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.