I guess you could say it started with that bridge, which connected the borough of Queens to the island of Manhattan and points west in 1909. The zenith was reached last week, when the world’s largest travel guide publisher, Lonely Planet, released its 2015 recommendations, naming Queens (and “worth a detour” Rockaway Beach), as the number one tourist destination in the U.S. Not just AMONG the top destinations, as you might think if you had only read the N.Y. City Parks Twitter feed. THE number one place.
Yahoo headlined with: “From the Experts—10 Must See Destinations in 2015.” Their post featured a stunning photo of the deck at Thai Rock, facing the Cross Bay Bridge and a picturesque Rockaway sunset. Unfortunately, the LP guide (and the “Local Knowledge” box) mentions only one seasonal eatery on the Rock, leaving out Thai Rock and other choices for good dining and views.
As in the past six years, for the herds of Rockaway visitors, it’s all about the taco. Perhaps someone wants tourists to think they’ll be on that deck overlooking the bay, with the taco. Instead, you are usually standing in line on a sidewalk for over an hour just to hold that yummy little tidbit in in your hand. If you are lucky enough to get a seat, it’s on a barrel with the thing in your lap. Don’t get me wrong, food stands and food trucks are delightful and kitschy. But can we go beyond the taco, for a change, and support the local businesses that endure, year round, to serve everyone in the community, as well as summer tourists?
Is it possible for a visitor to actually experience the unique vibe throughout the 80-some neighborhoods of Queens? Does the appeal of Queens go beyond the diverse, inexpensive ethnic foods to be had? Can you explain to a tourist why many Queens residents, unlike those in nearby Brooklyn, prefer to live in a place that has so many unique neighborhoods?
Although their reviewers like the food in Queens, LP recommended mostly Manhattan hotels, concluding that the “prevailing industrial setting” in Queens makes it far less charming than Manhattan and Brooklyn. Quite a broad generalization to make about what is, in terms of geographic area, the city’s largest borough, and second-largest in population. If you only have a day trip, and spend most of it seeking out food, you will come away with a less than complete introduction to Queens.
Before it opened its gaping arms to millions of immigrants and developers, the Queens mainland was once sparsely populated by the operators of farms and small businesses, who served up fresh produce and other goods to Brooklyn, Manhattan, and points beyond, long before the hipsters arrived and started planting lettuce on the roofs in Williamsburg. From Flushing to Ozone Park and the Rockaways, fruit trees still abound due to our mild night-time winter temperatures along the ocean and bays. Trees bearing persimmons, peaches, pears and apples thrive in our gardens. If they can ever get to light and water, amidst all the development.
Speaking of development, it’s been wildly overdone in Flushing, in my opinion. Important historic sites like the Quaker Meeting House and the John Bowne House are surrounded by some of the tackiest buildings imaginable. It would be a tragedy to completely obscure these physical remnants of the early colonial community and the Flushing Remonstrance, one of the key chapters in the fight for religious tolerance in pre-revolutionary America.
Lonely Planet advised tourists interested in Queens to hop on the ferry from midtown Manhattan to Long Island City. That ferry, coupled with the subway, can get you to a huge swath of the borough, including Astoria, Corona, Flushing, Forest Hills and Jamaica (both of which were completely ignored in the guide). But those train lines won’t get you to Rockaway Beach, JFK Airport, the rest of Southeast Queens, or to the glitzy, hugely popular, Resorts World International Casino. For that, wait a decade or so, and maybe the powers that be will make an intelligent decision to restore the old Rockaway Beach train line, which would reunite the entire borough, linking Rockaway to Rego Park. Just a thought…
If you decide to come to Southeastern Queens and stay a bit, you could book an overnight rental in a Broad Channel home that sits directly on Jamaica Bay, where an egret might walk in the door looking for a meal. Then, you’d understand the appeal of Queens a bit better. You’d be even more surprised to learn that Broad Channel and Rockaway Beach, which adjoin each other and share a zip code, are vastly different neighborhoods. Both have rich and interesting histories of colorful bootleggers and prohibitionists, and in its heyday, the world came to Rockaway Beach for fun. Rentals in private oceanside homes are available, on occasion. Come, and stay for a walking tour of the area, which will be offered at this webpage in the spring of 2015.
If your flight is out of JFK and you’d like to visit the beach and sample Resorts World, there are many hotels near the airport. That would give you a taste of “plane spotting,” touted by LP’s local knowledge expert. In my opinion, plane spotting is only amusing in movies. When you are trying to sleep or have a conversation in your home, being awakened or interrupted by plane noise is not charming. Yet, with public transit to Rockaway often taking two hours each way outside of weekday rush hours, your transit time and taco wait can eat up a good part of a day trip. So overnight lodging is a good idea, if you can afford it.
My guess is that well-informed tourists short of time or money will head for Flushing, which the LP Guide touted as “Chinatown without the tourists.” Not quite true, since many NYC tourists hail from Asian countries, not just Ohio and Pennsylvania. But thank you anyway, LP, for letting the world in on this closely held, local secret. My daughter’s favorite Korean eatery, Kimganae on Union Street, is populated almost exclusively by Asian locals. The entire New World Mall food court, on Roosevelt Avenue, with over 60 vendors, where we grabbed some good, cheap, authentic Asian food on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, had exactly two Caucasian diners that day among the hundreds we observed. Next year, the tour buses will arrive, the place will get even more crowded, and sooner or later, someone from Iowa will ask: Is there a McDonald’s in here?
Text and photos copyright Vivian R. Carter 2014, unless otherwise noted in captions.