Sometimes, I close my eyes and try to imagine what Rockaway must have been like in 1858. When there were less than a dozen homes on the peninsula, and land was valued only for the salt hay it produced. If I walk out of The Wave’s offices on Beach 90 Street after a hard day, and a warm wind is blowing from the shore side, my brain skips to picturing what it must have been like when the area was a pond, complete with eel pots and 30-foot high sand dunes on either side of Rockaway Beach Boulevard.
I have developed an abiding interest in the stories of Rockaway’s pioneers. They really look rough and ready in their ancient photographs. Most were men, but there were also some notable women on the peninsula. You won’t find their portraits in the history books, but they played an important role, as well.
But unlike the pioneers of the American west, the peninsula’s founders were not beset by dust storms or wild animals, or warlike Native American tribes attacking with tomahawks. As they built homes and businesses here over the next several decades, the pioneers would come to learn that their enemies were dysentery, typhoid and influenza, and the punishing Nor’easters and hurricanes. Like the one in the fall of 1893, during which, according to Rockaway’s original historian Alfred H. Bellot, “the outer beach disappeared beneath the waves and every vestige of it and of all the buildings upon it was totally destroyed.”
On the list of obstacles, don’t forget fire, as well. Although the great conflagrations in Rockaway seemed to have few human casualties, multiple businesses were destroyed by wind-whipped flames on more than one occasion. In the days before government came to regulate every aspect of one’s business life, these pioneers created their own health department, volunteer fire department, life-saving stations, post offices, churches and schools. They saw that cooperation and self-regulation were important to their mutual success, so they joined together and defined the basic necessities of the social compact. Everything seemed to be going well until these hardy entrepreneurs ran up against one of the biggest enemies of all–outsiders.
This obstacle reared its head early and has persisted to the present day. I’m speaking of the distant power-brokers—the developers, bankers, and government officials who hold power over our lives and property. “Build it and they will come” hasn’t always worked in Rockaway.
The Rockaway Park train station and manufactured gas plant nearby at Beach 108 Street, now a toxic waste site being remediated by National Grid, are the remnants of services and infrastructure originally built to meet the needs of the mammoth Rockaway Beach Hotel. Largest in the world at the time it was built in the early 1880’s, it stretched from Beach 112 to Beach 116 Streets, and had a grand staircase wide enough to accommodate 40 people, side-by-side. Only one wing ever opened for business—for a month. Several years later, the entire structure was dismantled, after the local builder of the hotel was “tied up in the blackest of legal knots” by a cabal of competing developers and bankers from off the peninsula.
To give other examples, New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel was no friend to Rockaway. Twice, in 1915 and 1917, he vetoed bills that the state legislature supported overwhelmingly, allowing the peninsula to secede from the City of New York. In the first three decades of the century, numerous proponents, including the city’s Deputy Dock Commissioner, Henry Meyer, advocated filling in much of Jamaica Bay to create a great series of shipping piers. Somehow that foolhardy idea was stopped, but Meyer’s spiritual heirs are now hard at work trying to expand the JFK runways, instead. Different century, but the game’s the same.
Then came Robert Moses, who gave Rockaway both of the bridges residents wanted, in the late 1930’s. He also created a fabulous wildlife refuge in Jamaica Bay. But Moses razed the amusement areas and would have run highways straight through the residential neighborhoods of the peninsula if he had not been stopped. Watching the classic “fist in the velvet glove” routine over and over must be boring to old-timers, I’m sure.
A final example of something the community wanted and put aside their differences to obtain, was the Rockaway Courthouse, at Beach 91 Street and Beach Channel Drive. It opened with much fanfare in September, 1932, and was heralded as an attractive new grand entrance point to the peninsula. That stone structure, although built on landfill, stands on 360 concrete spiles sunk into solid bedrock. Engineered to last for generations, it served the community for only about 40 years, before it fell into disrepair and was vacated and moth-balled. Although not as grand as the Rockaway Beach Hotel, the builders were quoted in The Wave as touting the fact that its design ensured that: “all rooms have a maximum of light and air without exposure to street noise.”
I’m thinking about those pioneers more and more, as natural disasters and catastrophes induced by short-sighted human interactions with the environment seem to be in the forefront of the news these days. The BP oil spill, the nuclear disaster in Japan, and other earthquakes, tsunamis and floods in very recent years, are vivid reminders that we need to have more respect for the planet. But instead, the power brokers of the Port Authority, Regional Plan Association and NYC Economic Development Corporation are chomping at the bit to build on every available inch of land bordering the tiny areas of remaining Jamaica Bay marshland, and dump tons of landfill into the Bay to expand JFK Airport.
All I can say to them is—don’t partially fill in Jamaica Bay. That would cause the water levels to rise, flooding our homes and streets and making our neighborhoods uninhabitable. If you’re going to destroy Jamaica Bay, at least go all out. Pave the entire thing. That way, we can drive right over it and we won’t have to pay your g-d bridge toll!
How’s that for a trade?
All text and photos are copyrighted by Vivian R. Carter 2011, or used with permission of the source.