Proposal for a book about the Rockaways: The Fall and Rise of New York City's Beachtown

Having written a book about the rise and fall of the NYC neighborhood in which I lived for nearly three decades (SoHo), I’d like to do a sequel about the opposite development of fall and current rise of the neighborhood to which I’m relocating—the NYC Beachtown collectively called the Rockaways.

After recalling my own relationship to the Rockaways, I would expect to trace its history as an east coast barrier island that got physically connected to Long Island, initially as a part of it, then as a section of New York City, which continues to administer it. (The closing of the channel to the ocean incidentally sabotaged the ecology of Jamaica Bay that separates the Rockaways from mainland Queens.)

Once a favored beach resort for the New York City rich—much like the Hamptons today—the Rockaways peninsula was undermined first by the introduction of the railroad and then bridges for automobiles that made it more accessible to the middle classes of the sort that previously patronized Coney Island in pre-air-conditioned days. Instead of large houses three stories high, the new people inhabited tent-towns before building single-story bungalows that, since they weren’t winterized, could be used only in the summertimes, especially in the land between the ocean and the ground-level train that ran parallel to it.

Regarding the little houses as unsightly, certain city planners, epitomized by Robert Moses, thought the bungalows should be destroyed. Moses began in the 1930s with a four-lane highway that ran two miles parallel to the beach (as a precursor to a road that would run along the ocean from the Rockaways to the Hamptons), incidentally destroying housing in that oceanfront property. In the name of “urban renewal,” the area running east from 73rd Street to 30s, between the train tracks, now elevated, and the ocean was likewise bulldozed. However, since little was built here, NYC had for decades oceanfront property that was empty and incidentally paid no taxes.

Further to jeopardize the old Rockaways, city officials, when given federal money to construct low-rent housing, decided that the buildings couldn’t be in neighborhoods that had middle-class voters but concentrated at the under-inhabited edges of NYC, such as the eastern Rockaways, where they created an instant slum with high crime and unemployment that persisted to this day. Population in the Rockaways declined. Amenities disappeared. As did large stores, restaurants, movie theaters, the amusement park named Playland, and much else. White homeowners deserted the neighborhoods near the eastern projects. Even on hot summertime days, the Atlantic beaches were sparsely populated, not only because of a lack of locals but because people from elsewhere didn’t go there.

Nonetheless, the western precincts survived in spite of City neglect—Breezy Point (aka Rockaway Point) with its ethnic homogeneity, Neponsit with substantial suburban houses, Belle Harbor with its strong churches and synagogues, and Mitchell-Lama highrises in Rockaway Park and Rockaways Beach, mostly inhabited by people who loved living near the ocean, even if they needed to commute into the City for their jobs. Their survival depended upon the physical fact that territory eleven miles long, while only a few blocks wide for much of the western areas, could be distance between itself and new threats.

Private developers ignored the Rockaways, the abundance of empty property near the ocean notwithstanding, until the late 1990s, when Jonathan Miller began constructing two-family semi-detached housing on the Rockaway Beach property vacated by the amusement park a quarter century before. Semi-detached, they sold brand-new for less than $300,000 and could be purchased with only 10% down payment. When I first saw the site in the summer of 1999, only a few houses were built; by that winter, there were many more on nearby tracts. Miller purchased more empty land to build yet more new houses, first to sell, then to rent.

His success inspired smaller developers to build new houses, mostly two-family and semi-detached, further east on the peninsula, usually on isolated plots that had previously been empty, purchased until 2002 at the rate of less than ten dollars per square foot (which was remarkably cheap for NYC property). Meanwhile, another large developer, Benjamin-Beechwood, experienced in Long Island, had persuaded the city to grant it the right to develop the Arverne oceanfront property that had been empty since the mid-1960s. Though it has proceeded more slowly than the smaller builders, it promised to construct not only private housing but a retail center, a public school, and a community center-sports complex. Residential houses similar to those constructed by Miller only a few years before now sold for twice as much. Once the destroyer of the Rockaways, the NYC administration was getting out of the way.

The themes of the book are the persistence of neighborhoods against destructive moves from the central government until private development turns it around and the lure of the ocean. As most of the SoHo book consisted of episodes portraying rise and fall, this book will be similarly episodic.

For this sequel to my SoHo, I estimate 90,000 words, which was the same length as my revised text for the earlier book. For illustrations, I would draw upon my collection of century-old Rockaway postcards (all securely in the public domain) to evoke a beach culture that once was and is returning.