Almost one month after Hurricane Sandy, some storefronts in the Rockaways—the seven-mile stretch of beachfront below Brooklyn—are alight at night, but many small businesses are still boarded up. Floodlights illuminate intersections, and cop cars and sanitation crews line streets piled with debris. Some 9,700 people here are still without power. Tattered American flags dangle in the wind by Breezy Point, where more than 100 homes were destroyed by fire at the height of the hurricane.
This is a tough and proud community, home to more than its share of police and firefighters, who again find themselves coping with life in a disaster zone. But in every crisis lies an opportunity—and with the influx of cash and the need to rebuild comes a rare opportunity to renew and strengthen this historic community.
The Rockaways have long been one of the great slumbering secrets of New York City. The same stretch of beach that is home to multimillion-dollar houses in the Hamptons extends 100 miles west, within walking distance of the A train.
In the late-19th century, this was one of the premier seaside resorts in the nation, so much so that Herman Melville wrote in the opening chapter of Moby-Dick: “Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach?”
The waters here have a deep draw. In the early-20th century, a mixture of Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants transformed the neighborhood into a middle-class seaside escape, with thousands of modest but much-loved bungalows.
But decades of bad city planning turned what has been called “Hamptons West” into a shadow of its former self, a patchwork of disjointed communities punctuated by four major public housing projects, isolated more than an hour by train from Manhattan.
Out of tragedy can come renaissance, with the right leadership right now. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and federal disaster funds together offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild the Rockaways better than they were before, back to their full potential.
“For decades, Rockaway has been overlooked by administration after administration in City Hall,” says Robert Hardt, the political director of NY1 and a longtime resident. “Despite the neglect, more than 125,000 people live here, and millions more come every summer to visit the beach and the neighborhood. Mayor Bloomberg can just hand Rockaway a box of Band-Aids or he can come up with his own Marshall Plan for the peninsula. Revitalizing the Rockaways would be a fitting legacy for a mayor who’s always dreamt of being a master builder.”
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani started the resurgence of neighboring Coney Island with ambitious rezoning and the construction of a minor-league-baseball stadium for the Brooklyn Cyclones. Bloomberg doubled down on the effort there, and now the difference is night and day in that historic home to carnival rides and beachfront leisure.
Now the opportunity exists for Bloomberg to extend his legacy permanently with the wholesale rebuilding of the Rockaways. The project could come to define his third term. Working with Cuomo, he can begin to address one of the most politically thorny issues in New York—the need to update our public-housing stock, much of which has lived beyond its expiration date.
Disaster-area designation can allow the city and state to tear down and rebuild time-worn existing concrete structures that do not fit the location and provide residents with brand-new housing within a public-private mixed-use structure, returning an organic balance and neighborhood grid to the community. The damage caused by the Lindsay-administration-era bulldozing of 30 blocks’ worth of private homes can begin to be healed. It is a potential win-win for everyone.
The successful oceanfront Arverne-by-the-Sea development can serve as a model and keystone community. Despite continued construction, the mixed-used development seems to have weathered the storm well. Other makeshift post-Sandy innovations, such as a regular fast ferry to Manhattan, could eventually be made permanent, perhaps along the same without-fee lines that residents of Staten Island enjoy.
The Bloomberg administration’s Rapid Repairs outreach to individual homes has earned generally high marks from local residents, but it could be just a first step to a more ambitious and lasting rebuilding of a once and future great urban oceanfront community.
There is no reason the Rockaways could not be a major destination location again. After all, it still has the same beach and breezes. It will need, like much of New York, defenses against rising tides and apparently increased storm surge. But the neighborhood could take architectural inspiration from Seaside, Fla., and other innovative New Urbanism experiments in human-scale community building. In the process, the city might inspire many commuters to return to New York and expand organic sidewalk culture communities within our rapidly growing metropolis, which is expected to hit 9 million residents in the next two decades.
Amid all the daunting destruction, it can be difficult to dream big, because so many small but pressing problems and heartbreaks remain. But now is the time for bold leadership to make long-term investments.
The Rockaways should be the crown jewel of New York City’s 578 miles of waterfront. Then future generations might not only remember the destruction of Hurricane Sandy, but the civic resurgence it inspired it its wake.