At the height of summer, as New Yorkers try to find the nearest faraway place to beat the heat and relax on the beach, it’s startling to realize that the largely forgotten Rockaways were once the nation’s premier seaside resort.
Blessed with an extension of the same strip of beachfront that makes the Hamptons the favorite destination of hot and bothered New Yorkers, the Rockaways should be the crown jewel of New York City’s 578 miles of waterfront, which is more than the entire state of Rhode Island. But decades of lousy local government planning and general neglect have wasted the potential of this oceanfront asset. What Herman Melville once used as a prime example of the beauty and lure of the sea has more recently become a symbol of urban decay.
Determined to learn from past mistakes, a new generation is working to restore the Rockaways to its former glory. Much damage has been done, but the beachfront and breezes remain. As far as the Rockaways’ revival is concerned, the past may be prologue.
The seven-mile Rockaway Peninsula in southern Queens was once home to a vibrant mix of seaside hotels and middle class homes. Initially accessible only by private yacht, the peaceful playground for the wealthy was transformed by the completion of a rail line in the 1870s. Working and middle class New Yorkers arrived by the trainload, and a mix of Irish, German, Jewish, and Russian immigrants became full-time residents. Affordable single-family beach bungalows began to proliferate along with more than 20 hotels, a museum, and an amusement park. The towns of Belle Harbor, Neponsit, and Arverne by the Sea sprang up in the 1890s and private developers offered beachfront housing that ranged in price from $6,000 to $36,000 – the equivalent of $107,000 to $637,000 today. But over time, the glory of the Rockaways faded.
Between 1951 and 1961, the Housing Authority built four separate housing projects along the Rockaways containing more than 3,000 units, including the infamous Edgemere Houses. In 1971, Lindsay administration officials bulldozed hundreds of middle-class bungalows along a 30-block path to make way for what they promised would be a major urban renewal development. The land has been empty ever since, overgrown with weeds and littered with trash and broken glass, surrounded by housing projects and sealed off behind wire fences. For years, it constituted the largest undeveloped beachfront property of any city in the nation.
After decades of Rockaway development schemes failed to get off the ground, the Giuliani administration opened the land to offers from real estate developers in 2001. Their efforts were aided by a declining crime rate and a renewed awareness by ordinary New Yorkers that the Rockaways’ assets were too great to ignore. The president of Queens, Helen Marshall, expresses the renewed enthusiasm by calling the Rockaways “Hamptons West.”
A groundbreaking more than 30 years in the making took place last month, as 200 community members and elected officials gathered to celebrate the beginning of the Arverne-by-the-Sea development, which will span 117 acres of currently vacant ocean-front property. Arverne-by-the-Sea marks the first large-scale private development in the Rockaways in the last quarter century. Its developer plans to house 2,300 families in a community that offers 200,000 square feet of retail space, a recreation center with an indoor pool, a subway stop, a new school, and 10 acres of parkland.
This vision of seaside living in houses instead of high-rise towers represents a quality of life revolution to most contemporary Rockaways residents. Units at Arverne-bythe-Sea will be offered at market rate and pricing on the two-family homes is expected to start in the low $300,000 range. Interest in the Arverne-by-the-Sea development has already been brisk – on the day of the groundbreaking, more than a thousand people submitted their names as indication of interest in purchasing one of the homes. Thirty percent of the housing will be set aside for current community residents.
This is only the beginning of the Rockaway renaissance. Later this year, the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development will begin the process of soliciting plans for the development of the more than 100 remaining acres of vacant beachfront property.
Just as the Rockaways’ decay was a metaphor for our city’s neglect of its waterfront, a bold vision for redevelopment of the Rockaways would symbolize New York’s renewed commitment to its position as a seaside metropolis. And one of the best places to look for inspiration might be the town of Seaside, Florida.
Seaside is the best known example of the New Urbanism movement, which seeks to counter the soulless sprawl created by centralized urban planning by recreating the mixed-use and mixed-income communities we associate with the glory days of middle America. There are Main Streets lined with shops and restaurants with apartments above, free-standing houses of different heights and different colors with front yards and white picket fences. The specifics of existing developments like Seaside should not be fixated on – we would have to find a New York model which made sense for the way people live here. But there is already one key point of contact between New Urbanism and the city of New York: a central emphasis on walking cities, with housing and shops side by side – just like the best of New York’s classic old neighborhoods. This style of living on a human scale has already proved both popular and profitable. It satisfies an inner need that old monolithic public housing ignores, a desire articulated by John Cheever: “There must be some bond between our houses and our dreams.”
Outside of Lower Manhattan, the Rockaways represent the greatest opportunity for the Bloomberg Administration to shape the face of New York for future generations. A safe, middle-class, privately developed seaside community at the Rockaways with daily fast ferry service to lower and midtown Manhattan would revolutionize life in New York. It would dramatically expand the definition of the quality of life that a family can have in New York City while reclaiming our most precious and ignored natural asset – 578 miles of beach and waterfront. New York is fundamentally both a waterfront city and entrepreneurial city – and this is the perfect time and place to start acting like it.