The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky
Some years back my wife insisted we take a vacation, something I was averse to doing, being too tied up, then, in the responsibilities of my job. Where did she want to go I asked her? Cape Cod, as it turned out. My objections were numerous. I said why should we go to a beach community when we already live in one? But that didn’t cut any ice with her and off we went. Afterwards, I had to admit she’d had a point. The general Cape Cod area, and each of the beach communities within it, was beautiful. It was clean, quaint, well kept up, etc. Scenic too. You had to love those beautiful vistas of seemingly endless, untouched coastal wilderness . . . along with all the yachts and sailing vessels plying the local waters, the lovely shops, the restaurants, etc. The traffic was a bit congested, true, but on balance she’d made her point.
After that, we went back a number of times, visiting Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Block Island, as well as sojourning in Montauk and the Hamptons on Long Island’s east end in other years. All beach communities, of course . . . the kind that were fun to visit.
Why do I bring this up now? A week ago I got a call from a reporter at Newsday doing a story on the new ferry service which will be transporting beachgoers from Manhattan to our shores this summer. The reporter wanted to know what there was to see out here? She noted that the Park Service planned to provide a free shuttle bus to ferry-users (it should be free since the ferry’s charging $26 per adult, round trip!), to take them on a tour of the "sights". What did we have that was worth seeing, the reporter asked?
Well I told her about Ft. Tilden with its abandoned gun batteries, now made available to visitors as observation posts (you get a nice view on a clear day from them, too). And I mentioned the nascent art gallery installed on the old fort grounds. And the wild life preserve which is really the old fort’s "target and maneuvers" area, which has been encouraged to go back to its wild state. There you can find a number of nature trails to share with the local flora and fauna, including opossums, raccoons and rabbits. (Not to mention ticks and mosquitoes . . . we city folk just have to learn to live with wildlife all over again. Just last fall, in fact, a stray racoon wandered into our backyard while we were having a cool evening meal. Our cat, being less tolerant than we, chased it off!)
And then there’s the beautiful view of New York Harbor one can get from Breezy Point . . . though tourists are not encouraged to go touring there!
Of course, there’s also our own answer to Jones’ Beach: Jacob Riis Park where sweaty and overheated city-dwellers can find a broad public beachfront with a boardwalk, ballfields, and large picnic grounds as well as showers and changing facilities.
I told the reporter all about these and, while doing so, I found myself thinking again of other beachfront communities up and down the coast. In fact, I couldn’t help wondering what made them so different from our town and why I preferred to go off to any of these with my wife, despite having a nice little beach only blocks away from my home.
Of course, the answer is precisely what the Newsday reporter was asking me about. What did we have here?
I had to admit that, aside from the rather mundane amenities of Riis Park and the overgrown scrub lands of the old fort, we don’t have a lot to offer. Besides a few prosperous pocket communities, a drive down the length of our peninsula only offers the visitor vista upon vista of vacant and weedy lots, a crumbling elevated train trestle, deteriorating houses . . . and not a great deal more. Why is this beachfront community different from others?
The answer’s not hard to discern when you think about it. No one seems to be looking after this area with any kind of proprietary interest. Our roads are broken up and shabby-looking, for the most part, while in Cape Cod or Montauk you’d never see anything like that! In those places the local governments take a special pride in the appearance of their towns. And it shows.
So who is taking pride in Rockaway? City Hall is a long way off and seems to have very little interest in us except insofar as we have some empty land that can be rolled into new housing. But what we really need out here is an economic revival. How do you get that? Well, you have to take advantage of what you have . . . like beaches! But are beaches enough? We’ve had beaches for years and where has that gotten us since 1898 when Rockaway lost its independence in order to be rolled up, along with other outlying communities, into so-called Greater New York.
As a result of that, we find ourselves, today, the outlying province of a distant government whose interests seem to lay elsewhere. Who’s looking out for us today? Should it really be a group of politicians in faraway Manhattan who haven’t exactly distinguished themselves over the course of the last century? Isn’t it New York City’s various governments, over the years, that have let this area go to seed? So I keep coming back to that reporter’s question: "What do you have out there and why would people want to pay $26 to take a ferry ride to Rockaway?" What can they see? Well, I told her all about the raccoons and the opossums and the old gunnery batteries and, of course, our public beaches.
And, then I got my wife on the phone and asked where she wanted to go this year for our summer vacation!