2005-09-02 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

Whenever my family and I go to some place nearby the water on the eastern seaboard, I always end up asking, “Why can’t we do this in Rockaway?”

That was the case a few years ago when we went to visit Annapolis (Maryland) with its beautiful waterfront shopping street and harbor (not to mention the U.S. Naval Academy). The street that runs uphill from the harbor to the State Capitol has shops, restaurants and other amenities that I would love to see in Rockaway.

The same held true when we traveled to Baltimore (Maryland) and stayed at the Inner Harbor. If you have never been to the Inner Harbor, you are missing a good deal. One of the great things about the harbor is that you can pay once for a water taxi ride and then get off and on as many times as you like, exploring the various ethnic and shopping areas around the harbor, from the city out to Fort McHenry.

At the time, I suggested that we open up Jamaica Bay to the ocean with a channel through Edgemere and make an inner harbor of our own, but everybody laughed at me. I still think it would be a good idea, because tourists could use our water taxi to move from Rockaway to Sheepshead Bay, to the Statue of Liberty, to Riis Landing, to Brighton Beach, to Coney Island and a number of other places.

This year, we traveled to North Carolina for a week at Kitty Hawk, a town on the Outer Banks.

It was a revelation for me to see this tourist-driven area of barrier beach that brings tens of thousands of visitors each year without much more than Rockaway has in terms of things to see and do.

I know, if you have ever been there, you’re going to say that the Outer Banks have many more things to see and do than Rockaway. Before you say that, think of Rockaway not as an isolated area, but as part of the region that surrounds Jamaica Bay.

The centerpiece of the Outer Banks is the Wright Brothers Museum with its recreation of the original site, its models of the Wright Flyer, its museum and gift shops. Of course, the first flight is celebrated greatly in the area, with places and businesses such as First Flight Restaurant and First Flight Plumbing.

We have in Rockaway perhaps the second or third most important event in aviation history. The NC-4 took off from Naval Air Station Rockaway, what is now the parking lot at Riis Park, on the first transatlantic flight ever, predating Lindbergh’s flight by nearly ten years. Have you visited Rockaway’s memorial to the pilots of the NC-4. I doubt it. It does not exist. In fact, there was a large metal plaque nearby Riis Park, but it was removed when the bridge was renovated a few years ago and now sits forlorn at the Rockaway Museum.

In fact, there is a large painting at the Wright Brothers Museum in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina commemorating the flight of the NC-4 and its intrepid airmen.

There is nothing in Rockaway, where the plane took off.

Most of the activity that attracts tourists to North Carolina is water-related. There are dolphin-watch cruises, fishing trips and lots of Para-sailing and water-skiing. Put some piers both on the ocean side and the bay side of Rockaway and we can do the same. What, you say, what about storms, what about hurricanes? Why don’t you talk to the Outer Banks about hurricanes? They seem to have no problem building anything on the water even though they regularly are threatened by storms.

What makes the Outer Banks such a tourist attraction, however, is what made Rockaway such a tourist destination in the late 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s – affordable rental housing. Rockaway had its row upon row of bungalows. The Outer Banks has row upon row of rental houses.

Some of the rental houses are palatial, with ten bedrooms, fireplaces, swimming pools and spas. Most, however, are modest. We had seven people, so we rented a four-bedroom, two bath house that came with everything but linens for the bed and towels (although you can rent them for about $70). The house had cable TV, a barbeque, a screened-in porch and two decks. It was a block from the beach where you could fish, fly kites, sit and contemplate the sunset or simply take a walk. It even had a waffle maker, a coffee pot, a microwave oven and all the pots, pans and utensils you would ever need. Most people rent for a week or two, but some rent for longer.

The entire deal cost just over $1,000 for the week, not much when you split it seven ways.

Why not build homes like that on the unused portion of the Arverne Urban Renewal Area. Tie in the vacation homes with opening up the bay, building some piers on both the north and south sides of the peninsula, put in some miniature golf, some good seafood restaurants and a memorial to the flight of the NC-4. All Rockaway is missing is a lighthouse, and we could probably work out a deal with Breezy Point for some tours to that lighthouse. Then, you have Gateway National Recreational Area with its Battery Harris, Floyd Bennett Field and other historic artifacts. Put in some money and build them up to become real tourist attractions.

There is no reason why we can’t become another Outer Banks. In fact, they have only Norfolk and Virginia Beach. We have Manhattan.

All it takes is a little vision. A park is nice, and I like open space as much as the next one, but it would be exciting to see Rockaway as a real tourist destination once again.

I remember what it was like in the 1950’s, when the boardwalk and the bungalows were filled with people every night of the summer months. I always had a wish that it could have been like that for my kids. It is way too late for my kids, but perhaps Rockaway could become something special for my grandchildren in the same way it was for me when I was a kid.

I know there will be some who will write to say that I am crazy, that Rockaway is fine just the way it is, that more people will bring more traffic and more problems.

They have no vision.

Perhaps they weren’t here when the summer was magic. Perhaps they don’t care. Think outside the box about what Rockaway could be. It’s only an imagination and a couple of bucks away.

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