At the turn of the century, only ten streets of hundreds on the Rockaway Peninsula were numbered—and Fifth Avenue (now known as Beach 116 Street) was one of those ten streets.
The City of New York, which replaced the Town of Hempstead as Rockaway’s distant overlord in 1897, ordered all of the peninsula’s streets to be numbered starting at the Nassau County line. The order came in 1916. But through the end of World War I, locals resisted adoption of the new street scheme, so the name ‘Fifth Avenue’ clung to Beach 116th for the first two decades of the century.
Dismantling of the mammoth Rockaway Beach Hotel in 1889 had fueled the growth of the area known as Rockaway Park, which, at the start, coincided with the property lines of the failed hotel, a structure so colossal that, together with its bathhouse, train platform, boat landing, and power plant, it extended from what are now Beach 112th to Beach 119th, beach to bay. Raucous tent colonies, bungalows, dancehalls, and amusements lay to the east; open sand dunes to the west.
At the turn of the century, Fifth Avenue, Rockaway Park, was the commercial shopping district of a prosperous suburban community, poised for its coming of age. Starting as a simple, tree-lined block with a few stores and a train platform, by the 1920s, it boasted two oceanfront landmarks, the Park Inn and Curley’s Atlas Hotel, the cavernous dining room of the Harbor Inn on the bay front, and the stately Pierce Hotel in between. Big money and powerful interests had already begun sparring over the sand heaps to the west, joined by adventurers and speculators all the way to Rockaway Point.
Development syndicates sold land and magnificent new homes were constructed in Belle Harbor and Neponsit, as well as older ‘cottages’ of enormous size on the blocks within walking distance of Fifth Ave. The areas were connected with a trolley line that ran along a portion of Newport Ave. Wealthy philanthropists had joined with a Manhattan hospital, coughing up millions to build a tuberculosis hospital west of Neponsit, and the city constructed a grand beachfront park adjacent to it (now known as Jacob Riis Park).
The boundary between Belle Harbor and Rockaway Park was ultimately drawn at Beach 130th Street, so ‘the Park’ came to include a small commercial strip on Beach 129th, extending around the corner of Newport Ave. to the popular Harbor Light Pub, sadly burned to the ground during Superstorm Sandy. Rockaway Park would eventually take in 20 additional blocks originally deeded into Belle Harbor, encompassing the historic ‘Belle Harbor’ Yacht Club at Beach 126th and Beach Channel Drive (circa 1905), the site of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Rockaway Beach Blvd. at Beach 125th (c.1906), and the last remaining hotels in the vicinity– the Seville, the Commodore, and the Washington Hotel.
The Seville eventually became a nursing home, then was torn down in the 1990s for new housing. The 1970s saw the closing of the Commodore, and the Episcopal church was sold to developers who constructed a nursing care facility in its place. Washington Hotel was the last to close, in 2006, to make way for semi-attached two-family homes on the site. To this day, schools, houses of worship, medical and other professional offices remain the sole non-residential uses west of Beach 129th Street, and the vast majority of housing in Belle Harbor and Neponsit is now one- to three-family, with rare exceptions. These western ‘suburbs of Rockaway Beach,’ so to speak, became so prosperous, desirable and prestigious, that the beach block of Beach 131st today holds the rare distinction as the only place outside of Manhattan to host the swearing in of two New York City mayors—William O’Dwyer (Jan. 1, 1946), and Abraham Beame (Dec. 31, 1973).
But within Rockaway Park, large apartment houses line the former boardwalk and other multi-family homes and rooming houses can be found. But there are no longer any hotels—only one bed and breakfast inn. The Park Inn, a magnet for overnight visitors to the beachfront of Beach 116 for decades, ultimately became a social services facility, and the iconic Curley’s Hotel burned to the ground. Business owners and residents of Rockaway Park have grappled with how to reinvigorate the business district and improve the adjacent residential blocks in the future.
Superstorm Sandy brought big challenges to Rockaway Park. Extensive flooding and fires occurred, damaging homes and businesses. Trees and lawns were destroyed. Loss of key community gathering spots in Rockaway Park like the library (just recently reopened) and the boardwalk (only now being rebuilt), have taken a toll on businesses struggling to rebuild the ‘Fifth Avenue of the Peninsula’, and residents trying to restore the area’s sense of community.
Join us to explore the rich history of Rockaway Park, view a few of its points of interest, and look into the new century with architects proposing plans for the area. Jane’s Walk 2014, an international event commemorating the legacy of urban planning critic Jane Jacobs, will take place on Saturday, May 3, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. This year’s Rockaway Park walk is cosponsored by the Municipal Art Society of New York and the Beach 116th Street Partnership. We will meet at Cuisine by Claudette, 143 Beach 116 St., explore the main street from end to end, then proceed west along the roadway that indelibly changed the area in the late 1930’s—Beach Channel Drive. We will turn south at Beach 129th and discuss the flood and fire damage in the interior blocks of Beach 130th, and view some of the innovative, but controversial, new homes under construction.
At Rockaway Beach Blvd., we will stop at Beach 131st to take in the location of two mayoral inaugurals, then proceed east past historic St. Francis deSales Roman Catholic Church. We will pause at Memorial Circle (RBB between 120th and 121st) to look at Temple Beth El (circa 1920s), and the nearby home and medical office of Dr. William Werner, who pioneered the use of hypnosis for anesthesia during childbirth at the Rockaway Beach Hospital in the 1950s, before the Lamaze technique was introduced in the United States.
We will return to Beach 116 St. at 1 pm. The walk will cover over 30 blocks, but there are shaded park benches at four locations on the route. Please bring your own water bottle, as time for breaks will be limited. Click on ‘Local Events’ tab for more information. RSVP to Information@shopbeach116.com.
Article copyright 2014 Vivian R. Carter. Photos copyright 2012 Vivian R. Carter