‘Stronger Than the Storm’: Rockaway Beach Edition

by Michael Potemra

In the NYC media market, we have been treated to a lot of TV commercials featuring Chris Christie and boasting about the comeback of the Jersey Shore in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Getting a lot less attention is the damage out in Rockaway Beach in Queens.

It’s one of my favorite neighborhoods in all the NYC area, Irish and working-class; albeit I haven’t been out there in years. I visited today, and saw that while the damage is still great — much of the beach is still closed and much of the boardwalk still not rebuilt — there are many areas that remain vibrant. At the shore at Beach 90th Street there were many hundreds of people on the beach, many displaying the simultaneously laid-back and edgy urban spirit that endeared Rockaway to me many years ago. The percentage of women displaying tattoos here is higher than in any other NYC neighborhood I’ve ever been in (the same is probably true of the men, but who cares). And many people here demonstrate their capability of talking while having a cigarette in their mouth (I don’t smoke, indeed I haven’t had a cigarette in almost 20 years; but coolness is coolness).

At the Rippers burger restaurant on the beachfront — I won’t confess to my doctor what I ate there, I’ll just profess my amazement that my regular diet of raw carrots is consistent with such a high cholesterol count — there was a terrific surf-music band playing in the late afternoon. Surf is one of my favorite of all genres: When I was a kid in the late Sixties the Dick Dale/Link Wray sound was still very big, and in my later (early ’80s) frat years the oldies by such bands as the Trashmen and the Surfaris were still cherished party hits. Nonetheless, I have almost managed to reach the age of 50 before hearing surf music played in its natural habitat: a real-life beach. I talked to the lead guitarist, a young man from Baraboo, Wisc.; he was very talented and I asked him whether he dabbled in other genres. He pointed to the drummer, a pretty, heavily tattooed (natch) young woman, and explained that this was his girlfriend: “She plays in my surf band, I play in her folk band.”

A couple of blocks away, I visited a bar named the Rockaway Beach Inn, a clean, well-kept place with a bright late-afternoon ambience. I asked the bartender, a lovely blonde woman in her mid 50s, how much Hurricane Sandy damage she had seen. To my amazement, she told me that this bar itself had been destroyed: There were five feet of water coming down the street, she explained, “and we don’t have a basement.” But here was the bar, the August after the storm, and it looked pristine.

It gives one a great deal of hope for the rest of the beach. Look in one direction, and you’ll see hundreds of happy people cavorting as if Sandy had never happened; in another direction, you’ll see a forbidding landscape of construction equipment and piled-up sand. The bartender at the Rockaway Beach Inn told me that a disaster like Sandy “won’t happen again in [her] lifetime.” From what I saw, parts of Rockaway are already doing great; and I talked to enough people who were visiting from elsewhere to convince me that’s there’s a constituency out there for a full rebuilding of this greater-NYC treasure. 

PS. Here’s the great Ramones song “Rockaway Beach.” Twelve years ago, right before 9/11, I was looking for a new neighborhood to live in, and narrowed my search down to the two ends of the world-famous A train: Rockaway Beach and Washington Heights. As it happened, I chose the neighborhood that didn’t have its own theme song; but I left some of my heart down in Rockaway, and wish them a full, speedy recovery.