properties lying in the warpath of future storms. These discussions implore us to be honest with ourselves and come to terms with what kind of city we want New York to be, what kind of urban life we want it to be hospitable to. All agree we must harness the critical momentum provided by Sandy to think about our city’s future. Yet concerning Rockaway, this conversation only seems to address the fate of either the most desperate and poor, in the eastern parts of the Rockaways, or the very wealthy, folks in parts of Belle Harbor and Neponsit, whose million-dollar homes often stand next to small boxy bungalows. The wealthy in this conversation are often understood to be a socioeconomic category of people able to bear the risk of living in a flood zone and the financial cost of losing their home, in what seems to be a rather clinical definition of risk and housing value. Likewise, those spoken of as the poor on the peninsula are categorized wholesale as on the brink of desperation, living in housing projects and needing “saving.” Not only are these characterizations simplistic, but the conversation in which they are invoked is incomplete. Lost in these broad-stroked debates about New York’s future is the middle class itself: the rest of Belle Harbor, Breezy Point, Rockaway Park, as well as eastern parts of Rockaway, such as Arverne. These New York communities should be just as central to the discussion about our ideal urban future as any other. And that discussion is about more than environmental concerns alone.
Coverage of Sandy has provided most of New York with a crash course in Rockaway. Just as Katrina did in New Orleans, Sandy lifted the lid on long-simmering race and class issues that many of us have been contending with for years. The stark contrast that jumps out most readily — that which those of us who grew up in Rockaway have internalized as part of our New York — is the near complete segregation between white, mostly middle-class Rockaway and, black, more impoverished parts of Rockaway, such as Far Rockaway, Hammels, and Redfern.
In the early days of Sandy’s aftermath, many of my friends and I returned to Rockaway — I now live in Brooklyn — to help our parents dig out the debris from their basements and first floors, and to help them find temporary housing. Wading in a daze through the damage, several of us voiced serious concerns about the parts of Rockaway that did not have the types of resources and support systems that most of us living in Belle Harbor or Breezy had. I imagine that the shelters housing Sandy refugees were not composed of folks from the whiter, western ends of the Rockaway peninsula.
In the decades after World War II, Rockaway — mostly known in New York for its summer bungalows and public beaches — began to transform into the borough’s capital of public housing. Although it made up an almost negligible part of Queens’ overall population in its early days, Rockaway came to claim over 50% of the borough’s housing projects. A similar concentration of nursing facilities and group homes for the mentally infirm also developed. To this day, people in Rockaway talk of the city’s unofficial (and all too often, official) policy of using Rockaway as a “dumping ground.” Families on welfare, deemed too undesirable for housing in the city’s other projects, were often sent to Rockaway*; meanwhile, to make way for the new projects, hundreds of existing residents were displaced, many of whom resorted to living in appallingly substandard conditions in converted “winterized” bungalows and old and decaying boarding houses in slums often compared to the worst rural poverty in the American South. Many of those displaced hoped, in vain, for admission to the new apartments being built, ultimately being passed over for people from elsewhere in the city. At the same time, other parts of Rockaway became attractive as locations for year-round dwellings, and the western, whiter, ends developed into more firmly established and fashionable outposts of city living.
While the peninsula has been contending with these serious issues for decades, its middle class has become increasingly romanticized in the public eye. Its salt-of-the-earth mystique is often presented in caricaturized fashion — as evidenced by media coverage in the days and weeks after Sandy. Just two weeks after the storm, CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a piece with the tagline: “In Belle Harbor, NY, the only force greater than the devastation of Hurricane Sandy is the determination of the community.” The main subjects of the interview were the Brady family, who spoke of “the three F’s” that guide them and many folks in Belle Harbor – Family, Friends, and Faith. I cringed at how 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley shamelessly elicited the schmaltzy “we take care of our own” community mantra while ignoring the other less sexy, less telegenic end of the peninsula. (Not to mention how the segment turned the very real struggle and steadfastness of the Brady family’s story into a quick and easy local color piece.) This face of Rockaway has attracted the public eye frequently, particularly since 9/11, which hit this area particularly hard due to its large population of first responders. Cameras and reporters captured such headlining moments as when, at the Concert for New York City after 9/11, firefighter Michael Moran, brother of fallen firefighter John Moran (and brother to my childhood neighbor Ellen Brennan, one of the warmest, most generous people I have been privileged to know), addressed Osama bin Laden directly on camera and told him to “Kiss my royal Irish ass.” Everyone loved it. To the rest of the world that was a particularly endearing face of New York: its toughness, its solidarity, its grounded spirit. New Yorkers were proud to be represented by it. And yet.
And yet, as conversations formed around taking action post-Sandy, my friends and I began to realize that middle-class Rockaway, the one romanticized and exemplified so readily as a core part of New York, was not part of any serious dialogue about rebuilding, retreating, or urban resilience more generally. In many public discussions, articles, and even private conversations among planners and activists, the desire to understand and respond to the future that climate change promises seems to have subsumed other realities and challenges of those living in Zone A. Such realities include the opportunity to choose particular and diverse forms of urban living; and we, as New Yorkers, should want to preserve and encourage that. Genuine concern is shown to those living on the Rockaway peninsula, but when the dialogue suggests that so much of Rockaway is “wealthy” residents who should “bear the cost” of their “choice” to live a precarious life on the shore, the decidedly middle- and even lower-middle class communities are left out of the conversation.
The phrase “middle class” means different things to different people, with seemingly as many definitions as there are responses to surveys about it. Across the country, according to poll after poll, many at almost opposite ends of the financial spectrum seem to include themselves in the middle class, and they may all be right. Yet Rockaway’s “middle classes” echo time-honored images of modern American socioeconomic aspirations, where a unionized blue-collar job or civil service position could guarantee a secure and comfortable existence. It is a community of policeman, teachers, firefighters, and other public servants, many of whom are the first generation in their family to have attended college and who have chosen to make family, home, and the cultivation of community the central parts of their lives.
I was born in a hospital in Brooklyn, and the first year of my life was spent on the first floor of a two-family house in Rockaway Park on Beach 123rd Street. My parents, older sister, and I moved to Israel a year later, but we returned to Rockaway when I was 8, when we moved into the modest two-story home in Belle Harbor, on Beach 137th Street, where my father’s parents had lived since 1964. This was considered an “uptown” move for us — while outwardly Rockaway seems to represent mostly uniform economic and racial blocs, it is a microcosm all its own of more subtle social and class differences. Beach 129th Street, where the Belle Harbor parish church St. Francis de Sales stands, is seen as a line of demarcation of class, as is Beach 116th Street, the main shopping area and the terminus of the A train, where so many shuffle off to the beach from Brooklyn in summer. The further “downtown” one goes, whether white or black (or other, there are increasingly other demographic groups), the lower the rung on the class ladder. Though I was the only Jewish girl in my grade at the “uptown” Belle Harbor elementary school I attended, I was received warmly by my mostly Irish-American friends. Since there was nowhere else for a Jewish girl to play basketball, they also, without hesitation, invited me to play CYO Basketball with them at St. Francis, where I was accepted immediately and without question, even though I was not a parishioner. Though not without some cultural confusion: one evening after basketball practice, our coach Kelly Kelly (her real name) sat us down on the bleachers and handed out glossy cards with bullet point information about something called “Chastity.” I had never heard the word before and asked what it was. Kelly Kelly smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it, hon.” Not everyone had a similarly seamless experience crossing social boundaries though. When a friend who grew up “downtown” in Rockaway Park transferred to the St. Francis elementary school, she had several friends there whose mothers took issue with their child spending time with a “downtown girl.” Roxbury and Broad Channel (two neighborhoods relatively lower-middle class than Belle Harbor) are often similarly regarded and disparaged.
This kind of insularity, and a parallel, still-unresolved racial polarity, has always been a very real part of my Rockaway, and is something for which my friends and I developed a deep, healthy skepticism. In some ways, white middle-class Rockaway has dug in its heels and remained aloof in the face of the growing diversity in its city and country — I will forever remember the 2008 presidential election in Belle Harbor, where many Obama supporters kept their voting preferences quiet, and the only evidence of a presidential election was a scattering of McCain/Palin lawn signs. The election night celebrations across the rest of the city were replaced here by an eerie quiet. But the oversimplified idea of a “Rockaway way of life” as an anachronistic, fading, angry white battle cry, embarrassing to the rest of the more progressive and enlightened city, is more often than not grossly exaggerated. Not only is this characterization overly simplistic and inaccurate, it also overshadows what Sandy’s legacy seems to portend: the middle class as an anachronism in New York. Invoking the middle class – and the associated values of hard work, public service, social mobility, grounded values, a family-centered world that more often than not endeavors to be egalitarian and charitable — is the hallmark of any political campaign and figures in all idealized versions of America. That’s why the 60 Minutes producers knew their piece would tug on the nation’s heartstrings. But its ability to maintain a foothold in contemporary New York City remains an open question.
My father will soon retire after a career as a New York State police officer and my mother recently did retire from decades working as a special education teacher in a public school in Brighton Beach. Like most of the people I grew up with, they have just enough for retirement and their only “wealth” is in the equity of their home (which, of course, is now not worth nearly as much as it was pre-storm). Picking up, selling, and moving would, for most people, my parents included, almost certainly mean having to leave the five boroughs. And most of the people in my generation from Rockaway, who are having kids of their own, have either moved back to the peninsula or left New York City, almost without exception. Some have tried to make it in other parts of Queens or Brooklyn but found the financial challenges of raising children in New York too difficult — including my brother and his wife, who recently made the final, painful decision to leave the city behind after learning they were expecting twins.
I parted ways with most of my childhood friends for high school. Many of them went off to some of New York’s best answers to a less than ideal zone school – Catholic schools, such as St. Francis Prep and Bishop Kearney — while I attended one of the major magnet schools that many Rockaway kids were siphoned off to, Midwood High School in Flatbush. While many people have only the connections of time and familiarity with those they grew up with, what amazes me is just how much I still have in common with these girls grew I up with: we share a similar sensibility, a similar way of approaching the world and the people we encounter in it, elitism and entitlement not a part of our emotional vocabulary. All of us attribute this to growing up in a place that was extremely grounded and diverse in a way that we never quite realized before we left home. Strangely, Rockaway, whose insularity we all chose to escape, also turned out to have sheltered us in a positive, edifying way — it kept us ignorant of a certain world of privilege and exclusiveness that I suspect the wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs of New York incubate more readily. While our Rockaway is indeed mostly white, many of us were also raised with the expectation that further exposure to the rest of the world was a given, we did not forget we lived in New York. We are all comfortable with different gradations of class, the full political spectrum, and in every different kind of company — engaging with new experiences and types of people with only a healthy amount of fear and skepticism. We are adaptable and genuinely open-minded. And that has everything to do with where we grew up and the kind of middle-class community it was and continues to be. That type of education cannot be programmed into a curriculum or taught later in life. And so, while my friends and I remain mindful of the parts of Rockaway that still do look inwardly and resist change, we embrace the positive ways in which it very much formed us.
Before Sandy put Rockaway on a new kind of map of disaster recovery, the Style section of the Times published the type of article that has come to serve as some sort of last frontier of gentrification in New York, sounding the death knell to any folks still fancying themselves Rockaway “pioneers.” Residents of neighborhoods across the five boroughs are skeptical of the Visitation of the Hipsters as their community is newly discovered, but the only time I ever really bristled at their arrival was when a friend or co-worker, visiting for the first time, would voice his or her highly romanticized desire to homestead in Rockaway, apparently oblivious to the lack of basic infrastructure we have had to adapt to, or the precarious middle-class opportunities we have tried to maintain since the time when my father and aunt received excellent educations at Far Rockaway High School in the late ‘60s. Rockaway is still an idyllic place to grow up in many ways, but the drawbacks — for anyone without enough money to send their kids to private school, for instance — are almost insurmountable.
Maybe the new interest from the rest of New York would have been the last best hope for a revival, for genuine investment in Rockaway — the kind of positive attention from City Hall that would bring a steeling of its infrastructure. But ultimately, I suspect it was always a day-tripper’s daydream that ended on the ride back into Brooklyn or Manhattan, and that most of the “DFDs” (the Rockaway term for those just “Down for the Day”), perhaps mournfully, but without much invested interest or emotion, agree with the sentiment of the Metropolis column, that life in Rockaway should retreat. As greater attention has been paid to Rockaway the last few years, from new surfers and beachcombers, pioneering foodies, Sandy volunteers, city planners, and those looking for iconic images of 9/11 and solid middle-class New York, the place has become a touchstone rather than a real place. It is both too easily romanticized and criticized — a place on which to project rather than engage with in greater depth. Both these tendencies sacrifice perhaps the most important discussion that Rockaway can offer. If we want a viable life in New York for ourselves and our children, rather than just a city that serves as a formative stop before the next part of life, all these newly interested observers and the most committed experts and activists buzzing about plans for the future should take a closer look at what kind of life exactly would be retreating if these communities folded up their umbrellas and beach chairs and left, feeling given up on by New York.
*For an excellent history of negative attention from City Hall over the decades – especially how Rockaway came to be the housing project and nursing home capital of New York, and the main reason for its concentration of poverty and segregation — I highly recommend Between Ocean and City, The Transformation of the Rockaways, by Lawrence Kaplan & Carol P. Kaplan. Interestingly, the unsung almost-hero of Rockaways policy, often vilified elsewhere, was Robert Moses.
Yael Friedman writes about art and culture, and often about sports. You can find more of her work at Ida Post.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
Unless otherwise noted all images provided by Yael Friedman.