The tenth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy came and went at the end of October. The attendant retrospectives were perhaps a partial corrective to a year of hyperfocus on the ins and outs of the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. Also only very partially corrected: the physical vulnerability of the rest of the city’s communities, coastal and otherwise, to increased flooding and extreme weather events. Since Sandy paid its 2012 wake-up call, development has only intensified, and real estate values in the floodplain have increased by almost 50 percent, according to a report from the New York City Comptroller. Meanwhile, resiliency projects remain unfinished and more plans are needed. We’ve explored many of the contradictions that define the city’s progress, or lack thereof, here, too. There are the piecemeal protections, the innovative designs experiencing excruciating delays, to name a few.
The Rockaways are no exception to the city’s rising sea level seesaw. In 2013, Yael Friedman reported from the watery margins where she grew up, asking what the storm’s damage would mean for lower- and middle-class residents struggling to maintain a foothold in the city. Touring recent developments, from the reconstructed boardwalk to a large-scale net-zero community, and talking to long-term residents from the peninsula’s disparate east and west ends, she returns here to a peninsula that has become both more central to the life of the city and more socially and physically vulnerable. Friedman finds that with the Rockaways’ newfound desirability comes a growing, and unmet, responsibility to build infrastructure that both repairs long-standing inequities and prepares for an increasingly hostile environment.
The sins and glories of the past continue to haunt the Rockaways. Ten years ago, Hurricane Sandy exposed the fissures created by decades of urban renewal policy and outright neglect on this storied former beach resort. The storm also made clear, in tragically concrete terms, the cost of ignoring the realities of climate change: more than a thousand buildings were destroyed when ten feet of storm surge flooded the peninsula. In some areas, families were forced to flee both flood and fire and then contended with no heat or electricity for months. There was little time to absorb the shock and trauma as everyone had to figure out how to rebuild and survive.
As residents sifted through the wreckage of homes and lives, they also contended with the ballast of history. In the mid-20th century, the thin sliver of land between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, the city’s outermost extremity, transformed from a summer resort destination to a year-round community. A series of urban renewal projects meant to alleviate poverty only deepened it, while even the wealthier west end struggled with the vulnerabilities of life on the periphery. Sandy brought a palpable urgency to addressing these historical inequities amid a future of unforgiving storms. In the decade since the storm, the Rockaways continue to present as a crucible, especially as they have become more integrated into the life of the city. The peninsula’s bustling beaches and new boardwalk provide an invaluable public space in a city experiencing a reconfiguration of life, work, and real estate. Of course, this reinvigoration also brings the specter of speculation and development that could make life even more precarious for those already there.
Anchoring this transformation is the new boardwalk completed by WXY Studio in time for Memorial Day, 2017. The original seaside promenade was built in the 1920s of picturesque wooden planks that sat on concrete pilings. Sandy washed the peninsula’s spine away into the Atlantic and, more destructively, slammed its boards into homes across the peninsula. Long-time residents wanted any reconstruction to replicate the wooden original, and one could understand the attachment, but ultimately the city convinced them of the need for concrete.
Stretching from Beach 149th to Beach 9th Street, the 40-foot boardwalk traverses as wide a range of communities as the city affords, with single family homes and market-rate condos at the western end, and high-rise public housing projects towards the other. Newly arrived immigrants, long-time Black and Hispanic residents, Orthodox Jews and Russians, “uptown” folks (as the western, whiter, more Irish-American end of the Peninsula is called), and the new young professionals, entrepreneurs, and surfers who have migrated to this outpost, all share this stretch of concrete. They walk, run, or bike from one end to another, circulating in this free public place around others with whom they might never otherwise cross paths. At any given moment, the new concession stands attract both DFDs (Down for the Day folks, as the natives call them) and locals; and in the evenings, whole families from across the peninsula stop to hear local acts like Simon Chardiet or The Wild Yaks play at Rippers, an open-air venue whose music spills out onto the beach. Others, merely out for a stroll, walk long stretches with a sense of ease and ownership. The boardwalk combines circulation and destination — designed to carry pedestrians and cyclists, it is also wide and hospitable. Benches, parks, and concessions along the way are an invitation to stop and remain.
WXY’s reconstruction extended to plans for new parks, many now heavily used. There’s one where skaters of all ages fly at high speed across concrete peaks and valleys. Handball and basketball courts have also been refurbished and playgrounds for younger children have been built or restored. An entire new community-focused ecosystem has been carefully constructed. Most importantly, the new boardwalk is not just a host of amenities, it is a bulwark against future storms. Its reinforced concrete spine is lined with over four and a half miles of retaining walls and planted sand dunes. This ideal project of resilient infrastructure not only supports a future with water but provides benefits that undergird the community overall.
The boardwalk has changed the use of the beach itself, reclaiming it as one of the only free and informal open spaces in the city. Before the new boardwalk and its constellation of parks and uses, the beach provided a passive respite from the city but not an extension of its best traits. For anything other than swimming and sunbathing, one had to leave. Food, a break from the sun, a quick shower, those all meant retreating back home. The boardwalk has succeeded as the kind of public space that city planners aspire to and yet of which the city has increasingly become bereft. With decentralization accelerated by Covid, many of the city’s public spaces feel more balkanized, each serving users in its immediate neighborhood. It can seem that the city’s metaphorical and actual crossroads are fading, that its defining virtues, of sharing a teeming city with its full populace through informal social interactions, can no longer be taken for granted.
Yet, the public life that has grown on Rockaway’s boardwalk and beaches in the years following Sandy has made the peninsula an essential part of the city. Perhaps for the first time in its history, Rockaway has gained a permanent place on many New Yorkers’ mental maps. Sandy destroyed so much, but it also catalyzed the momentum that began a few years before the storm with David Selig’s Rockaway Taco in 2008, his radical revival of the concessions stands a few years later, and a growing corps of surfers and cyclists from Brooklyn and Manhattan who followed in this wake.
The , which opened during Covid, harkens to Rockway’s seasonal past in a year-round present. Owner Terence Tubridy’s family has lived in Rockaway for generations, and this investment in the community, with the kind of identity the hotel seeks to project, seems to reflect the wider interests of the peninsula and its environs, not just of the pioneering class of “creatives” who helped “rediscover” it. Standing a modest six stories, with a pool, several restaurants, and a rooftop bar with views of beach and bay, the hotel vies for a middle ground between luxury and homey hospitality. The main criticisms I have heard are from those who find it unaffordable on the one hand, and on the other, those who find it a touch too “townie.” While it may be too costly for many living on the eastern end, it certainly aspires to make it hospitable to all. As Belford describes it: “’’
Rockaway’s summer population peaked at 225,000 in 1947. Within five years, it would decrease by more than half, and a year-round population had begun to settle in, hovering at around 100,000 for the next 50 years. As the peninsula’s role as a resort faded into an almost mythic past, Robert Moses, that favorite bogeyman of urban renewal, was determined to keep any kind of private development from depriving the masses of what he considered their natural birthright: eleven miles of continuous publicly accessible seashore, the country’s longest urban beach; and the marshland ecosystem of Jamaica Bay, that makes the Rockaways a vital refuge for over 300 species of migrating birds. However, the masses were not necessarily aware of this. Growing up, we knew we had this treasure, but no one else seemed to. Some of us also knew that we had to make a supreme effort to leave the Peninsula in order to get a better education and exposure to the city of which we were supposedly a part. That skyline was across the flat plains of Brooklyn and Jamaica Bay, and a whole universe away.
In the eastern parts of the peninsula, Moses’ legacy takes shape across a deeply scarred landscape of high-rises, leftover single homes and neglected empty lots. Efforts to avoid a “resort slum” by throwing up towers where ramshackle bungalows and boarding houses once stood displaced desperate populations who were not then eligible for the new housing projects. From the neighborhoods of Red Fern, to Arverne, to Hammels, to Far Rockaway, the city kept punting the issues of race and poverty, further entrenching the problems at each step. By the early 1950s, Rockaway had some of the city’s highest infant mortality rates, its highest tuberculosis rates, and New York’s highest food costs. The closest municipal hospital in Queens was more than an hour away by public transportation. Rockaway would come to contain a significant share of Queens’s public housing projects. In the intervening years, these inequalities only deepened, and attention from City Hall seemed at most a token affair. Belford, the former president of RWP, articulated an entire peninsula’s plaint, echoed through generations: “People in Rockaway have been pretty hardened and conditioned to have to wait [for real change]. The expectation is that Rockaway is a place that is ultimately forgotten about.”
Sandy did force a focus on the conditions that continue to plague Rockaway when it finally enfolded this peripheral part of New York into the city’s central narrative. The hope was that it would bring it the support it has long needed while also addressing its growing environmental vulnerabilities. Eric Wilson, former Deputy Director, Land Use & Buildings, at the City’s Office of Climate Resiliency (2018-2022), was tasked with thinking about climate adaptation and risk mitigation on the peninsula and citywide. Wilson and his team reframed the issues as, “How do we think about this intersection of social vulnerability of the community and their experience during Sandy? How do we navigate this and create a meaningful planning process for this neighborhood that has a level of physical risk that can only be mitigated for a period of time?” Rather than building back stronger, Wilson recounts, his team “realized we were foolish to continue to use this public framing without recognizing that we need a much more nuanced toolkit to come to terms with the fact that neighborhoods are going to be experiencing periods of time with water.”
Wilson stressed that “there was never discussion of a top-down decision to say that we are going to disinvest from this geography of the city.” When asked about the City’s long-term commitment to investing in Rockaway’s infrastructure while making it environmentally resilient, Wilson stated that: “The scenario was that because Rockaway is an area where there’s a subway and there’s arguably job opportunities in southern Queens and Nassau, it is a reasonable place to continue to allow building to occur.”
If the City has not contemplated managed retreat in Rockaway, it would seem to follow that it is making a greater commitment to its fragile foundation. Yet most of the new development (some already completed, other underway) is residential, without serious attendant infrastructure for long-term social and environmental resilience. The peninsula’s new growth may further undermine the goals of sustainability and socio-economic resilience. With a greater integration into the rest of the city comes attention from those with more money and mobility than most of the year-round population. New residents moved into Rockaway at higher rates during the Covid pandemic, spurred by the increased ability to work remotely. Young professionals are buying primary and second homes in parts of Arverne and Edgemere, two of the peninsula’s most socio-economically vulnerable neighborhoods. The rate of summer residency is increasing, opening a new chapter in the life of this complex community. As it returns it to its former status as a quasi-resort, it retains serious challenges in which the new population often has little personal stake.
One new aspirational development means to address some of these issues with an integrated approach to housing, public space and climate change adaptation. Arverne East is a public-private partnership led by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development and developers L+M Development Partners, Bluestone Organization, and Triangle Equities. Billed as the city’s first net-zero development, Arverne East comprises a 116-acre tract along the ocean from Beach 56th Street to Beach 32nd Street. Originally cleared for an urban renewal plan in 1968, the site has since lain vacant, a constant reminder of official neglect and unfulfilled promises. This new plan, to be built over the next ten years, includes 1,650 new units of housing, 1,320 of which will be devoted to affordable housing, including for the formerly homeless, as well as 180,000 square feet of commercial and office space, a new home for the Rockaway Brewing Company, a 60,000 square foot hotel and 22,000 square feet of community facilities which will be operated by RISE, a sustainability-focused non-profit in Rockaway that seeks to foster civic engagement. Rather than trying to build an impregnable fortress that defies the new realities of climate change, Arverne East includes a 35-acre nature preserve (designed by the landscape architecture firm Starr Whitehouse) that also provides residents access to the shore and mitigates regular flooding.
While much of the project’s press has been positive, Rockaway’s local paper, The Wave, reported on a 2020 community board meeting about the plan, highlighting local concerns with the potential negative impacts of the new development, including pressures on health care services and the viability of commercial real estate post-Covid. The specific needs of Arverne and Edgemere — of struggling and crowded schools, few job opportunities, and overwhelming food deserts — serve as stark examples of the disparate conditions of this small strip of land. But all communities on the peninsula, regardless of demographics, share the vulnerabilities of climate change, lack of transportation options, lack of healthcare resources, and an attachment to a place where many have deep roots. Even in the westernmost, most financially secure neighborhoods, where so many public servants live, ’
Jenna Tipaldo, 25, of Belle Harbor, is president of Rockaway Women for Progress. She is pursuing a PhD in Environmental and Planetary Health Sciences at the CUNY School of Public Health and organizing with Sunrise Movement NYC. When asked about the Arverne East project, she stated, “I’m impressed with some of its resilience measures, but I am very worried about overdevelopment in a flood zone.” She emphasized that since Sandy, Rockaway has been in a constant state of construction: families still rebuilding after the storm, ongoing repairs at NYCHA properties where boilers and entire electrical units flooded, new housing projects by major developers from outside, and the Federal government’s new jetty system that has replaced the old wooden pikes with large boulders built into small piers jutting into the ocean. All these serve as constant reminders that the storm’s scars still haven’t healed.
For Tipaldo, the Peninsula has been in a continuous cycle of disaster and recovery since the beginning of the 21st century. She grew up in Belle Harbor on Beach 131st and 132nd Street, and her earliest memories are of American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed on November 12, 2001 — just two months after 9/11 — near her home in a community still reeling from the loss of so many firemen, first responders, and others. During Sandy, these same few blocks saw some of the only fires in Belle Harbor, and Tipaldo was displaced from her home and school, moving to her grandmother’s house in Long Island for several months. Over the last few years, Covid has battered the Peninsula and left it almost as shell-shocked as after Sandy.
Like Tipaldo, Oluwapelumi Oloyede, 21, speaks of her acute sense of structural inequities and environmental vulnerabilities while growing up at the opposite end of the peninsula. (Tipaldo and Oloyede both attended Scholar’s Academy, a magnet school on Beach 104th Street, a few blocks from the ferry and the Rockaway Hotel, that serves as one of the only true bridges across this wide span of race, class and politics. They were both students there when Sandy struck.) Oloyede moved to Bayswater from Nigeria as a child and remembers going to the beach only once in six years before her family moved a few blocks south to an apartment in Far Rockaway. She emphasizes that while the entire Peninsula shares a sense of neglect from the centers of power, the eastern ends contend with a severe absence of fundamental services and amenities. Now a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in public health, Oloyede shares Tipaldo’s trepidation about overdevelopment in Far Rockaway, skeptically describing “an influx of people from the city and Brooklyn, with new buildings suddenly springing up on Mott Avenue, towering buildings where there used to be empty lots… I think it’s a place to dump people because we’re not NIMBY here.”
Oloyede spoke about one of the peninsula’s critical deficits when she told me, “We really need a hospital.” In May 2012, the Rockaways’ only major hospital closed, leaving just St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, with a mere 257 beds. Oloyede told me, “I don’t know one person who likes St. John’s. If it’s not an emergency, you don’t go there.” This has been echoed many times, including by my own parents: If you can wait, you leave the peninsula for healthcare and certainly for a hospital. For an isolated place with over 124,000 people, this is both unconscionable and dangerous. Belford told me that, “in the earliest days of Covid, beginning in March of 2020, one thing RWP did was start a petition saying RWP was predicting that due to the high per capita nursing home population, we need increased hospital capacity proactively, not reactively; that we are a vulnerable community that doesn’t have a hospital. And exactly what we predicted would happen is what happened. Nobody listens to us in advance. Ask anyone in Rockaway what we need, and we can tell you.”
Oloyede also stressed that, “It would be nice to have a better school system that is closer to Far Rockaway, and jobs that are on the Peninsula because transportation really factors in when you’re finding a job. Everyone that I know has to travel outside of Rockaway.” According to a recent report by the Office of the New York State Comptroller, the average commute time for residents, at 49.7 minutes, was the longest of all neighborhoods in the city. The report also confirmed the rise in population between 2010 and 2020 — an increase of eight percent, to reach 124,185 — the fourth-largest increase in Queens and higher than both Queens’ and the city’s growth rates.
Jean Belford sums it up: “Rockaway is a small geographic space with lots of varying communities but there are some overarching things: Our transportation is horrible, healthcare is horrible, our schools are underfunded, there is a lot of residential growth without increase in infrastructure — these are just common to the whole peninsula.” Along with this essential infrastructure, the city, state, and federal government have still not formed a long-term plan for climate change adaptation. As Amy Chester, the executive director of Rebuild by Design, a leading nonprofit that works on environmental and social resilience, points out, “If a storm was to hit today, there is no better emergency evacuation planning” than when Sandy hit. “Where would everybody go, and where they would be comfortable being? The city has not yet done the things it has to, which is essentially either decide that this a place that we need to retreat from or this is a place that we’re going to have to fortify. And if they fortify it, they’ll have to think about all the things that didn’t work during Sandy.”
All photos by Yael Friedman unless otherwise noted.