Utopia is a Vacant Lot in Rockaway

Image by Sarah Nicholls

The legal drama of a waterfront restaurant with the best jerk sauce in town draws in an alphabet soup of municipal agencies and portends the fate of more than 1,300 vacant lots on the Rockaway peninsula. Between contradictory oversight and unevenly implemented programs to buy out storm-damaged properties or redevelop the barrier island, these voids represent a territory that while uncertain, is in no way abandoned. Deeply enmeshed in the local scene, planner, performer, and New City Critics fellow Sabina Sethi Unni breathlessly evokes the land use limbo, swirling rumors, entrepreneurial efforts, and utopian hopes for what is underwater on a Year 2100 map but demands reckoning today. The power of place here is not a cliché but the best thing we have going, palpable in the bedazzled whales, patio furniture, belching excavators, and other signs of the liminal existence that defies old notions of urban “improvement” and defines the conditions in which we seek to live our best lives as the climate crisis intensifies.

I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but Marva wants to hire a brass band to play while we table during St. Patrick’s Day in a few weeks. We’re sitting around Marva’s kitchen table in Arverne for another Saturday morning scheming session when she pitches it to us, as we’re crowded around my laptop balanced between rainbow cookies that Katie brought from an Italian bakery in Neponsit, Marva’s cat that keeps jumping up and shedding white hair on my corduroy dress, and a thick stapled pamphlet about green infrastructure options in South Queens that State Senator Sanders passed out at last month’s community town hall after the unexpected December flooding that turned into a screaming match about Build it Back funding that never came through after almost ten years of waiting. We’re looking at some mediocre Excel pie charts and ArcGIS maps that I made from New York City’s MapPLUTO dataset of tax lots, which shows where the 1,300 vacant lots that litter Rockaway are, and who owns them. We don’t know why there are so many vacant lots throughout the Peninsula, but we want them to be ours.

We’re brainstorming which reclaimed vacant lot we should highlight at the community visioning session that we’re hosting soon to agitate residents about the voids that lots create, and how we can replicate the ways that neighbors already fill them; like at Edgemere Urban Farm (where I performed a summer play about climate change amongst stalks of tomatoes and golden beets and wildflowers they grow for their mixed-income farm share), or the lot at the end of Beach ██ Street (where someone plonked wooden tables, benches, and planters with a matching shade of welcoming orange wood grain and PVC pipes attached to wooden poles that act as microfilament bins for fishers to recycle used lines, but that used to be a home), or the space overlooking ███ Bay at the end of Beach ██ Street (where neighbors painted concrete jersey barriers with blue waves and shorebirds, dragged over donated porch furniture, and planted colorful signs saying “Black Lives Matter” and “this is all for you!”).

But maybe instead of pulling up a spreadsheet, we should just walk to my mom’s favorite Caribbean restaurant in Queens.

After a winding day crunching around the dusty, sandy, loamy, rocky trails of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, through the shallow marsh grasses and freshwater wetlands, past the visitor center with $30 baseball caps and sign-up sheets for community coastal habitat restoration projects on the nearby vegetated dunes, far away from the clucking migrating geese and chatty gulls and gossiping frigates and airplanes returning to John F. Kennedy International Airport polluting closely overhead, my mom and I picked up dinner at a Caribbean restaurant that we scrolled past on Google Maps: C&C Jerk Box in Far Rockaway. I was paralyzed by the menu options (escovitch, rice and peas, fried breadfruit, plantains, festival), so the restaurant’s owner, while charring sweet chili shrimp on an industrial charcoal grill, started talking to my mom. Had she been here before (no), is she going to get grilled sweet chili shrimp (no), does she live nearby (kind of).

I placed an order of what felt like every side dish on the menu, and the owner, Blaine, offered us a tour around his property, a plot of waterfront land that he’s renting from David: a chef who lives in higher and less flood-prone ground in Rockaway Beach, home to vegan surf shops and pop-up vintage record stores on the boardwalk, a 15-minute ride westward on the Q22 bus. Parked on an elevated trailer on wheels between the edge of his property and an inlet that leads into Jamaica Bay was a bedazzled, glitzy, rainbow whale-shaped ship with eyelashes. Blaine told us that the ship, Whalemina, was a beloved community landmark, until Hurricane Sandy’s waves washed it away in pieces in 2012. Blaine’s sister left Far Rockaway after her basement apartment flooded up to the windows, but he moved back shortly after parts of the peninsula fought peak storm surge elevations of 30 feet, because “this part of the Island is coming up.” A few years later, the community rallied around Whalemina, rebuilding a louder, “flood-proof” replica who attends community events and Mermaid parades where young, socialist Indo-Caribbean women running against violent, right-wing, reactionaries for City Council pitch their parallel plans for Rockaway’s future.

C&C Jerkbox recently caught on fire while Blaine was celebrating his 50th birthday back home in Jamaica, so he’s hosting a series of fundraisers on Saturdays to bounce back. Neither the City nor insurance pitched in to help him rebuild. Instead, neighbors called the fire department and helped to re-elevate the four structures that make up the restaurant with stakes and repurposed materials: spools for sitting or rotated sideways for tables, garbage cans with lit fires, shipping containers with walk-in fridges, grills on step ladders searing whole fish and marinated jerk tofu (my order of choice), bamboo stakes painted red, green, and yellow, mismatched porch chairs and tables with dominos and marbles and unfamiliar (to me) board games waiting to be played, hand-painted menus that don’t match what’s being offered, planted American flags clogging up rain gardens meant to absorb stormwater, Jamaican flags stapled to the entrance gates, the smell of barbecue smoke and the sound of music weaving through the sea grass and invasive phragmites reeds that fill the quickly wintering landscape with their last attempts at green.

C&C Jerkbox’s lot is not zoned for a restaurant, but classified in city databases as vacant land. Owned by David but listed under “Confiance LLC,” C&C falls within a C3 district, meaning that there is some flexibility for boating and fishing shops near the edge of the waterfront as the bay quickly folds into the sea, but not room for an ever-expanding restaurant with new additions DIY’d of shipping containers each time I return. In a broader sense, in the face of city and state’s logic of managed retreat, like the buyout program Blaine’s sister should have been offered, city planners might deem Blaine’s decision to rebuild property on the Rockaway Peninsula by the water after Hurricane Sandy as dangerous and detrimental to their goals of relocating flood prone homeowners. Critical scholars of environmental justice might take this even further, and argue that building on a floodplain is regressive and reactionary: changing immediate and existing structures (like chopping down wood alongside the edges of his waterfront property to reduce risk of erosion or placing the kitchen on raised platforms in case of extreme coastal storm surge) without dismantling structures that cause erosion, displacement, or climate change. But, these scholars and planners probably never tried Blaine’s famous jerk sauce.

The City hates lots like Blaine’s. I’ve heard it directly in meetings with the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice (formerly the Mayor’s Office of Climate Resiliency) and indirectly from the signs that the Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development staffers staple on the exterior gate of every vacant lot which warn against $10,000 fines for trespassing or illegal activities. But, the next time Beach ██ Street floods, the dunes and groins that the Army Corps of Engineers are installing on the boardwalk on Beach 149th Street won’t make a difference. The wood chips and planks that Blaine chopped and placed between the restaurant and the edge of the water (which are basically a seawall) will stop the water from rushing in when the next storm hits.

Whenever I’m near Army Corps cranes and tractors barfing up sand along the coastline (getting vegan chocolate chip cookies at a surf shop slash café that is always mean to my dad or with Katharine who plunges into Jamaica Bay’s icy waters during winter as her Art Practice; or stopping by Brothers Collective Coffee Shop run out of an Economic Development Corporation funded project which normally caters to Brooklyn surfers but suddenly started to play 80s disco Desi pop when my mom purchased a thick egg sandwich with microgreens and pesto which made her very uncomfortable but introduced me to Usha Uthup so I consider that a win), I like to pause. The whole boardwalk, stretching across the peninsula from whiter, wealthier, conservative west to Black and Caribbean, immigrant-dense east, allows you to see escalating vulnerability to climate disasters (from hurricanes to floods to fires to food access) rooted in class, race, city infrastructure investments, ongoing urban renewal plans, Moses-era planning, and geomorphology. To me, the boardwalk feels like a temporarily neutral spot to peer over the metal chain-link gate, past the rainbow plastic litter, the soft yellow native flowers, and the red flags warning against angry rip currents and moody tides, but urban political ecologists like Bryce DuBois, a surfer who wrote a dissertation about the racial politics on Rockaway’s beaches, would argue that I’m wrong, and that vulnerability is actually escalated on the beach, especially as the silhouettes of public housing or luxury waterfront condos or cop cars parked on the beach for no reason except to reinforce racial politics peek out behind the crashing waves, spilling vegetated dunes, nesting piping plovers, migrating geese crying as they say goodbye, and overgrown seagrass.

Photo by Sabina Sethi Unni
Photo by Sabina Sethi Unni

This hard infrastructure project (reinforcing sand dunes, which protect against erosion; and creating groins, which are unfortunately named and, equally importantly, protect against coastal storm surge) is funded by a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG-DR) from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the same genre of money that funded elevation of homes throughout Rockaway and Staten Island, and voluntary buyouts of damaged homes which the city immediately demolished to create the vacancies in Edgemere, Staten Island, and South Brooklyn. When Sandy hit, I was in my sophomore year of high school and focusing on how to decipher my incomprehensible AP European History textbook readings and scribble notes on the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation by candlelight, while my parents, neighbors, and New Yorkers across the state (I was in Long Island’s Nassau County) scrambled and struggled to navigate weeks of no electricity or hot water, public school closures, downed power lines, rerouted trains, basement flooding, and fallen trees. Sandy was a “100-year-storm,” meaning the unprecedented combination of record coastal storm surge, high tide, and a full moon led to hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars of property and infrastructure damage throughout the Atlantic Coast and the Caribbean. A 100-year storm also means that even your grandma has never seen a storm like this. My grandma, for better or worse, reminisces fondly about Sandy (even though she lost power and hot water for three weeks) because my cousins and I all sat together in the dark eating cold spaghetti and gossiping. Most people in Rockaway don’t reminisce fondly about the destruction of longstanding public spaces (like the boardwalk, Almeda playground, and life-sized whale boats), or the arrival of new government agencies (like the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery) that see hard infrastructure and the permanent voluntary relocation of hundreds of residents through a process called managed retreat as the solution to rising seas.

I always thought that most of the vacant lots in Rockaway were the spaces left behind when the State and City used CDBGs to buy out homes and demolish the existing residential structures and convert the empty plots of land into grass and vacancy under oversight of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development (HPD), or the Parks Department, depending on the lot. But, according to my (so amateurish I’m embarrassed but then later confirmed by smarter people) research on MapPLUTO, about 15 other city, state, and federal agencies also have mismanaged vacancies in historic and active urban renewal areas rooted in the same racist Robert Moses-era planning models that deliberately placed public housing in the most flood-prone areas of an already easily flood-able barrier island designed by nature (the ultimate urban planner) to protect more inland areas from hurricanes and severe weather occurrences.

Rockaway is full with lots vacated by buyouts, urban renewal, growth machine politics, the entrails of development, failed flood resiliency strategies, but the city has no uniform citywide policy or strategy for managing or stewarding these lots. In Staten Island, three primarily white, upper middle-class neighborhoods (surprise surprise) organized for years in the cafeteria of New Dorp High School to receive more than 550 buyouts. Their lots lie vacant, and the grass is mowed by a company subcontracted by the state, which formally owns the lots (but there’s a rumor being spread around that whoever mows the lots informally owns them). In Edgemere, in the eastern part of the peninsula, the city is selling buyout and renewal lots to create a Community Land Trust in partnership with two Far Rockaway residents who currently run a community garden (and who dream of using the trust’s space to grow and sell weed which has been really fun to watch the City uncomfortably respond to in community meetings).

Photo by Sabina Sethi Unni
Photo by Sabina Sethi Unni

Aside from this experimentation in semi-public land ownership, the City is still greedy about these lots, and also paranoid, worrying that informal stewardship will cause trespassers, feral overgrowth, mosquitoes, West Nile Virus, and urban blight. In official meetings, the City demands the lots to be managed, acquired, and stewarded by a labyrinth of agencies, much like New Jersey does under its Blue Acres program, which is a more standardized buyout and land management agency in New Jersey that mostly returns lots to nature, like through the remediation of any natural waste and hazards, planting of non-invasive species, or creation of new permeable surfaces to soak up rainwater. But, the City either can’t or won’t actually manage land. Instead of the trespassers the city fears, there are lots full of trash, sea debris, abandoned cars with Nixon ’69 bumper stickers, invasive phragmites reeds, and overgrown weeds full of ticks. Guarded by gates and locked to the public, these lots are patiently waiting for late-night soccer games, early summer family barbecues, pop-up Caribbean restaurants, and gathering spots for protest with benches and tables and latent anger bubbling over from Occupy Sandy as the city continues to mis-distribute post-disaster FEMA CDBG funds and allow new “resilient housing,” like “The Tides at Arverne by the Sea” to clear the last “undeveloped” acres of land near the waterfront in service of beachfront housing.

Of course, none of these vacant lots are actually vacant, not even the ones seemingly devoid of everyday activity and motion. After C&C Jerkbox burned down, I met with Blaine over tart strawberry lemon lime soda at a Caribbean restaurant in Hammels, where we ran into his old regular and agreed that C&C’s jerk sauce was better. Since I last visited (at the fundraisers where I met his sons and sister whose denim hat matched mine, except hers said ROCK, as in Rockaway, and mine said DIVA, as in me), a city inspector from the Department of Buildings (DOB) had slapped a $26,000 fine on the gates of the lot because Blaine lacked proper building permits and was selling food in a vacant lot. Of course, the lot is zoned as commercial, and Blaine has had the permits to sell food for all five years that he’s been operating and relocating from an elevated trailer outside of a clam pizza parlor to the backyard of a barbershop to a spot underneath the A train to David’s waterfront lot. Blaine has been emailing everyone he can from the City since the fire, but no one has responded. After the fire, Blaine’s neighbors donated children’s chairs, curtains, tools, a pressure washer, screws, pots and pans, and ludi (a famous Jamaican game which I wish I tried). Everything is still sitting there inert, alongside dreams of seafood Thursdays and space for teens to safely hang out instead of the Papa John’s parking lot (the only place that sells food nearby, which David tells me is being sold to a developer because it’s along the waterfront), with the fine resolutely on the gates.

Photo by Sabina Sethi Unni
Photo by Sabina Sethi Unni

Later that night, I did what I always do on Fridays: absentmindedly scroll through Google Street View in search of vacant lots where people are using the space in unusual ways. If you’re a municipal employee reading this, I hope you don’t use this as a strategy for levying fines, and that you instead respond to Blaine’s email. I forced Nikolas to drive me to the vacant lot in question on Beach ██, and as we pulled up, a group of laughing sisters and their mom (who reminded me of my own mom, especially when she squeezed her daughter when it started to drizzle and the daughter winced and pretended to hate it but secretly loved it) were sitting by the water at low tide, gathering branches, and throwing kerosene on a growing baby fire.

The lot was nothing short of decked out: carpets lining the floor (which Nikolas complained about being gross and moldy the entire time), grills and solar panels to power them, trashcans (no Arizona Iced Tea littering this lot, unlike at every other vacant lot I’ve ever seen), wooden silhouettes of Cuba and India, hanging buoys and duck stuffies, fishing nets, 25 mismatched chairs (a set from a classroom, another from a dining room, another from a porch), and tables. I asked one of the sisters where the chairs came from, and they told me that “some guy brought them!” Why shouldn’t he?

We couldn’t hire a brass band in time. Instead, we cut up felt scraps and used hot glue to create an interactive map of Arverne with velcro spots for different temporary, low-cost activities that could occur in lots throughout the neighborhood (like beekeeping, composting, bus stops, storage space, volleyball courts, wildflower pollinator gardens, pop-up cooling stations, solar panels, microfilament recycling tubes, temporary restaurants, farm stands, community gardens, public education hubs around disaster preparedness, neighborhood organizing spots, voter registration, mutual aid, skill shares, town halls, protest space, memorials, pop-up libraries and reading rooms, party space, playgrounds, soccer fields, afterschool activities, outdoor movie theaters, cultural venues, stages, dance and fitness classes, public art, pop-up obstacle courses, dog parks, basketball courts, benches and tables and planters, anything but a seawall please god not another seawall), we canvassed and put up flyers (also made of felt), we wrote letters to the editor in the reactionary local newspaper, we got blowback from neighborhood “anti-development” associations on Facebook about our event, we researched squatting law, we talked to residents who talked to residents who have tried this before and succeeded and failed and cleared the trash from the lots near their homes and planted sunflower seeds and called 311 to report illegal dumping by trucking companies and ███ █████ ████████ █████ ███████ █████ ████.

Photo by Sabina Sethi Unni
Photo by Sabina Sethi Unni

After our first public meeting, at a brewery instead of at a community space (but, as my friend Jim tells me, sometimes a brewery is a community space), our friends and strangers and organizers and people getting a cider and empanada at 6 pm on a Thursday who became enthralled by the green felt activity spreading across the tables and a PhD student writing about Edgemere who told us that the city has plans to expropriate vacancies along the waterfront to create a soft seawall as part of the Harbor Tributary (HATS) plan but that I should stop saying “the City” because different agencies are full of staffers who disagree with their bosses or are friendlier to our cause than others and a bartender who came over and told us that the vacant lot near his home should become a mini golf course and a guerilla gardener who throws sunflower seeds into gated-off lots and everyone’s kids who Hansel and Gretel’ed Mallomar crumbs and smashed pool balls into each other’s hands until they cried all wondered what comes next after the visioning. We don’t know, but we can’t wait 15 years for squatter’s rights just to put some benches and tables on concrete.

Afterwards, we walked down the street to a lot on Beach ██ Street, overlooking ███ Bay: a (self-proclaimed) historic fishing and recreation area adjacent to another vacant lot and single-family homes painted pink and orange and yellow and teal. Like at the lot on Beach ██, there are also trash cans, metal benches, and picnic tables, although they look more like porch furniture donated by neighbors or local small businesses. The concrete barriers enclosing the lot are painted with welcoming blue waves and swans. Throughout the lot, tied on electricity poles and nestled in plant beds are colorful hand-painted signs saying, “be kind and tolerant,” or “trust science for real.” There’s a sign with contact information for a neighborhood group who probably placed this furniture, but we also put up a sign that says, “We love this lot! Did you help bring it to life? Give us a text: ██████!” That evening was so cold that Marva’s husband considered picking us up at the corner even though we were only eleven minutes away from her home; Katie’s daughter burrowed into her mom’s coat and I regretted wearing a crop top, but in this lot, in this moment, as three brown kids skated and cycled and played hopscotch and echoed laughter down the whole block, louder than the waves, louder than the construction, louder than the emptiness that the city created when they bought up homes, louder than the planes and gulls and frigates and herons and geese headed home, I could tell that utopia is a vacant lot in Rockaway. Or maybe the cold just froze my brain.

After texting him five times and taking a leap of faith, I jumped into David’s black van outside of the Beach 44th Street A stop. He parked us outside the locked and gated C&C Jerkbox for a tour of the property, and I asked him if he thought the wood that Blaine cut down towards the edge of the property was actually a seawall, or if I was just being dramatic. He said it’s not a seawall, but a berm: the trees used in it were downed during Hurricane Sandy, and now eight NYC public teachers use the firewood to heat their homes. The berm is also a rhizomatic art installation; a local fungus artist spored the wood with mushrooms that spiral without maintenance. This time, I didn’t leave with two thin Styrofoam containers overflowing with escovitch and breadfruit to take two hours on the A just for my high school friends to put in their steel Clinton Hill fridge filled with overpriced Whole Foods charcuterie. Instead, I left with a picture of the new fine that the DOB placed on the gates (and which now sits on David’s dashboard). Classifying the lot as “open space,” the notice asks for Blaine and David to remove the wooden shed with windows and doors, the trailer, the floating boat, the lights, and “restore empty lot to original legal conditions.”

When we left, and David locked the gates, it was the only time I’ve seen C&C Jerkbox empty. That is, except for the dragon boat sent over by friends from Manhattan’s Lower East Side waiting and wading and weighting in the water, the “prison lights” winding with growing hops which cover the brightness so bugs will eat and destroy them instead of letting them be sold to the Rockaway Brewing Company, the callaloo and kabocha squash that David’s older friend who lived on a camper on the lot right before he passed started to grow because he wanted the “spinach of the Caribbean,” a homemade canoe that Occupy Sandy organizers sailed to Breezy Point before they were turned around, the DEP rain barrels that the city hands out and David collects, tangled fishing lines, and the bees that have magically survived winter. David used to home bees on his old project ███ blocks away, but moved them closer because across the water is a fifty-acre landfill covered in wildflowers. It’s in a period of permanent transition between the Department of Sanitation and the Parks Department, so now it belongs to no one but the bees. The gates are locked, but no one gets in trouble for watching the wildflowers bloom, especially if you apologize profusely. C&C is still home to hibernating bees ready for the wildflowers to blossom in spring, ready to sell Blaine’s famous jerk sauce on Instagram, ready for the DOB to turn the other way.

Sabina Sethi Unni (she/her) is a New City Critics Fellow with the Urban Design Forum and Architectural League of New York. She is a public theater artist, organizer, urban planner, and lover of long, self-aggrandizing lists.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Nancy Bruning December 10, 2023

Best article I’ve read all day. Now I’m all fired up to read “The Potential for Urban Agriculture in New York City,” which found almost 5,000 acres of vacant land likely to be suitable for farming in the five boroughs, by the Urban Design Lab, The Earth Institute, Columbia University.