Sand goes on for miles on a stretch described as the largest urban beach in the U.S. A historic surfer’s hangout, along the boardwalk, and inland, restaurants beckon for our attention. And to top it off, the Ramones wrote a song about it.
Written by Mario Villar Sanjurjo / Photographed by Emma Hovel
But it’s not all a walk on the beach. Rockaway Beach is still rebuilding after being hit by Hurricane Sandy more than a year and a half ago. We’re here to see how the community is recovering and to taste some local eats.
"It’s not hard, not far to reach, we can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach," sang the Ramones. As usual, they were were right. Getting to the Rockaway peninsula is pretty convenient from most places in New York City. You can jump on the A train in, let's say in Chelsea, and jump off one hour later with your feet in the sand. The experience can be quite shocking, though, because this doesn't look anything like the New York you are used to.
The first thing that strikes me in Rockaway is the number of American flags present. There is one every few yards by the boardwalk and most houses have one dominating their garden or hanging from their facade, illustrating the adage that major tragedies can be catalysts for widespread patriotism.
The second unexpected observation is the distinct small town atmosphere throughout Rockaway. People here “bless you” from the other side of the road when you sneeze. Things, I'm sure, change when thousands of outspoken New Yorkers invade these streets during the summer. Over 3 million people head here each year, but on a cloudy May afternoon this is a pleasant and friendly place.
The third surprise is how much post-Sandy damage still remains. For someone that didn't experience the storm, it's hard to believe how much destruction the hurricane actually caused. It destroyed thousands of homes and hundreds of thousands of cars and caused economic losses worth around $30 billion. And most devastating of all, it caused 53 deaths in the state of New York, 7 of which occurred in the Rockaways. And today, nearly 20 months after the destruction, rebuilding work continues in houses, the boardwalk and key infrastructures. Teams of workers rush to refill the beach with new sand before the season starts, while construction trucks are spotted all along the peninsula.
After observing the damage, we’re hungry, so we find the restaurant Rippers (86th street) on the very first line of the beach. It's inside one of the several concession buildings found along the boardwalk. They tell us they were lucky with Sandy. In Rockaway being lucky means the building wasn't tossed 100 yards away. They "only" had to repair floors, walls and replace most of the stuff that was inside the building. The public must agree Rippers has done a good job, as the place is packed all summer long. This funky little restaurant serves hamburgers, hot dogs and fried fish along with cold beer, delicious smoothies and soft serve ice cream. They also host concerts, DJ sets and parties that have made it a favorite destination on the beach. They are open seven days a week, roughly from Memorial weekend (end of May) until the weather is too bad (generally early October). They recommend September as the best month to come around, when the beach is technically closed and the area is a bit "like the Wild West," according to one of the bartenders.
Just a couple minutes West, on 97th street, another concession building hosts half a dozen food vendors, including Uma’s central Asian cuisine, Citysticks ice pops and the amazing Lobster Joint. This outpost of the restaurant (which has two other locations, one in Greenpoint and the other in the Lower East Side) serves mouth-wateringly delicious lobster rolls and other staples of New England comfort food.
A bit further (106th street) are the arepas and empanadas of Caracas and the shakes and ice creams of Conchos. If you step away from the beach-front for a minute, it’s has to be to go for a fish taco at Rockaway Taco. In the summer the line can be scary, since this wooden shack has become somewhat of a legend since it first opened in 2008.
Places like this explain why Rockaway beach started to gain a reputation as a sort of "Williamsburg by the sea" prior to Sandy’s arrival. Surfers would come looking for waves, others just enjoyed the ocean, the food, the craft beers and the cocktails. The hurricane forced a pause in its growing popularity as a hip destination, but it seems to be as popular as ever. The tattooed kids are here, the “fixie” bikes too, and there’s even a special bus that brings them in from Brooklyn.
And still, all the visitors seem not to have disturbed the peaceful nature of this community –one that moves at a slower pace than the rest of the city and that, apparently, likes to gather at Connolly’s. We enter this old Irish pub on a weekday afternoon surprised to find a full house with people of all ages drinking piña coladas out of styrofoam cups. We try one and it all starts to make sense. For a second, I see myself enjoying a suburban life by the water. And it doesn’t sound bad at all. Rockaway has gone through some rough times, but it’s definitely back.