rockaways surf

This is Rockaway

WORDS: Cole Louison
PHOTOGRAPHY: Tracey Tomtene

Three trains and two hours from midtown Manhattan, Rockaway Beach is a world away from the Big Apple’s towering skyline. Its characters, diverse and hardened, have learned that coming back from adversity requires a strengthening of the homefront.

Rockaway Beach is a neighborhood in Queens County, 23 miles and a world away from the skyscrapers of New York City. Such is its odd place of independence, that even in a city of 9 million, few could tell you much about this community of 13,000. Three trains and two hours from midtown Manhattan, Rockaway was either an art colony, a housing project, a surftown, a fireman’s neighborhood, or a community of immigrants that didn’t like outsiders, depending on whom you asked.

The storm hit here harder than anywhere else, leaving residents without their homes, pets, power, plumbing and five miles of their boardwalk. When this group of surfing immigrant firefighting artists emerged from the sand and rubble, they wore a new face: that of a strong, resilient community that appreciated your help but could also go it alone. 


rockaway beach manhattan

Five years, $150 million, and—finally—one new concrete boardwalk later, Rockaway is now a new place with old impressions. Sandy is still here. From the dim water line alongside old houses, to the salvaged wood tables of the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, to the way locals look at a reporter asking about the hurricane (a look that reads “This? Again?”). No one wants to talk about it. Not anymore.

Today, Sandy is more of a feeling than it is a conversation. And that feeling, like the calico sky and the endless surf, has great depths. Because something else is still here. And that’s the spirit Sandy brought out in so many, the spirit that will shine long after the tired images of destruction fade away. It’s a spirit you can feel on the ocean breeze, as summer begins and the boardwalk concessions open their shutters, as this town comes out to walk, run, swim, surf, paint, play, sing, and to tell their own stories. Stories of who they are, and where they came from, and how they got here, and what they do, and what they were doing that fateful night, and more importantly, what they’re doing now. Each story marks a different path. No two are alike. But they all end here, at the beach.


rockaway beach manhattan

“Rockaway is a small town. People have a lot of pride. So when Sandy was coming, it was a lot of “I’m not going anywhere,” and “Bring it on.” That kind of thing. I was at my Dad’s house. There was an inch of water in the basement, then two inches, and then out of nowhere the walls started caving in and we had to run upstairs. We spent the whole next day digging out our house, then our neighbors’ houses, and that night we had a party. We got a keg and started a bonfire on the beach. A lot of people were walking around, confused and devastated. We’d offer them a drink. We thought, OK, our town is devastated, so what can we do? We can make the most of it and continue living.”


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“Surfers watch the weather, so when I first heard [about Hurricane Sandy], it was just off the coast of Africa. Remember that Irene was expected to be badass, and it wasn’t. So people paid attention to it, but maybe not how they should have. And then that night, there was a supermoon. We were in my second story apartment, watching the swell period. Someone said, ‘The swell is gonna hit as soon as the high tide hits.’ Then the lights went out. Soon, water was rushing down the streets. People were screaming in the dark outside. And you could see Breezy Point because it was on fire.”


rockaway beach manhattan

“The community’s response to us was huge because it was a do or die situation. It wasn’t about positive or negative. It was about eating, being warm, having clothing. But later on, people told us we’re doing a great job, and as peoples’ needs shifted, so did our mission. Now it’s not about handing out food, medicine and clothes. A lot of things are experiments. Last year I did a cooking class, like a mentor program. But the response was so good that I applied for a grant, and I got it. Now we have cooking classes for kids in the community gardens here. They’re learning how to prepare food, learning about better options instead of going to the deli and buying a bag of chips. It’s fresh ingredients. No fire or knives. Just stuff grown in the garden, stuff they could grow in their yards or on their windowsill.  At the end of the week there’ll be a meal, and they can invite their families to come and eat. We’re expecting a big turnout.”

“The identity of the people here is more reflective of the way they live their lives.”


rockaway beach manhattan

“People welcome you without knowing you here. I found Rockaway on Craigslist. I was in the Dominican Republic and saw they needed a barber. I didn’t know what Rockaway was. As soon as I got off the plane, I came here with my bag. I walked into the shop, and everyone stopped and looked at me. There was a barber by the name of Bario. He said, ‘Are you a barber?’ I said yes. He called the owner and got me set up at a station, and I started working right then. After Sandy hit, I came back and opened my own shop. We’re open four years this month. My clients are diverse. Kids, seniors, adults, a lot of military. Homeless people. Disabled kids; I cut their hair for free. There’s no discrimination. You get the same treatment, whether you give me $100 or you give me $1. Anybody comes through that door, we will take care of you.”


rockaway beach manhattan

“We are part of New York City. This is Queens. But let me ask you something: When you’re out somewhere and you meet someone, how long is it in the initial conversation before they ask what you do for a living? How long? I went years down here with no one asking. You’re more easily identified by the board that you ride than by what you do for a living. I’ve been an artist for more than 25 years, and I’ve never liked that, being put into that category. In the city, what you do is an extension of who you are. The identity of the people here is more reflective of the way they live their lives, whether they’re fisherman or surfers or just ocean lovers who like peace and quiet.”


rockaway beach manhattan

“Twelve years ago I fell in love with the Rockaways. There’s a country atmosphere here. The beach, the view, and it’s very dog-friendly. Angel was raised out here. We socialize. Every block, someone wants to say hi. Lately, I’ve really gotten back into my art work, and exhibit it on the boardwalk and where the food courts are. But growing up, we were basically tenement kids. We were notorious. We would do anything. Our gang was the Blackhawks. We used to fight for block territory. Everyone I associated with is either dead or still in Sing Sing.” 


rockaway beach manhattan

“The good swells in New York always come from Caribbean storms, so when there’s big storms in the Caribbean—when it’s winter here and summer there—people here are waiting for the swells. They take two to four days to get here. Rockaway is cheap and easy. Plus, in the winter it’s a crew of fifteen or twenty guys out there on the water. Some are locals and some are from far away. Japan. California The Caribbean. Costa Rica. But we’re all there trying to find the swells. I had to change my clothes under the subway when it was snowy or rainy. It was always a mental situation to take off the suit, put my clothes back on, and keep warm until I got home. [It took me] an hour and forty-five minutes.”


rockaway beach manhattan

“I was born in Rockaway Beach hospital. My Dad was a furrier. The family came from Greece—six or seven Greek families bought all the same house on Beach 188th Street. My mom is from Manhattan. She turned 90 yesterday. My wife’s family is from the Bronx. After we got married they moved to Westchester. They kept telling her, ‘Move up here so your kids can get a better education. She insisted that we move. I said, ‘You and the kids move. I’ll visit on the weekends.’ She said, ‘I’m not doing that. We’re married.’ And I said, ‘If you want to stay married, you gotta stay in Rockaway. Because I’m not leaving.’”

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06 2016 The Red Bulletin

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