Dispatches – Rockawayist Catches Up With Artist Bill Foge
Rockawayist recently became aware of the work of locally renowned painter Bill Foge, and had an opportunity to speak with him this week. Foge, now 78 years old and residing in Kittery, Maine for the past 10 years, may indeed be Rockaway’s first hipster.
Foge arrived in Rockaway in 1983 during a blizzard. His studio in Staten Island had just burned down, and he was seeking a new life and work space. A friend invited him to look at a bungalow near Beach 109th Street. Having never been to Rocakway before, Foge mistakenly got off the A train at the Playland stop, and had to walk the extra 10 blocks in near blinding conditions. When he finally arrived, he rented the bungalow on the spot. Having previously been a resident of the other four boroughs, Foge stayed in Rockaway for about 25 years.
Rockaway, like all of New York City, was a much different place in 1983. The city as a whole was slowly recovering from the financial crises of the 1970s, but was in the grip of a violent, drug-induced crime wave that would not crest for at least another 10 years. Rockaway was (and in many respects, still is) “the dumping ground for the rest of the city,” as Foge recalls. The infrastructure needs of the peninsula had long been neglected, and the summer crowds started to go elsewhere. The growing concentration of SROs and halfway homes in the area also served to scare off visitors.
Foge recalls Rockaway Beach Boulevard and the boardwalk as teeming with “hundreds of bars, restaurants and dance halls. It was a party town, a very fun and vital place to live.” One of Foge’s favorite haunts was Boggiano’s (later to be known as The Tap & Grill, and now, The Playland Motel). Boggiano’s at the time sat across from Playland, one of the last remaining seaside amusement parks in the city. Playland was finally shuttered in the mid-1980s, a victim of declining ticket revenues and soaring insurance costs. Foge and many local residents at the time blamed the park’s troubles on indifference from City Hall. The amusement park was sold to real estate developers and is now home to rows of tidy but undistinguished two and three family homes.
The closing of Playland accelerated the decades-long slide that had taken over Rockaway. Foge immediately sensed that turning point and he set out to paint as much as possible of Rockaway’s vistas and street life before it vanished. During this period, specializing in more reasonably priced pastel paintings, Foge estimates he completed more thanu 1,000 portraits and landscapes of Rockaway. These paintings were famously reproduced into postcards which were sold in stores and street fairs all over the peninsula. Additionally, Foge recounted his efforts with a column in The Wave called The Artist’s View.
In what could be called Rockaway’s version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Foge painted Boggiano’s Clam Bar. That lush original was owned by Mrs. Boggiano until it was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy last year. At her request, Foge is creating an oil reproduction of the original pastel. In the past few months, Foge has been contacted by other longtime Rockaway residents seeking reproductions of treasured paintings that were lost in the storm.
Some of his current work in Kittery, Maine can be viewed at his website. Bill Foge can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.