There’s been a buzz over the past few weeks about waterfront planning in the Rockaways. Oh, that again. There seems to be a ten-year cycle to all of this. We all should read the “Looking Backward” column of The Wave which chronicles the unrealized community planning efforts of the past 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, and on. For over 300 years, many who settled on the Rockaway Peninsula have immediately set to work trying to change it — exploiting its natural features and benefits, or molding it to suit their vision.
Historical artifacts indicate that the Canarsie Indians didn’t have villages here, but merely used it as a fishing post prior to the 1600’s, when it was deeded to the first European settlers.
Robert Moses, who never lived here, but had a huge impact, promoted his own vision of what he thought Rockaway should be. Get rid of the “cheap amusements” and bungalows, he said. It should be an artists’ colony, chimed in others. Some thought casinos were the answer. In the latter part of the 1890’s, essayist William Dean Howells, who summered in Far Rockaway for several years, commented on the excessive number of bicycles on the peninsula. It seemed to him that way too many dreaded daytime visitors arrived in Rockaway by bike. Howells didn’t coin the term “DFD” but he could have.
His spirit is alive in Rockaway today.
One “visitor” who, without a doubt, has been the most successful in changing the peninsula is Mother Nature. She created the entire land mass west of Beach 30 Street, through the accretion of sand transported by the waves as they travel from east to west. Okay, so it took 300 years. But at least she didn’t have to go to the New York City Economic Development Commission for technical assistance. I guess we can thank Mother Nature that we now have two city council districts, instead of one!
There is a balance in this giving; Mother Nature also takes. The dangerous currents and other tidal action along the shore that have resulted in lost lives during the summer months also tend to scour out unprotected land masses in the east end of the peninsula.
Hog Island, an offshore sand bar near Beach 19 Street, developed with bathhouses, restaurants and pavilions in the mid-1800’s, was washed away then rebuilt, after three major storms in the late 1880’s and 1920’s. Mother Nature won that battle.
The Beach Gallery at Sunlites Stained Glass Studio displays several beautifully etched bottles created as a tribute to the artists who arrived on the peninsula seeking a place to nurture their creative impulses. One reads: “Patrick Clark ... came to the beach from Washington State.” Another says: “Denis Macrae ... came to the beach from the Village.” My favorite: “Ian Lander ... born at the beach.” Migrants come here from Brooklyn, from Guyana, from Russia, from Poland. The bottles are a concrete reminder that so many of us are not natives.
When basketball great Dick McGuire died last week, I was surprised to learn that the McGuire family came to Rockaway from the Bronx. So they were transplants, as well, who played their part in putting Rockaway on the map.
The stories of those who failed are also interesting. The developer of the Hotel Imperial, which once occupied the width of the peninsula from Beach 108 to Beach 116 Street, was “tied up in the blackest of legal knots” by the powerful bankers and developers of Coney Island and Manhattan for having the temerity to build a hotel that would make any other resort seem small, in comparison. The building was taken down, brick by brick, before it ever opened for business. Legal and financial power trumped publicity on that one.
The list of Rockaway’s alternative civic groups, short-lived publishing ventures, and well-meaning not-for-profit alliances, coalitions, councils, associations, committees, leagues and societies over the decades is long. I can name some that have come and gone, and I’ve only lived here for 15 years. The Wave’s Newcomer’s Guide lists 41 community service organizations.
I have profiled some of the more effective, and long-lived groups in this column in the past year. These organizations have changed the Jamaica Bay community for the better by mobilizing groups of dedicated and committed volunteers (plus private and public funds) around clear missions—clean the beach and learn about the waterfront (American Littoral Society); expand human-powered boating (Sebago Canoe Club); create a thriving community garden (Floyd Bennett Gardens Association); expand the arts (Rockaway Artists Alliance); and create live theatre (Rockaway Theatre Company). These groups will continue to succeed if we support them, and if they master the games of fund-raising and publicity, which are sometimes deemed more important to not-for-profit groups than actual accomplishments.
Groups that step forward to plan or improve this community would do well to avoid any attempt to supplant these organizations. We should build on their successes, not try to duplicate them.
Most importantly, we need to dust off those past community planning reports, and pay attention to the lessons of the past.