The first really warm and sunny weekend of the year brought folks of all ages out for some great activities in Rockaway Beach on Saturday, May 7.
It started at 8 a.m., with a “topsoil fest” at the Beach 91 Street Community Garden, under the direction of Tim Hill. Tim recently wrote a successful grant application and raked in several thousand dollars for the garden, from the Citizens Committee for New York City. He says that more than 60 friends and neighbors came out with rakes, hoes, and wheelbarrows to help fill the raised beds made of “repurposed” boardwalk timbers that would otherwise have been thrown out. The garden is already beautifying the beach block of Beach 91 Street, and hoes are in the ground at a second plot a block north on Beach 91 Street. Tim and other supporters are planning a kick-off party (with surf movies shown on the fence, of course!) for Sunday, May 22 at 2 p.m.
A huge spruce-up was also recently completed at Pearly’s Garden on the beach block of Beach 90 Street; new raised beds were built and filled with topsoil. The Million Trees Project has been in the vicinity as well, planting native Atlantic cedars at the parking area of Beach 94-95 Streets (and around the Beach 108 Street center malls of Rockaway Park, too).
In another healthful development for the area, those who want to eat organic, and also support the farmers of upstate New York, now have a chance to join the Rockaway Beach community supported agriculture project, which will be jointly sponsored this summer by Culinary Kids and First Congregational Church. Purchase a share in the co-op and you can come to the church parking lot on Beach 94 Street on Saturdays from June through October to pick up your share of fresh organic produce grown in upstate New York.
All are welcome to come and learn how this new partnership can benefit your family, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 14 at the Peninsula Branch of the Queens Public Library on Beach 94 Street. The founders of Culinary Kids, Malisa and Marion Moses, will speak about the benefits of going organic. They will also be discussing their new “Farm Rockaway” at Beach 59 Street, an expansion of the group’s established farming and urban aquaculture programs. They will be using waste generated from tilapia fish grown in tanks to fertilize the soil at the farm. Featured guest speaker at the event will be Dr. Martin Schreibman, reknowned expert on aquaculture, who has researched the growth and development of tilapia fish in tanks at his Brooklyn College laboratory. A screening of the documentary film “Nourish,” narrated by Cameron Diaz, is also planned. The film is a colorful, informative introduction to strategies for eating in healthy, sustainable ways, featuring conversations with several leading authorities on nutrition and community gardening. Hope to see you there!
Back to the events of May 7. As the Beach 91 gardeners were going strong, dueling thrift sales were in progress just a few blocks away, on Beach 94 Street. For decades, First Congregational Church has spearheaded the “granddaddy” of reuse-recycle events on the peninsula each May. This year, the Peninsula Branch of Queens Public Library decided to jump in with a rummage sale as well, and the result was a great fundraising success for both non-profits.
By the time drops of rain started to fall late in the day, another successful new event had also been accomplished—the Rockaway Beach Jane’s Walk. I had the pleasure of escorting a very enthusiastic intergenerational group of souls on a 2-mile walking exploration of the nooks and crannies to be found from Beach 87 to Beach 101 Street, all in tribute to the legacy of legendary urban planning critic, Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”
I’m not kidding when I say “intergenerational!” Attendees ranged from a very healthy octogenarian physiologist who recently moved to Arverne, to three curious and attentive pre-teens from the McManus family, which has been in Rockaway since before the turn of the century. There were also three walkers who had little previous experience visiting the peninsula. One of them commented that he didn’t expect to see so many animals on the walk. We did, after all, encounter a dead raccoon on the steps of the Rockaway Courthouse; two huge, recently deceased striped bass caught by local fishermen; and many cats and dogs (one of whom had broken free from his leash). These were not scripted events, but they sure kept the kids’ attention from flagging during the walk. As a former teacher, I am always grateful for those serendipitous, teachable moments!
The walk started with a discussion of Jane Jacobs and her ideas about community planning at the Doughboy Memorial. Then, we headed toward the bay, talking briefly with a neighbor who grows apples in her yard, congratulated the fishermen on their catch, viewed the peninsula’s newest designated parkland, and passed the grove of fruit trees and grape vines at Beach 87 Street near the Rockaway Freeway. YES, there is a grove of fruit trees there…check it out sometime.
Some of the walkers may have started out at 11 a.m. as “DFD’s” (a pejorative local term for visitors “down for the day”), but within two hours, all had been transformed into true experts on the local scene. It helped that we were able to stop in to Rockaway Graphics and chat with proprietor Len Kohn, who operated amusements on the boardwalk for many years, and shared some of his knowledge about Rockaway’s vaunted past and some of the reasons why it all changed. Len thinks that technology and transportation were key factors. The invention of nylon wiped out the need for bathhouses and bathing suit rentals, and the burning of the LIRR trestle wiped out the 30-minute ride to Penn Station. Also, he added that placement of undesirable social services establishments throughout the peninsula hastened its decline, as well.
To assure that everyone on the walk would take away the real inside skinny on the neighborhood, we answered this burning question: where can you get fabulous, authentic seafood tacos in Rockaway Beach for lunch TODAY?” Hint: you won’t find them at that boarded-up Beach 96 Street shack from October through May…but they can be found, YEAR ROUND, at local pub The Tap & Grill, of Beach 98 Street. So we stopped there, and proprietor Andy Cholakis talked about the history of the establishment, which has been in existence since the early 1900’s, shortly after Tilyou and Thompson opened their giant oceanfront amusement complex that later morphed into Playland. For most of those years, old-timers will remember that it was called “Boggiano’s.”
We concluded the tour with a 10-minute jaunt to the historic bungalow colony at Beach 101 Street, where we chatted with resident Katherine, and one of her neighbors who tends an impressive flower and statuary garden in front of his house.
This was the final stop on the walk, and I thought it was very poignant to stand in that bungalow court, picturing what it must have been like at another time and place–say in the 1940’s or 1950’s. So we took a few moments to read a simple and heartfelt poem submitted to The Wave in 2003 by Maureen Henning, about growing up in the bungalows. Just the opening and closing lines of “One of a Kind–Growing Up in Marcel’s Court,” will give you the feel:
“It was unique and like no other place you know, to the many who had the privilege of living there and did not want to see it go. For, with its demolition, were buried memories untold. And dreams for the future–had the property not been sold.”
“Never does a summer season begin that our minds don’t wander and reminisce a bit. Our saddest emotion being that our children never had the chance to experience it. They never experienced that feeling, that joy and that magic that this place knew. If you lived there, you know where it was and you know that this story is true!”
As the tour came to an end, some of us then headed back to The Tap & Grill. We tried those seafood tacos, served in corn tortillas, with all the fresh and yummy garnishes, like fresh lime and spicy white sauce, and a side of home-made salsa brimming with raw onion.
We were trying to re-create that “Playland/bungalow court” experience for a few hours. I guess there were a few things missing–the rides, the fireworks, Auer’s custard and the hot dog stands, 45-records playing, or a transistor radio tuned to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Anyway, at least we tried.
“One of a Kind–Growing Up in Marcel’s Court,” by Maureen Henning, previously published in The Wave’s 110th Anniversary Edition, July 2003. Other text and photos copyright Vivian R. Carter 2011.