Checking In On the Rockaways, New York’s Best Urban Beach

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photo by Beth Perkins

On a recent late-summer evening, Brandon d’Leo, one of the owners of suddenly hip beach bar and restaurant The Rockaway Beach Surf Club was standing in his club’s leafy and sunny backyard, talking about what enchants him about the Rockaways. “I just love being out here when there’s a bunch of people from the surf community, and we’ve showing a surfing movie on the big screen out here,” said d’Leo, who has a deep tan and gently ombréed hair that hangs to his shoulders in perfect ringlets, framing a movie-star smile. “Then, the train rumbles by, or maybe a plane taking off from JFK comes over real low, and you just think, where am I?

Though it’s technically in Queens (something Queens residents never tire of pointing out), the Rockaways have this summer become a perfect distillation of everything that is Brooklyn-y, and in the process become one of New York’s newest hip neighborhoods. You can have an espresso and buy your organic vegetables, many of them still covered in dirt, at the charming coffee shop and general store Veggie Island. That place is easy to miss, as the line for the shop next door—the iconic Rockaway Taco—normally goes down the block and around the corner, blocking both of its doors. There’s the Playland Motel, where young people who’ve worn all black to the beach (with the possible warm-weather concession of turning their black jeans into black cutoffs) go to loud parties sponsored by corporate brands. Back at the actual beach, you can find both beautiful women with hip tattoos and adorable babies and childless women with hip tattoos gazing extremely longingly at those babies (“I’m stealing this kid! He’s so cute!” is something very often said about 60% in jest). Men sport aging hipster guts of all sizes. Everyone is on bikes, everyone is friendly, and most everyone is using an electronic weed smoking gadget of some kind (I counted at least three varieties on nearby blankets during a recent visit).

Two summers on from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, a perception seems to be taking hold in the Rockaways themselves and beyond who come there, that things have settled into some kind of normal rhythm. That the storm, in the words of d’Leo, was nothing more than “a hitch in the giddyup.” That the development/gentrification/hipsterization of the neighborhood that began in 2011 and 2012, with the opening of food stands and cute bars and restaurants more or less straight from Williamsburg, at least spiritually, has gotten back on track.

“I think it’s well on its way to being what it should be,” said Whitney Aycock, the owner of Rockaway Beach pizza place Whit’s End. “an urban beach, that is accessible. That doesn’t charge you to get on the beach. That has cool shit around the beach.” Aycock was kneading dough, his shop full of people dressed in lurid Hawaiian shirts, waiting to be served in the shop’s single small room. Pausing briefly, he slapped the side of his pizza oven, covered in tiles and painted in beach scenes, to explain its origins. “Wood-fired brick oven! Made in Naples! Best in the world!”

One man who’s helped greatly this summer in that revitalization is Klaus Biesenbach, the current Director of MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator at Large at The Museum of Modern Art. This summer, PS1 is hosting an outdoor art exhibition at the recently-reopened Fort Tilden Park featuring work by Patti Smith, Adrián Villar Rojas, and Janet Cardiff. Across the island, back at the Rockaway Surf Club, PS1 is hosting events as well as a summer-long exhibition of 57 pieces by 36 artists. All over the island, there are copies of two separate beautiful free publications which PS1 has helped to publish.  One, Rockaway Summer, is a Showpaper-ish fold-out piece printed on newsprint full of whimsical illustrations about life at the beach. The other, Rockaway!, is really the program to the PS1 exhibit, but can feel more like a guide to an art scavenger hunt.

Why is Biesenbach so invested in the Rockaways? It’s simple: he lives there. “Klaus is a neighbor of ours,” said d’Leo. “He came to the surf club not just last summer, but the summer before that, before Sandy, when we were just a grassroots community space. He’s was a friend of ours, and he liked what we were doing, art-wise. So, he approached us last winter, in January or February, and said, do you want to do shows again next summer? Let’s do something bigger!”

Despite the feeling that a new scene is coming together out there, it’s possible to overstate how much the Rockaways have changed in recent years. “It hasn’t changed a ton. Summertime, you know, it’s like a little piece of what it’s really like. It’s just this three month window,” says d’Leo, who is a year-round resident. “Summertime is a little misleading. If you come to our station, you see all these people, it’s great and I love it. But this is just a window of what the summer is like. When the winter rolls around, it’s a different breed of people who choose to live down here. It’s cold and there’s not that much tod, and you have to be a special kind of person to live here year-round. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.” That summertime unreality, though, is something else. Grab a little bit of it before it evaporates in a few weeks.


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