Much to the chagrin of local residents, the Rockaway ferry, which motored each weekday between Rockaway, Queens and downtown Manhattan, sailed its final voyage on the evening of Halloween.
The city began the commuter service two years ago, after the A train tracks were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and it quickly became a beloved addition to the otherwise meager transportation options on the peninsula. While the 50-minute ride was only available on weekdays, it provided a literal breath of fresh air to those accustomed to a much longer journey underground.
For many Rockaway residents, the ferry was not only a physical link to the rest of New York City, but an emotional one—a symbolic reminder that despite the ongoing issues with Build it Back and boardwalk construction, the mayor had not completely forgotten about Rockaway’s post-Sandy struggles.
According to the City, two and a half times as many buildings were destroyed in Southern Queens during Sandy, compared to the rest of New York.
And yet, despite strong efforts from local politicians and civic leaders, the City claimed it could not find funding to make the service permanent. “This is something we tried six ways to Sunday to make it work,” said Kyle Kimball, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, at a recent town hall meeting.
Eager to experience the unique ride, Sarah and I headed out to Rockaway for one of the ferry’s last trips. We stashed our car in the Superfund-site-turned-parking lot by the water treatment plant, scurried across Beach Channel Drive, and climbed aboard just in time for the 4:30 departure.
Inside, the mood was festive, the beer line long. Bartenders greeted passengers by name while slinging bottles of Coors, Budweiser, and Miller Lite, plus the occasional plastic tumbler of red wine. As the engine revved, Batman glided on board, followed by a gaggle of assorted superheroes and zombies. The air horn sounded and a puff of exhaust shot out: we were on our way.
Bottles clinked, cheers rang out.
The Life Aquatic
As the ferry raced along at a surprisingly fast clip, we made our way around the top deck. At the front of the lounge we found Ann from Neponsit, on her way to Pier 11 to meet her husband for a final ride home together. She shook her head when we asked her about the ferry’s demise: “It’s terrible. The Rockaways are just not a priority” she sighed.
Ann’s daily commute will now double in length, a hardship many of the ferry’s supporters cite, thanks to the Rockaway’s single subway line and unreliable network of buses and shuttles. “But what are you gonna do?” she wondered, tucking her hair behind her ear. “You just hope for the best.”
We talked a few minutes more about climate resiliency programs, Build it Back, and her lingering disappointment with the City’s Sandy recovery: “mismanaged from the beginning.” Before we left, she gave us her personal message to Mayor de Blasio: “Oh, he’s still got a tale of two cities. We live in New York City, too.”
Across the aisle, we found Rockaway native Brian Gillen and 30-year-resident Joe Mara tucked into a corner booth at a table scattered with empties. Rather than mourning the loss of the ferry, though, they seemed to be toasting its glorious two-year run.
“Yeah, it’s sad because it’s such an amazing way to get into the city. Especially if you compare it to the A train, which is like this communal gloom and depression,” Brian explained, and then grinned. “But here, there’s a bar on board! There’s the view. And everything’s always a little more festive.”
On a more sober note, Brian also questioned the administration’s ongoing commitment to his hometown. How could the Rockaways ever become a thriving outpost of New York City without the infrastructure to support that development?
“If you look up and down the coast, this is the only town that has the most decrepit seaside,” he scoffed.”It’s insane, this is the worst seaside on the whole Eastern coast. And it really could be developed, but you know, politics, money, and all that.”
At the booth directly behind Brian and Joe we found Christa Victoria. For most of the ride, her eyes had been glued to the window. Her normal commute, she recounted, took an hour and a half, so the ferry’s 50 minute sail “has been absolutely, incredibly wonderful. Anytime I felt bad or aggravated, the water would just soothe it.”
But she, too, questioned the city’s decision. “My thinking is, why are they canceling the ferry if they are trying to get businesses open in Rockaway? If they are trying to get people to Rockaway? Nobody wants to take a subway and then a bus to get to the beach or get to the main drag.”
Our pondering was interrupted by John, a signal maintainer for the MTA whose commute, post-ferry, will be a three-hour ordeal. “They’re[The City] subsidizing it [the ferry]. It’s $30 a trip that they’re paying for us to ride on this. $30!” he said. “Everything costs something. That’s the reality.”
He seemed conflicted: his experience in the transit industry made him a realist, but something told him things might be more complicated. He took a chug of beer, and added with a grumble, “Who is going to pay that much money for the Rockaways? There’s not enough stockbrokers that live in the Rockaways or Belle Harbor.”
And with a jolt, the boat docked at Pier 11. Wall Street. We debarked.
Friday Night’s Alright
Sarah and I exited the ferry and hopped back into the line for the next departure. As we approached the attendants, I realized my ticket had gone missing. Before I could locate it, a man popped out of line and shoved one into my hands. “Here,” he said. “I’ve got an extra. Don’t need it anymore.” (Coincidentally that man turned out to be Ann from Neponsit’s husband.)
As the after-work crowd lined the bar, we found Eileen Kugel sitting calmly in the downstairs lounge. A daily ferry commuter who lives a half a block from the beach in Rockaway, Eileen’s voice was quiet but her frustration palpable.
“They should’ve left it,” she said of the ferry. “We’ve been through so much in Rockaway. They should’ve left us with our ferry. We don’t ask for much. We have no boardwalk. They’re saying three years—2017—they’ll have the boardwalk done. Jersey has theirs. Long Beach has theirs. We got nothing.”
Hurricane Sandy filled Eileen’s basement with water—water that came within an inch of flooding her first floor, too. She was lucky in that she had adequate flood insurance that paid for the bulk of the repairs, but it appears as though not much was done to prepare for the next storm. “I can’t elevate my house,” she explained. “These houses are old, my house was built in the 1920s. The houses are plaster, you try and raise that.”
Eileen’s comments echoed others we heard that evening: a sense of isolation, a feeling that the Rockaways were both forgotten and a dumping ground for the rest of New York City. It made us wonder, how can you effectively prepare a community for climate change if they don’t feel like a priority? With the exception of isolated sections of Far Rockaway, the entire peninsula now lies within the 100-year floodplain.
We stepped outside to get some air. I stood next to a gentleman for a good two minutes, both of us quietly taking in the Verrazano vista, before noticing the giant bloody gash painted on his cheek. I remembered it was Halloween.
Upstairs on the deck, under the orange glow of the ferry’s lights, a crowd of passengers braved the sharp wind for an incredible view. A group of men in suits raised their beers in a salute as their friend snapped a photo on his iPhone.
Standing alone, looking out over the lights of Coney Island, we found Irina Pistsov, a young Rockaway-based graphic designer. “It’s sad,” she said of the ferry’s last trip, “but at the same time it’s really exciting because I see now people are really appreciating it. I started riding it a couple of months ago, and every ride is like magic to me.
She gestured to the crowd. “And right now I see that 90 percent of the boat feels the magic.”
As the shadow of the peninsula came into view, we knew our time on the boat was short. Our last conversation was, perhaps fittingly, at the bar with Alex Dunn and Jack Meade.
Alex, who works just a few blocks from Pier 11, has been riding the ferry daily. “We definitely really needed this at first, after Sandy,” he recalls. “It became something that, became not just getting us back to normal, but a positive. It was a good thing for the community.”
He didn’t seem convinced by the city’s financial decision to end the service, either. “[The Staten Island ferry] just got a million dollars in repairs, we can’t get a subsidy to even have a ferry?” he asked. “We don’t need repairs, we don’t need anything fancy. The ferry’s a big deal for us.” His friend Jack nodded in silent agreement.
After a moment of thought, Alex said, “But you know, we’ve been through a lot before. Nine-eleven hit Breezy and Rockaway really hard, and the plane crash on November 12, and you know, we always pull ourselves up and get back into the swing of things and get ourselves together. This was nice while it lasted, but I don’t know. I guess you can’t have everything. We’ll get by.”
The engine cut, and for a split-second the entire boat was hushed as we came to rest at Beach 108th. Then a whistle cut through the silence and a round of applause erupted.