2004-07-16 / Community

Parks Department Photo Exhibit Features Rockaway

Parks Department Photo Exhibit Features Rockaway

People doing calisthenics in Rockaway in 1935.People doing calisthenics in Rockaway in 1935.

The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation is presently running a photo exhibit, entitled, Going Coastal: The Beaches of New York City. Celebrating the summer, the exhibition features 92 archival and contemporary photographs, vintage postcards, historic renderings, as well as artifacts and memorabilia representing the vital role that beaches play in the life of the city. There are a number of Rockaway-related items in the exhibit.

"New York swelters in the summer, but its 18 miles of public beaches—more than 14 of which are City parkland—are free, open to all, and just a bus or subway ride away," said Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "Our beaches can be found in every borough except river-bound Manhattan: from Coney Island, the quintessential waterfront amusement park, to Orchard Beach, the ‘Bronx Riviera.’ This exhibition underscores New Yorkers’ continued affection for their city’s shoreline."

The pictures in the show illustrate the range of activities at the City’s beaches and convey a sense of change, contrast and continuity, of evolving fashions and physiques. An early picture shows a chaotic scene at Pelham Bay, prior to the Orchard Beach W.P.A-era transformation. Vintage postcards recall the extensive amusement parks that once dotted Staten Island’s south shore. A series of lifeguard photos spans six decades. Scenes of astonishing overcrowding on the sands of post-war New York and clean-up operations of epic proportions remind us of the Herculean mission faced by park administrators. A treasure hunt at Riis Park appears quaint when compared to athletes at a modern-era triathlon, and the exuberant Mermaid Parade at Coney Island contrasts with yesteryear’s rolling cart concession. Images of South Beach, Riis Park, Coney Island, and Rockaway from around 1940 give a sense of their boardwalks’ seemingly infinite vistas, while familiar landmarks such as the Wonder Wheel and Parachute Jump serve as a backdrop for the human drama that unfolds at the beaches.

Until the 19th century, the city’s Long Island Sound and Atlantic shorelines were pristine, rugged, and hard to get to. But beginning in the 1820’s, seaside resorts sprang up, and their development accelerated after the Civil War. By the turn of the 20th century, with the help of improved rail and ferry transportation, a thriving amusement-park culture at Coney Island, Rockaway Beach, and the South Shore of Staten Island was serving the city’s skyrocketing population.

The Rockaway Boardwalk, circa 1938. This is one of the pictures featured in the Parks Department exhibit on the city’s beaches.The Rockaway Boardwalk, circa 1938. This is one of the pictures featured in the Parks Department exhibit on the city’s beaches.

By the late 1920’s, the City had established Jacob Riis Park, the Coney Island boardwalk, and a few small waterfront parks in Brooklyn and Queens that catered mainly to day-trippers. At Wolfe’s Pond Park on Staten Island, portions of the Rockaways, and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, large bungalow communities took root.

Robert Moses, Parks Commissioner from 1934 to 1960, set out to expand and make the beaches more wholesome. Just before the Parks Department gained full control of the beaches in 1938, he commented, "No inland lake, stream or pool can compete with the Ocean and its tributaries which surround the City." Vast improvements followed. In the Bronx, the water between Rodman’s Neck and Hunter Island was filled to create Orchard Beach’s wide crescent. New boardwalks went up at South and Midland Beaches, Coney Island, and at Rockaway and Jacob Riis Parks. Public works like the Belt Parkway and the Marine Parkway Bridge improved beach access.

After World War II beach attendance soared and the City acquired more coastland, including Manhattan Beach. By the time Moses left office in 1960, public beaches had increased from 1 to 17.96 miles. His successors have faced operational hurdles of almost biblical proportions, contending with storms, fires, sewage, and ordinary litter. In 1974, during the fiscal crisis, Riis Park in Queens and Great Kills on Staten Island were transferred along with Jamaica Bay from City to Federal jurisdiction as the Gateway National Recreation Area.

A renewed interest in New York City’s 578-mile waterfront has resulted in several recent beach improvements. At Orchard Beach in the Bronx, $3.3 million was invested in 1998 to rebuild the monumental bathing pavilions and terraces. At Midland Beach on Staten Island, an enormous capital investment has paid for boardwalk repair, a grand entrance plaza (2002), and a new fishing pier (2003). At Rockaway Beach in Queens, the City broke ground in 2004 for a new oceanside skate park, while Coney Island acquired new comfort stations, information kiosks, music pavilions, and KeySpan Park (2001), home to the Brooklyn Cyclones. These amenities will ensure that the city’s 12 million beach-goers continue to "go coastal" well into the 21st century.

Roller skating in Rockaway, circa 1942.Roller skating in Rockaway, circa 1942.

Most of the images in Going Coastal are from the New York City Parks Photo Archive. Images are also on loan from Parks & Recreation’s Map File Collection and the Municipal Archives. Vintage postcards are on loan from the Staten Island Institute of Arts & Sciences. The exhibition is curated by Parks & Recreation’s Director of Art & Antiquities Jonathan Kuhn, with assistance from Public Art Coordinator Patricia Hamilton. Additional images or "outtakes" can be found in a virtual gallery presented on Parks & Recreation’s website at www.nyc. gov/parks.

The Arsenal Gallery is located on the 3rd Floor of the Arsenal at 64th Street and Fifth Avenue in Central Park. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed holidays). Admission is free.

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