Chewing out a rhythm on my bubble gum
The sun is out and I want some
It's not hard, not far to reach
We can hitch a ride
To Rockaway Beach
This song by the Ramones was playing everywhere when I was a teenager, and I loved the song and the band because they came from Queens like I did. When it was hot and we kids wanted to get to the beach, Rockaway was the place to go because it could be reached quickly and easily as the song indicates, even without hitching a ride. I have very fond memories of going to Rockaway Beach, but that was a long time ago in a place that seems very far, far away.
A while back I wrote about taking a trip down to Coney Island, and it was a positive visit for me. I mentioned that New Yorkers felt that it was their best beach, and I received a few complaints about that comment, noting that Rockaway Beach in Queens was as good or better than Coney Island. In the interest of fair play and refreshing my own rusty memories, I took my trusty camera and ventured down to Rockaway Beach (I've not been there in about 25 years) to see for myself.
The history of Rockaway Beach is similar to Coney Island in that it was considered a resort area in the early 1900s. The Indian name "Reckowacky" (the place of bright waters) became anglified, and because of the large numbers of Irish immigrants settling in the area, it was sometimes called "Irish Town" because they were the ones working in the hotels, bars, and Playland, the large amusement park that opened on the ocean front in 1901.
Playland as it was in the early 1960s before its sad decline.
The boom times for Rockaway Beach lasted until after World War II, and Playland with its roller coasters, numerous other rides, and Olympic-size swimming pool attracted millions of people over the years. By the late 1970s, the place was sadly in decline. While the amusement park still opened its gates to the public, everything seemed to be rickety and the luster of the old days was long gone.
It is just a short walk from the subway station to the beach.
Keeping that in mind, I headed down to Rockaway hoping things had changed for the best. As with Coney Island, the easiest way to get to Rockaway Beach is by subway. The A Train has it's last stop at B 116th Street (B stands for Beach), which is the heart of Rockaway Beach (which runs from B 3 Street to B 149th Street for a total 97 acres of beach). Though 116th Street is not the geographic center, it is the place that is considered the main "town" area.
One of the first things that struck me was how things had changed. Many of the old wooden frame buildings had been refurbished, and storefronts seemed bright and cheerful. I remembered 116th Street to be a more dour and grimy place in the past, with derelicts walking around and panhandling day and night. I must say I was happy to see none of this going on while I was there.
An old Irish pub on B 116th Street
Along the block and half walk from the subway station to the boardwalk, I passed two "surf" shops, a beauty parlor, several restaurants, and there remained one old Irish pub (there were more than a few on every block in the old days). A couple of the buildings were boarded up, and at the very end of the street only two old hotels remained, dilapidated legacies of the days when Rockaway Beach was a resort town in the same league as Coney Island.
The last of the once glorious old hotels from Rockaway's days as a booming beach resort.
At the very end of the street is the touching memorial to the 260 passengers and crew members who lost their lives on American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed not far from there in Belle Harbor, Queens (near B 131st Street), on November 12, 2001. All the names of those lost are etched on the face of it, and there are benches for family members and visitors to sit, meditate, or pray as they wish.
This is a beautiful tribute to those lost in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on September 12, 2001.
After visiting the memorial, I walked onto the boardwalk and it seemed to be in good physical shape. I turned right and went for a walk, finding cold water showers, bathroom facilities, and conveniently placed benches along the way. One thing that struck me immediately was how the housing developments were almost on top of the boardwalk, which is the most striking difference between Coney Island and Rockaway Beach. These hulking multi-storey buildings certainly do not add any aesthetic appeal to taking a walk along the boardwalk.
These large apartment buildings are very close to the boardwalk.
Returning to B 116th Street, I noticed a large restaurant adjacent to the boardwalk where all sorts of foods and refreshments were available. I walked in a eastward direction along the boardwalk, and still the encroachment of the buildings seemed to bother me more than anything else. The small shops, restaurants, and bars on the Coney Island boardwalk made for a much more amenable situation for a visitor.
The site where Playland once stood has apartment complexes and a strip mall.
The thing I was looking for as I made my way along the boardwalk was gone. The amusement park known as Playland (I didn't realize that it closed in 1985) had been replaced by hulking apartment complexes with beautiful water views. How lucky for them and how sad for those with memories of a simpler time.
As I made my way back toward the beach, I remembered the purpose of my visit: answering the best beach question. I walked down to the water and saw lifeguards on duty in both directions. The surf was clear and cold, and the sand as pristine as that on Coney Island. On this beautiful June weekday, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves on the sand and in the water.
Lifeguards are on duty overlooking the clean sands and water of Rockaway Beach.
When I thought about it honestly, Rockaway probably does have the better beach. First, there is more of it. Second, it seemed like the waves were bigger and stronger here, and then I discovered that Rockaway boasts the only "surfing beaches" within New York City limits (between B 67-69 Streets and between B 87-92 Streets).
That edge certainly makes Rockaway the better beach; otherwise, I believe Coney Island is still the better destination, especially if you are bringing the kids. Clean sand and surf are a wonderful draw, but there is nothing else for the kids to do at Rockaway. The many amusements and attractions at Coney Island promise a day of fun for the whole family. I guess it really depends on what you are seeking in your day away from the city.
This lone house is a reminder of the way it used to be as it stands defiantly amongst the looming hulks of the apartment houses.
Over all, it was a sad return for me to Rockaway Beach. As I walked along the boardwalk, the elegant old houses that used to face the ocean were mostly gone. The old houses have been replaced with those large multi-level dwellings. Even the Ram's Horn Diner, a fixture on B 116th Street for many years, is gone and replaced by a bank. The more things change the more they stay changed, I guess.
Something seems to be missing at today's Rockaway Beach. Perhaps it was the mystique of an "Irish Town" that no longer exists, or maybe it is the thrill of seeing the old amusement park even in its fading glory. I was reading about how Mayor Bloomberg does want to improve the area, and while his Rockaway Waterfront Redesign project does sound promising, it does not bring back the amusement park or the atmosphere that once had people coming to spend their summer vacations here.
I guess we cannot expect things to stay the same, and I do grudgingly admit that the beach at Rockaway Beach is better than the one at Coney Island, but I'll leave it up to you to go see both places for yourself to decide where you'd rather spend the day.