2005-04-29 / Columnists

Rockaway Visit Inspires Documentary Filmmakers

Team Seeks Info, Funding To Spotlight Bungalows
By Jennifer Callahan, Special to The Wave

By Jennifer Callahan,
Special to The Wave

A Far Rockaway bungalow in disrepair.A Far Rockaway bungalow in disrepair.

  • Jennifer Callahan, a writer and filmmaker, has worked for documentary productions at NBC and at Kunhardt Productions, and on many indie films in New York City. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice and on WNYC’s “The Next Big Thing.” Callahan and her filmmaking partner, Elizabeth Logan Harris, are working on a documentary titled “The Improbable Bungalows.”
  • I first encountered the Rockaway bungalows one morning in July 2003 when I drove from Manhattan with two people from the New York Foundation. The foundation had hired me to produce and direct a video archive documenting some of the work of past and present grantees. One of those grantees was the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association. On this bright summer day we drove south and east in order to interview and videotape Richard George, bungalow-preservation-advocate.

    Edgemere bungalows during the heyday.Edgemere bungalows during the heyday. After about 45 minutes of the skyscrapers of midtown, and the various brownstones, apartment buildings, projects, and industrial sites of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, the landscape changed. Wooden houses appeared, as did inlets, tackle and bait shops, and fishing boats. Seagulls flew overhead. And, with the windows down, the briny smell of the sea insisted on being recognized. We complied.

    When we turned off Seagirt onto Beach 24th Street, I saw them: rows of bungalows. Pitched roofs, small porches, constructed of plaster, each one, even in their modesty and varying states of upkeep, was slightly different. In their cuteness and their age, they just floored me. After the more predictable structures we’d just driven by, they were, plainly, lyrical surprises. And the bungalows seemed exactly appropriate to the coast, and to this, an easy summer, if working, day in one’s life.

    Equipment in hand, Madeline Lee, Nick Levitin, and I walked on a leafy alley to a row of back bungalows, where we met with Richard George. In his bungalow, he told us some of the history of the peninsula, of the tent cities that preceded the bungalows, of the bungalows’ heyday, and of his continuing battles to preserve public access to the beach and to get some landmark status for the bungalows. His parents came by and he served us all homemade focaccia.

    After lunch, we strolled down his block, past the unfortunate-looking six-story building that replaced the Spanish-style bungalows in the late 80s and early 90s, and finally stood on the boardwalk and faced the ocean. Like many people, I love facing the ocean. Looking back, though, I stared at the streets and variegated skyline – blocks and blocks of low buildings, more bungalows, sandwiched by the random thrusts of multistoried, generic buildings. Planes flew overhead reminding us of JFK’s proximity. We left the surprisingly clean and pretty sand, and, with gusts of wind picking up our shirts and skirts, headed back to the car.

    On the drive back, my head still not quite able to make the cognitive connections that these bungalows were part of New York City, I knew that a documentary about the bungalows was waiting to exist. Archivally rich, in the tradition of the Ken Burns and Ric Burns documentaries, but with a feel closer to that of the Rockaways, the documentary would include archival photos, postcards, articles, ads, home movies, and also interviews with architectural historians, urban historians, preservationists, and Rockaway residents. I thought that a documentary illustrating the history of the bungalows would be a story not only of the bungalows, but also of the communities that made the bungalows meaningful. It’d be perfect for a public television audience.

    As you may or may not know, independently made documentaries often take time, and this one has.

    Since that visit almost two years ago, I’ve met preservation activists, Queens historians, and “bungalow-people.” My co-producer, Elizabeth Logan Harris, and I have learned a great deal. Thanks to meticulous research of Emil Lucev, Rockaway historian, we have the use of his stellar files of articles and archival materials, including documentation showing that the first bungalow went up in 1905, erected by John Eagan.

    I’ve been lucky enough to meet the archivist for the Marx family, and we have permission to use 1920s home movie footage of Chico and his family and Groucho and his family frolicking on the beach. Groucho had bought a bunch of bungalows in the 1920s, before they moved to Hollywood. Always worried about money, Groucho wasn’t sure they’d make it and the bungalows were a good real estate investment.

    We’ve conducted research in the Municipal Archives and at the Long Island Division of the public library in Jamaica. We learned that by the mid 1920s, 7,000 bungalows covered the Rockaway peninsula. We’ve learned that German U-boats prowled these shores during World War II. I recently testified before the Queens delegation requesting allocation from their budget for the documentary.

    We’ve received some initial funding, shot some footage, and have been accepted by a fiscal sponsor, City Lore, so we’re eligible for grants and so that all contributions are tax-deductible. Still, the project needs additional funding in order for us to shoot and complete our research, which we hope to wrap up this summer.

    We need your help!

    Please know that any contribution amount is significant and we’d hugely appreciate the help.

    All contributors will be named and thanked in the credits.

    Checks may be made to City Lore and “Bungalow documentary” should be written in the subject line. Checks may be mailed to Bungalow Documentary, 85 Walker Street #3, NYC, 10013. All inquiries, please email: bungalowdoc@yahoo.com, or you can write to me care of the Walker Street address.

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