History of the Rockaways
O there are Voices of the Past,
Links of a broken chain,
Wings that can bear me back to Times
Which cannot come again;
Yet God forbid that I should lose
The echoes that remain. —Adelaide Procter
This narrow eleven-mile peninsula of Long Island lies to the south and west of Jamaica Bay. “Reckowacky” was originally home to a small tribe of Canarsie. The name can be translated into “place of our people,” “lonely place,” or “place of waters bright.” It was originally purchased by the Dutch, was then the property of several
English landowners before being purchased by Richard Cornell, an iron-worker from Flushing who settled in Far Rockaway in 1690. Rockaway’s miles of wide beaches covered in soft sand have long made it ideal as an oceanfront resort. The Marine Hotel, built in 1833 on the site of the Cornell home, was credited with popularizing “sea bathing”, and was frequented by New York City luminaries such as the Vanderbilts, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Washington Irving. By the 1880’s the railroad extended all the way to Far Rockaway bringing larger audiences and increased
business opportunities. In 1897 the Village of Rockaway Park became incorporated into the City of Greater New York and further development of the outer boroughs into working class neighborhoods, along with increased access via the Cross Bay Bridge and the Marine Parkway Bridge shifted the area’s demographics.
Of the millions of Irish that came through New York City in the mid 19th century, a number settled in Far Rockaway and Seaside, contributing to the development of the area. The Wave, the Rockaways’ newspaper, was founded by James Keenan, one
of the area’s “sons of Ireland.” During Prohibition, the many drinking establishments in Seaside had to shutter, or at least pretend to stop serving. After the Volstead Act was repealed, Seaside again drew thirsty throngs. Between the wars the area still flourished with Rockaway’s Playland was its main attraction. People still rented bungalows and there were plenty of daytrippers and locals patronizing its many inns, restaurants and watering holes.
“The Playground of New York” began a steep decline following WWII, as wealthier audiences sought more distant and exclusive resorts and attractions. Most of the grand hotels became rooming houses or were destroyed by fire. While the growing middle class sought more exclusive beaches elsewhere, returning war veterans and the continuing migration of blacks from the south created an increasingly high demand for housing. This offered an opportunity for the controversial Robert Moses, then the head of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, to change the landscape of the Rockaways.
The Housing Act of 1949 freed up federal funding for Robert Moses’ ambitious housing plans. Making his case for razing much of the area and replacing it with high-rises, he offered this rationale, “such beaches as the Rockaways and those on Long Island and Coney Island lend themselves to summer exploitation, to honky-tonk catchpenny amusement resorts, shacks built without reference to health, sanitation, safety and
decent living.” Land on the Rockaways was cheap or, better yet free when seized by the power of eminent domain.
To be fair, although time has revealed much of urban renewal to be a flawed vision at best, its intentions were essentially good. Before Robert Moses, it was Fiorello La Guardia who pressed for clean, affordable, modern housing to be made available to all citizens. He targeted “rotting, antiquated rat holes” along the waterfront as the first to go. The new large-scale housing projects began in the Lower East side and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, soon to be followed by the Red Hook houses, considered in 1940 to be a great success, “a Versailles for the millions.”
Although the Rockaways, the Red Hook, the Gowanus, and other housing projects were designed for efficiency, they were not designed to withstand severe weather, nor were most other residential buildings in the coastal areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. It is amazing to see Rockaways’ wide swaths of beach reduced to thin strips of sand that all but disappear at high tide.
The Rockaways tell a particularly poignant story of the shifting nature of the waterfront. It has followed the trajectory of much of greater New York City in its transformation from wilderness to farms and resorts, to bedroom communities and housing projects. Now, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, much of the peninsula is damaged beyond repair. Many, despite losing everything, are fiercely devoted to the waterfront and cannot conceive of living elsewhere. What happened in the Rockaways forces us to consider how we are going to face similar recurring events. We can rebuild on raised foundations, but also must tend to the ecological health of our surroundings. If any good has come out of the terrible loss of life and property, it is that we can no longer ignore the threat to our coastline. We can agree to take
thoughtful action to respect, protect, and maintain our waterfront.