2010-03-19 / Columnists

Rock Solid

Commentary By Vivian Rattay Carter

I have wanted to be a writer since I was a child, but my timing hasn’t always been the greatest. In 2009, with the traditional publishing business on the cusp of extinction thanks to the World Wide Web, I began writing this monthly column about local not-forprofit groups and their leaders. I don’t get paid for my well-chosen words, but I do it anyway, because I believe it is helpful to the community and, at least for now, I can afford to donate my time.

But necessity can quickly induce change in one’s habits. I now text regularly from my “stupid” phone without a Q-W-E-R-T-Y keyboard. You would think I had learned how to write on the Moon. RUOK? How quickly we forget those years of grammar and spelling. Fortunately, I know in the back of my head that it’s really, “Are you okay?”

But it’s not about me. It’s not about my teenaged children. They learned to read and write before the ascendancy of the cell phone, instant messaging and the You Tube revolution.

It’s about the elementary school students of today. Will they learn to write?

Just in time, Google brings their Teacher Academy to New York to save the day. The technology giant can now train our teachers to train our children (who will have to retrain their parents). They will learn that RUOK earns a grade of 100 percent. “Are you okay” will soon be listed in our lexicon as an alternate correct spelling, marked with the dreaded abbreviation “arch.” – denoting an archaic usage.

For the past year, I’ve chosen to highlight people and organizations doing excellent not-for-profit work around the peninsula. My focus has been on the most successful groups that have been built up over many decades by local volunteers – the transparent and accountable and steady ones.

Year 2009 was tough. The Rockaway Museum, marking its 15th anniversary this year, lost some funding, and so did the local office of the American Littoral Society, founded in Broad Channel over 20 years ago. Due to disagreements with Gateway National Recreation Area, the Rockaway Music and Arts Council, in operation since the 1950s, held only one summer concert last year and its ever-popular Fall Festival will not occur in 2010, at all.

Another group that didn’t fare well in last year’s Rockaway funding follies was Madison Square Boys & Girls Club, a fixture in the east end of the peninsula for over a decade. The group lost its clubhouse on Beach 40 Street due to financial maneuvers by New York City’s public housing bean counters. Councilman James Sanders subsequently found some money to buy furniture for the clubhouse offices, but apparently it wasn’t enough to save one of the greatest after-school programs for youth in Rockaway.

One of the best students I was ever privileged to teach grew up at Madison Square, together with his sister. They are both model teens. Their mom had a part-time job at the clubhouse, too. It’s hard to calculate how much we’ve lost.

I think there is a common thread in the stories of these groups. They didn’t adapt quickly enough to the Internet era, which coincidentally, is also the Bloomberg era. High tech publicity and communications are really important these days. The “bricks and mortar” institutions in our community, from publishers to churches and schools, are increasingly vulnerable.

Even in an out-of-the-way place like Rockaway, we must have some change. The question is — how much? And who has the mandate, the credibility and the credentials to create a consensus on such changes?

New York Magazine has, for years, made a regular feature out of asking prominent cultural icons to provide advice for the rest of us on how to enjoy our lives here in the city. In one such feature from 1989, former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern said:

“Live in the outer boroughs in a neighborhood that’s not in the height of fashion. Find a safe, middle-class place. Good examples are Washington Heights, Inwood, or the northern part of Staten Island.” He could have added Rockaway to that list — the tightly zoned sections, that is.

Within a few years of reading these words, I was married, starting a family, and looking for a house in Connecticut and Westchester. Outbid on more than one occasion, my husband and I ended up buying a home in Belle Harbor in 1994. It needed work, but it cost us less than the $400,000 we’d have spent in the northern suburbs.

His family had fallen in love with the neighborhood and their stately whitepillared Neponsit colonial where he grew up. All of the siblings attended local public schools and went on to impressive careers. It was possible for their family to achieve this on Dad’s earnings from the New York City schools, while enjoying the time and attention of a stay-at-home Mom.

Yes, times have truly changed. A generation later, their house on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and its towering native holly bushes are gone, replaced by a three-story gold-brick “mausoleum” with a “For Sale” by Robin Shapiro Realty sign. The beautiful veranda where we shared after-beach tidbits each summer, and even managed to sleep comfortably during a steamy summer blackout, is gone. Now, it’s just another one of those “places in the heart.” Try finding another neighborhood in the city where it’s safe enough to sleep on your outdoor porch in a pinch. Believe me, even a top school administrator in the Bloomberg era cannot afford to pay the price being asked for the house today. At least it has an indoor swimming pool, which is more than you can say for Riis Park.

The point is that a neighborhood NOT in “the height of fashion” is a great place to live, and a great place to raise a family. Rockaway has always been in that category, so longtime residents have chosen to take the good with the bad. Proximity to our white sand beaches and cooling sea breezes is coupled with having to drive to the “mainland” to see a movie. Bicycling along the tree-shaded, crime-free streets of the west end in summer is offset by standing on the Broad Channel A-train platform freezing in the depths of winter – waiting for a connecting train that never seems to arrive. Those two toll bridges are gates that can swing in either direction — keeping visitors (and shoppers) out, or keeping residents in.

All that we lack becomes painfully obvious if you start imagining life with the bridge toll again. Three trips a day, and you’re talking more than $15. The $12 round-trip ferry option is almost gone. The $11-a-day express bus is looking better and better. We have no college or university building, no movie theater, no bookstore (do they still print books anymore?), no public swimming pool, no mid-day express bus or commuter rail service. No up-ward mobility for the middle class. We’ve all dreamed of having such amenities in Rockaway, but it takes money, power and consensus to get them. Dedicated community activists and supportive elected officials have been working for decades trying to achieve some of these things for Rockaway.

As to groups lately designating themselves as Rockaway’s community planners, I confess I am confused. If the historical record is accurate, Mayor Wagner created “community planning councils,” which later morphed into 59 “community planning boards” under Mayor Lindsay. The last time I checked, the taxpayers of Rockaway were still renting Mott Avenue office space for such a group, now called “Community Board 14,” chaired by Dolores Orr and managed by Jonathan Gaska. If you visit or call and ask them real nicely, they will share the names of the 50 local residents appointed by our elected officials to represent us, and their committee assignments. Regular folks from the community are even entitled to attend committee meetings, although getting the dates for such meetings is a bit tougher. It’s time for the Community Board to make such participation a realistic possibility for those of us sitting on the sidelines.

Just to make things even more confusing and expensive, we also pay the bills for a city-financed agency called The Department of City Planning, which is inviting one and all to GET INVOLVED! at an upcoming citywide waterfront planning session in Manhattan on April 8, presumably conducted by the types of high-priced professional experts Mayor Bloomberg specializes in overpaying.

But if you are the type who prefers charter schools to the city-run variety, you may prefer to get involved with the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance and its founder, Jeanne DuPont, a former NYC fashion designer who bought a summer bungalow in the east end and has now offered to design the peninsula, as well. RWA, a non-membership organization run by a small board of directors, has a nice website (which is more than you can say for CB 14), and a strong dose of chutzpah. DuPont says she’s done her research, but as we all know, it’s hard to learn much about this place if you’ve only lived here for a few summers. If you’ve never tried to commute from here or run a business in Rockaway during the winter months, you definitely can’t understand our problems, or come up with worthwhile solutions.

As with charter schools, residents should question RWA’s leader very closely about her credentials and experience and be skeptical of what you hear in a meeting or read on a website. Demand that all of your civic groups be transparent and accountable and state a clear mission. In a nutshell, my sense is that RWA wants to make Rockaway into the new Abercrombie & Fitch.

RUOK with that? No thank you. I prefer Target any day. And for the record, I think rotary phones were kind of cool, too.


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