Sep 22 2015
A Tenuous Balance: Surfing and Development in the Rockaways
Surfers ready to hit the waves at Rockaway Beach.
Photo credit: Jason Leahey  via Students of the Skudin Surf School
September 22, 2015
A Tenuous Balance: Surfing and Development in the Rockaways

Category

Climate

Editor’s Note: The growing number of surfers—and new residents—in the Rockaways has attracted significant public attention. A recent New York Times article focuses on the conflict between residents (new and old) and surfers who both feel they have a claim to the area.

Underlying these developments is the sobering fact that the Rockaway Peninsula is one of the most vulnerable areas of New York City relative to climate change. FEMA’s recently revised 100-year flood maps now include virtually the entire peninsula and its 100,000-plus residents. During Superstorm Sandy, sections of the Rockaways experienced 14-foot storm surges.

NYER contributor Jason Leahey spent some time exploring the Rockaways this summer and this is what he saw.


According to Jeff Anthony, the intersection of Beach 67th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard used to be, “just stray dogs and dune grass and garbage.” Then thousands of townhouses, in shades of cream and wash-worn blue, appeared. Then Superstorm Sandy hit land.

And today, the Rockaways are home to a booming surf scene.

Anthony, an instructor for Skudin Surf, one of a handful of schools that operate on the beach, grew up on this strip of sand crimped between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic. Standing on his boogie board by age seven, he grew into a member of a small but dedicated local surf scene. The Rockaways were different then. More off-the-map. Miles of beach were completely closed.

Around fifteen years ago, “train surfers” who lived across the city began hopping the A line with their boards and hitting the beach in the Rockaways.

Map of the Rockaway Peninsula. Some of the most devastating destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy took place in the western portion of the peninsula. The City reported that high-velocity waves struck unprotected neighborhoods like Belle Harbor, Neponsit, Roxbury, and Breezy Point, smashing structures facing the ocean. Fires also broke out in some of these neighborhoods during Sandy, causing further destruction.

Map of the Rockaway Peninsula. Some of the most devastating destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy took place in the western portion of the peninsula. The City reported that high-velocity waves struck unprotected neighborhoods like Belle Harbor, Neponsit, Roxbury, and Breezy Point, smashing structures facing the ocean. Fires also broke out in some of these neighborhoods during Sandy, causing further destruction.

Then, three years ago, Sandy put the Rockaways on a heap of New Yorkers’ personal maps of the city. And they started coming, too.

Surge in Surfers

The surf schools, spread beneath logoed shade canopies along the sand from 67th to 69th Streets, do significant business. On a Wednesday afternoon in August, Anthony and two other instructors wrapped up a class of six- to twelve-year-olds by calling them into a huddle, whispering words of encouragement, and leading them as they raised their hands in the air and cheered. The kids scampered.

Thirty minutes later, the men were leading a class of teenagers from a local religious camp, guiding them through their stretches, delivering advice: “Definitely drop into that second wave; you need to lean up and back,” and quizzing them on the effects of the sun’s heat on water. “If you’re a surfer, you also have to be a meteorologist,” Anthony stated. A few yards down the beach in each direction, other instructors taught individuals, pairs, groups of three.

Lauren Monte, a Brooklynite, moved here ten years ago. Her seven- and twelve-year-olds are spending their second summer surfing. She told how the schools lead beach cleanups, how they pooled together money to buy a board for a kid who couldn’t afford one, and how they work with groups of people with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. “It’s a very giving community,” she said.

These days, there are surf instructors who have moved here from South Africa, Germany, and Hawaii. There are surfers who live in Puerto Rico or Costa Rica the rest of the year but come to the Rockaways to live and surf in the summer.

Now, on any decent summer Saturday, anywhere from fifty to 100 surfers cram into the water from 67th to 69th, one of the two surf zones approved by the Parks Department (the other is at 88th Street). Some of these surfers are the old hands, some are beginners with a few local lessons under their belts, some are utter novices. What had been a small community of the experienced has turned, since Sandy, into a major weekend scene.

“It’s gotten to the point,” Anthony said, describing the sheer number of New Yorkers paddling out, “where it’s almost dangerous.”

But it’s also a part of a local boon.

A Local Boon

When you get off the 67th Street A stop, the first thing you encounter is a miniature strip mall: one short block of uniform white and blue architecture that starts with an Assemblyman’s office, ends in a Thai restaurant, and feels as crisp and clean as a pair of fresh bed sheets.

Across the street, the townhouses are part of Arverne by the Sea, a 2,300-home oceanfront community that withstood Sandy’s onslaught and continues to grow. A full city block is now framed in forest-green construction walls, the buckets of backhoes rearing up into view, swiveling, dumping their loads of dirt.

New businesses and restaurants have opened as well. The boardwalk is being rebuilt. Local New York State Assembly members have begun lobbying the City to expand the surf zones, citing the economic possibilities.

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The Rockaway Boardwalk. The section between Beach 86th and Beach 107th streets was re-opened this summer. The City says that the boardwalk will be continuously complete by Memorial Day 2016, with intact sections of the old boardwalk and new sections linked together. The boardwalk will be entirely completed as new construction by Memorial Day 2017. Photo: CBS News

“After Sandy, people came and started patronizing the beach,” Anthony said. “Patronizing the beach led to the concessions turning into these new areas with great new food instead of just fries and burgers. There are restaurants, a nightlife. I can go out with my girlfriend now and I don’t have to just get bar food. I can get Uzbecki food; I can get Thai food; I can get great American gastropub food.” Uncle Louie G’s, the Italian ice mainstay of Brooklyn, recently opened a new store on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and 92nd.

Change Brings Conflict

This change hasn’t been without conflict. The surfers, organized into the Rockaway Beach Surfers Association, want an expanded surfing area to keep the students safe and enable the scene to keep growing. Many Arverne residents are fighting that effort because they want to swim in the ocean right in front of their homes—the same stretch of water in which the surf schools operate—but are currently forbidden to because of a lack of City personnel for lifeguarding.

And then there are the long-term residents, including some from the Sandy-devastated southwest tip of the peninsula, who are also unhappy with all the new attention and attractions.

Surfing instruction on the Rockaway coast. Photo: Jason Leahey

Surfing instruction on the Rockaway coast. Photo: Jason Leahey

Seen in transition like this, gentrification inevitably springs to mind. But developers and entrepreneurs didn’t demolish the old boardwalk or call attention to the overlooked possibility of a New York life lived in a beach town. Climate change did.

In 2015, the Rockaways have been discovered by a new generation of New Yorkers who, not that long ago, watched sections of it drown and burn on the news. They take the A train out and surf and eat and spend their money in the community. NY1 named Rockaway Beach the best beach of the year. Unless the next big storm dictates otherwise, the growth does not look like it will stop any time soon, and the swelling popularity of a once-secret surfing spot does not either.

“Sandy made this new surfing culture,” Anthony said, “where everybody from Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan wants to come and give it a try. I say bring ‘em. Everything’s coming. It’s gonna bring better roads, a better boardwalk. I’ll take that change any day.”


Jason Leahey is a writer, musician, and teaching artist living in Brooklyn for fifteen years. He blogs about food and gardening at PitchKnives & Butter Forks and runs the Maribar Writers Colony at Cricket Hill, and his band Commonwealth Revival can next be seen at Brooklyn’s Rock Shop on November 13, 2015. 

This is Jason’s first article for New York Environment Report.

Surfers ready to hit the waves at Rockaway Beach.
Photo credit: Jason Leahey  via Students of the Skudin Surf School