2005-08-18 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

The cover photo for the “Annual Yearbook of the Rockaways, The Playground of New York,” put out by the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce features a “bathing beauty” sitting on top of a beach piling in a demure pose. She is wearing a one-piece bathing suit that stretches from her neck to mid-thigh. This is, after all, the June, 1934 yearbook.

As with any other historic artifact more than 70 years old, there is a certain interest and curiosity in seeing what it has to say, especially about the future of “The Playground of New York.”

The first article in the 90-page yearbook is accompanied by a picture of the opening of the “quarter-million dollar Tribunal on Beach Channel Drive,” the old courthouse that now stands fallow and deteriorating on Beach 92 Street, waiting for Helen Marshall to get together the money to make it into a unit of the City College system.

The article says, in part, “It may easily be declared that between the years of 1920 and 1934 the city of New York has invested more than $30 million in the Rockaways. This vast sum of money was poured into the construction of arterial highways; paved and improved streets, sewers, sewerage treatment plants and incinerators; improved school facilities. The construction of modern police stations, firehouses and courts; public parks and playgrounds; and finally the construction of the public beach and the erection of the ocean promenade, extending as it does over the sand fastnesses of the peninsula from Belle Harbor to Far Rockaway, the largest boardwalk in the world of its kind.”

Further on, the book lists the “civic achievements” that the Rockaway Chamber hopes to get for the peninsula in the future. Primary among those civic achievements is rapid transit for Rockaway. The Chamber was pushing a bill that “provides for the purchase by the City of New York of the Rockaway Beach and Far Rockaway lines of the Long Island Railroad from and in the Rockaways to a point near Rego Park, Queens.”

What the chamber was talking about is the old White Pot Junction line that some Rockaway residents now want to revive as a quick route to Manhattan. The city, however, opted to take the line through Brooklyn in order to address the most riders possible. So our one and a half hour ride to Manhattan was born. I wonder what the 1934 chamber members would say if they could see the A Line and the shuttle today.

By the way, a one-way ticket on the LIRR from New York to Rockaway Beach cost $.60. The trip to Far Rockaway was an expensive $.95. Today, we are using the same numbers for the Far Rockaway trip, but we are talking in dollars rather then cents for a monthly commutation ticket.

Another civic achievement was new schools. The program called for building new schools in Baywater, in the “Ostend Section (probably what in now the area between Seagirt Boulevard and the beach around Beach 15 Street), and at Hammel. The article notes that the building plan “has been deferred in view of the city’s present financial status.” What else is new?

Among the civic achievements desired by the chamber was a “second Jamaica Bay Causeway, extending from Springfield Boulevard across the Jamaica Bay meadows and entering the peninsula at a point near Beach 42 Street in Edgemere. It also proposed an arm of the new road run directly to Bayswater.

Finally, the plan called for the construction of a convention hall and pier at some “central point along the ocean front.” I’d vote for that.

The two-page spread in the center of the book is dedicated to Playland, with its “Monster Swimming Pool,” bath house, music tower, ocean and pool bathing, and, of course, its “amusements like the roller coaster.”

The book points to the fact that the Green Bus Line was granted a one-year franchise from the Board of Estimate to run nine routes in Rockaway. Seventy years later, the line is still getting one-year franchises. In an advertisement, the bus company wrote, “In the short period of less than six months since we inaugurated bus service over our old trolley routes, we have increased out fleet to 54 modern buses. Service comes first is our motto.” Those buses are probably still running routes in Rockaway.

The Riis Park Pavillion at Jacob Biis Park in Neponsit advertised special luncheons at $.75 and dinner for $1.00. The most expensive item on the menu, the shore dinner, went for $1.75.

The Seaside Improvement Company, E.W. Schilling, President, advertised 150 bungalows for rent between Beach 110 and Beach 101 Street.

Featured prominently and proudly in the book is the Manufactured Gas Plant at Beach Channel Drive and Beach 108 Street, which is today known as a Class II Toxic Waste Site under remediation by KeySpan Energy and the Department of Environmental Conservation. If only the chamber had known.

The Steeplechase Baths on the boardwalk from Beach 99 Street to Beach 100 Street bragged of ocean and pool bathing for 5,000 bathers, including steam rooms, showers, handball courts and a playing field.

The Park Inn Baths and Swimming Pool at Beach 115 Street and the boardwalk promised “the most modern and largest fireproof bathing establishment in the Rockaways.” Today, it is The Park Inn Home for Adults and its inhabitants haunt the Beach 116 Street shopping area like wraiths, causing lots of consternation on the street with shoppers and business people alike.

The Ostend Athletic Club at the foot of Beach 15 Street in Far Rockaway (where O’Donohue Park now stands) advertised tennis and handball, Squash, a solarium, hot and steam rooms, a gymnasium and showers. Lockers and linen were included.

Davis and Goldbaum pushed their three movie theaters: The New Theatre at Beach 80 Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard (called, “The Itch” by one and all), the Rivoli Theater at Beach 91 Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard and the Boardwalk Theater on the boardwalk at Beach 67 Street. The RKO theaters promised three more: the RKO Strand and RKO Columbia, both on Central Avenue in Far Rockaway and the RKO Park on Beach 116 Street. All of the theaters are gone and Rockaway does not have even one movie theater for its 110,000 people.

Roache’s Beach, from Beach 17 Street to Beach 19 Street on the beachfront promised “large family bath houses” for $35 per season. Smaller beach houses (lockers) went for $5 per person per season.

And, of course, Weiss Restaurant, one of my favorite places in the past, in Broad Channel (where the library now stands), famous for its outdoor fast food (hamburgers, franks, clam bar) and less so for its indoor restaurant that featured “Thumb Bits,” sliced steak and thin-fried potatoes with the best sauce you ever tasted. We called it “Sy Sauce,” because the waiter that served us every Tuesday night was named Sy.

Ah, memories. If we only knew then what we know now.

That, however is always the case and will ever be so.

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