The NYC Rockaways (That Sandy Made Famous)

by Richard Kostelanetz (November 2013)


Only rarely do the Rockaways enter NYC news; rarer still, national news. Arriving on unfamiliar turf before returning home as swiftly as possible, reporters often misunderstand or ignore crucial details. When hurricanes hit the City, they don’t notice how terrible winds can hit different places within the Rockaways differently. Filmed in front of the Atlantic Ocean, reporters often miss larger flooding from the Bay water. Reporters showed up after an airplane destined for the Dominican Republic crashed into Belle Harbor a few weeks after 9/11. Killing 260 passengers and crew, in addition to five on the ground, Flight 587 was the second deadliest crash ever on US territory.

The most curious detail missed by reporters unfamiliar with the Rockaways was that crash’s location—perpendicularly in the middle of a particularly narrow strip of peninsula land, with two blocks to the beach in front of it and two blocks to the Bay behind it. They failed to notice that the experienced pilot must have been utterly unable to get his plane to nearby water. Initially feared to be another Al-Qaeda attack, this crash prompted the evacuation of both the Empire State Building and the United Nations in Manhattan. Newyorkrican friends thought the disaster to be the terrible result of a quarrel between Dominican gangs. Neither hypothesis would ever gain much of a following. The official NTSB report issued the following year blamed the crash on the pilot’s misuse of his rudder in countering wake turbulence. I guess so.

Perhaps the most notorious Rockaway news story ever involved the Golden Venture, an ocean-going cargo ship that inadvertently ran aground on a sand bar some three hundred yards off Fort Tilden on 6 June 1993. On it were nearly 300 Chinese men who had reportedly paid at least 30 grand apiece to immigrate illegally to America. Ten drowned while trying to swim ashore, while the others were detained and later harassed. This led to the subsequent arrest and incarceration of those who were paid—the notorious human smugglers.

The TBS gabmaster Larry King even devoted a whole program to it, one pseudo-expert “speculating that it may have been an intentional beaching to avoid the harbor authorities.” Hearing this, one Rockawayite remembered, “I called in to the show to claim that was a preposterous proposal, saying that any non-whites in that area would stick out like a sore thumb immediately. I was hung up on by the show.” Some politically correct screener missed sharing with King’s audience a uniquely Rockaways joke about the rest of America’s ignorance of the Rock. Simply, anybody familiar with Rockaway Beach would know that, since Asians were scarce there then, a few of them, let alone a few dozen, not to mention a few hundred, couldn’t have possibly sneaked unnoticed past anyone awake! No way. Even King, a Brooklyn native, should have known the amusing truth that the Rockaways don’t resemble Manhattan. The Golden Venture later became the subject of a Peter Cohn film of that title (2006) and Patrick Radden Keefe’s book about the Chinese underworld, Snakehead (2009).

Since the Rockaways are in New York City and yet not quite of it, to no surprise they scarcely appear in many purportedly comprehensive books about New York City. Nothing from the Rockaways appears in One Thousand New York Buildings (2002), though the much-reprinted AIA Guides to the architecture of New York have included a Rockaway building or two. More distressing, no Rockaway image is reproduced among the hundreds in New York City in Postcards (2010)—absolutely none—even though, as I’ve found, historic Rockaway postcards by themselves are a rich subject. In his severe critique of Mayor John Lindsay, The Ungovernable City (2001), Vincent J. Cannato doesn’t identify how his subject destabilized the low-income projects in Far Rockaway. Indeed, no version of the word Rockaway appears in this book’s index. Nothing about the Rockaways appears in Jack Newfield and Paul De Bruel’s The Permanent Government: Who Really Rules New York? (1981) or in Newfield and Wayne Barrett’s City for Sale (1988). Roger Starr’s The Rise and Fall of New York City (1985) doesn’t include the Rockaways that were certainly declining, though mentioning in passing as “unsuitable” the “houses built on stilts at the edge of polluted Jamaica Bay.” Those houses weren’t meant to be occupied overnight in the wintertimes.

The classic New York Panorama (1938), a WPA writers anthology, acknowledges NYC beaches in three lines on page 321. The Rockaway boardwalk isn’t mentioned in Gerard R. Wolfe’s New York: A Guide to the Metropolis (1988), whose subtitled promises “Walking Tours of Architecture and History.” (Perhaps the picturesque Atlantic Ocean boardwalk ain’t “history” yet.) Though Robert A. M. Stern and his associates acknowledge the Rockaways in their New York 1930 (2009), the predecessor about a later time, New York 1960 (1997), has nothing about New York’s beach towns. Nothing from the whole of Queens appears in Francis Morrone’s The Architectural Guidebook to New York City (rev. ed., 2002) from a publisher located in Utah!

Though The Unofficial Guide to New York City (1998) surveys a wealth of recreation options, it says nothing about swimming anywhere in NYC. Instead, it describes the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge Center as “a ten-mile stretch of beach,” which it isn’t. It’s the whole Rockaway beach that is ten miles long, though Vincent F. Seyfried’s entry on “Rockaway” in the heavily vetted The Encyclopedia of New York City (first ed., 1995) speaks of “a barrier beach four miles (six kilometers) long”! This EoNYC entry continues, “The area was uninhabited until a fishing shack was built in 1856.” That last date, need I correct, would have been not years but whole decades after Rockaway entrepreneurs built the legendary Marine Pavilion Hotel, which certainly wasn’t “a fishing shack.” Expecting to find these mistakes corrected in the second edition of this tombstone of a book from a university press (2011), I was surprised and disappointed to find them repeated, even though the “Rockaway” entry was longer and a second author credited. Didn’t anyone in the dozen-plus years since its first edition tell its senior editor, Columbia U. Professor Kenneth T. Jackson, about such obvious gross mistakes?

In James Sander’s heavily illustrated Scenes from the City: Filmmaking in New York (2006), copyrighted (and perhaps subsidized?) by “The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City,” the Rockaways don’t appear at all, even though films, such as Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987), have been shot “on location” there. Indeed, in The Detective (1968) Frank Sinatra comes off the boardwalk at Beach 62nd Street, its street sign visible, to subdue a perpetrator on the sand. Robert Cameron’s Above New York (1988) has magnificent aerial photographs of Orchard Beach and Coney Island but nothing of the Rockaways or even Jamaica Bay, aerially photogenic though both certainly are. The title of Stephen Proehl’s Over New York (1980) is a misnomer, as its pictures cover only Manhattan. (By contrast, Best of New York [2001] has thirteen pages of color photographs prefaced by the title “A Hidden Jewel.”)

Robert Caro scarcely mentions the Rockaways in his equally mammoth The Power Broker (1974), about the arrogant city planner Robert Moses, whose designs left scars still visible in the Rockaways. Indeed, on page 500, Caro writes “Floyd Bennett Field, the airport that was the Rockaways’ pride.” I gasped, because the historic airfield is actually on the other side of Jamaica Bay securely in Brooklyn! When I asked Caro about where he actually set foot on the Rockaways, at a Guggenheim Foundation party in May 2007, he seemed unsure. Near the sentence quoted above Caro describes Moses as taking the trouble to make “the long trip across Jamaica Bay.” Actually, the ride is shorter than, say, from Manhattan to Jones Beach or anywhere along the New Jersey shore. Whenever I hear anyone declare the Rockaways the end of a “long trip,” or, worse, that they “passed through them,” my initial hunch is that, in truth, they’ve never been there. Indeed, in my own informal observation, most New Yorkers have never ever set foot in the Rockways, which are easily accessible by subway but off their local-travel map.

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Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

 

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