Before the Hamptons, there were the Rockaways. In the 19th century, before public transportation arrived, the Queens peninsula was a playground for the rich.
These days, there are fancy condos and newer developments interspersed with public housing. Planes pass overhead at short intervals, revealing the area’s close proximity to JFK Airport. At dusk, you can see their lights, a moving constellation of four at a time. Their sound, camouflaged only partly by the crash of the waves, doesn’t seem to distract anyone.
On the beaches, there’s a spectrum of skin colors in gradations of beige, red (ouch), and brown, involved in the business of what you do at the beach—playing chess or volleyball, or swimming, splattering, and sun soaking.
This being a slice of New York City, the people-watching is unequaled. On the boardwalk at Beach 97, a man rides a bike, with a fishing pole propped high. A group walks by, moving to the beats playing on their boom box. A drum circle watches them go by, until someone says, “Let’s go off that beat!” and launches into a new rhythm.
Maria Curcio, who has lived in the Rockaways since 2001 and whose apartment overlooks the boardwalk, takes photos of the drum circle. The sound of their drums reaches her living room and she loves to listen. “It’s intoxicating,” she said.
Her phone is full of photos of the sea- and cloudscape. “We get the best sunrises and sunsets,” she said. There may be tons of people milling around on summer weekends, but she doesn’t mind. “You feel like you’re in a resort.”
A New Boom
The Rockaways, built on a sandbar jutting out into Jamaica Bay, have boomed in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which wreaked havoc, destroying homes and businesses. That boom doesn’t seem to be stopping. This summer, the final stretch of the boardwalk, which had been damaged by the storm, was completed.
Businesses continue to pop up, such as the wine shop Ship to Shore and the indoor Rockaway Beach Golf Club. New eateries include Brothers, which opened at Beach 106 with a focus on healthy dishes; Santa Salsa, which made its move from roving Venezuelan food truck to brick-and-mortar; and the Brazilian spot Beach Bistro 96. This summer, Riis Beach Park Bazaar is in its second year, a mile-long stretch of food and shopping concessions. There seems to be no shortage of places to eat and drink. (Here’s our foodie guide to the Rockaways.)
Private bus services are bringing in young crowds for day trips from points west—from the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Astoria.
Will Skudin, currently ranked No. 5 surfer in the world, runs local surfing school Skudin Surf with his brother Cliff. He spent part of his childhood growing up between Long Beach and the Rockaways.
“All we knew was surfing,” he said. “It wasn’t until I started traveling and getting older that I realized surfing is not really a thing in New York.”
He remembers standing at the beach eight years ago, when their surfing school was getting started. It was July, 90 degrees out, and there’d be “literally 25 people as far as the eye can see,” he recalled. There were needles and plastic bottles. It was, in his words, “gnarly.”
Now, “grimy, grungy places are getting redone,” bringing in a new crowd—from young Manhattan commuters to ex-Brooklyn dwellers.
“People call it hipster,” he said, “but you know, I like the hipsters because after Sandy, we started calling them ‘helpsters,’ because they came in the hundreds.”
Skudin says anytime he does a fundraiser or a nonprofit outing, they’re the ones participating.
“Over time, you start to realize who’s here to take and who’s here to be part of the community,” he said.
A Community of Individuals
In far-off, remote places, you often find people with a strong streak of independence.
Restaurateur Whitney Aycock’s been called a “pizza nazi” for laying down strict rules at his popular pizzeria, Whit’s End. His menu is full of attitude and peppered with choice expletives. In a section at the bottom called “some of our many faults,” some of the admonitions read: “we don’t offer slices EVER!!!”, “we don’t know what everything pizza is”, and “everything we touch has gluten on it.” They are all sentiments a Neapolitan could get behind.
All of that doesn’t detract from its reputation as a must-try spot; it offers some of the best pies in New York City.
This summer Aycock, who moved to the Rockaways about 11 years ago, opened Slice of Whit at the concessions at the Riis Park Beach Bazaar (despite the name, don’t expect slices), and more recently a little spot called Ole Man Chill, in a location removed from the main action, right on the water.
When we meet Aycock, he’s dripping wet—not from sweating and slaving in the heat of the kitchen, but from a refreshing saltwater dip. His pet Renzo, a big, gentle black dog, greets him.
While Aycock is still wet, someone updates him: “I just threw 17 sausages on the grill.” There’s no menu to be spotted at Ole Man Chill, and it changes according to what Aycock has got cooking that day. Sometimes bands play. The lifestyle is a far cry from his old days in Manhattan.
In the mornings, the restaurant becomes Rockaway Beach Bakery, run by pastry chef Tracy Obolsky (formerly of Cookshop and North End Grill). She moved to the Rockaways a few years ago from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, when the draw of beach, surf, and sand worked their magic on her.
Obolsky and Aycock don’t publicize their location, though if you follow them on Instagram, you may find out where they are. It’s easy to see why they’re intent on this shaded oasis not being mobbed. With a deck with water views, it’s got a lovable quirkiness and chill vibe that hipsters would flock to in a minute.
Wooden wine cases have been turned into planters holding rosemary, thyme, and other herbs. Stalks of lemongrass grow in a repurposed toilet. There’s an old school phone booth that might be turned into a shower.
Even though Ole Man Chill/Rockaway Beach Bakery seems to be in the middle of nowhere, there is, of course, a loyal clientele made up of residents who live in the neighborhood.
Kelly McMahon, who moved to the Rockaways from Georgia six years ago, is one local who calls it “a game-changer.”
“I have lived here and had not seen another living soul for two years, every single morning,” she said. “[Now] it’s so nice to just be able to go and have a coffee and go start your day, especially because it can be so isolating out here.”
McMahon, with Michelle Cashen, runs the Rockaway Buying Club, which every two weeks distributes to residents farm-fresh produce and meat from a collective of farms, as well as locally produced items such as kombucha and Obolsky’s cookies.
“It’s not competitive,” she said of the restaurant scene, “because there’s nothing to be competitive with. People are really encouraging and not selfish.”
She’s had the support of local restaurateurs who have bought her unsold produce. Obolsky has bought excess blueberries, and Aycock might ask himself what he’ll do with a pound of thyme, “but he buys it,” McMahon said.
“People who have started successful businesses, like Whit, they’re very mindful of paying it forward and using what they’ve worked really hard for to build a bigger network of businesses that employ more people, that make the community better and stronger. It’s very hand-helping-hand within the community,” she said.