The New York Rockaways are gentrifying; Is this a good thing?

New York’s favorite beach break. Photo: Hayley Pfitzer//Unsplash


The Rockaways (or Rockaway, as you wish) in New York’s Queens borough, have long been something of a dichotomy: the only truly beachfront neighborhood in all of New York City, and yet among the city’s poorest. But now the area is experiencing gentrification. And everyone is trying to figure out where they are on renewal.

Most of the past century has seen the Rockaways transform from a middle-class resort and amusement park like Coney Island to bulldozed slums and a slew of beachfront social housing projects. south is the vast, bleak, mostly waveless seascape that local surfers don’t so affectionately refer to as the “Atlantic Lake.” To be fair, it has its days, and a core of local surfers would surely attest to that. Towards the city is a small view of the metropolis across a narrow bay of wetlands and some eight miles of urban sprawl.

Once upon a time and until the mid-20th century, the Rockaways were home to rows of middle-class summer cabins, resorts and amusement parks. Then, ironically in the wake of post-war prosperity, things took a dark turn. With the democratization of the automobile, peri-urban neighborhoods have gradually been left behind, with new roads taking precedence over the continued development of public transport infrastructure (see Robert Moses).

Then came the American Housing Act of 1949, another veritable Trojan horse for the already duped community, and arguably the coup de grace. Among other things, he provided federal funding for “urban renewal” involving the removal of “slums” – many beach bungalows were also razed in the process – and more than 800,000 public housing units. It seemed like a good idea, but in the end, the initiative destroyed more housing than it ever built.

Long before all this and at the time of the arrival of the Dutch in “the new world”, it was once a quiet farming and shellfish fishing outpost known to the Canarsie Native Americans, a group of Lenape, as of “Reckowacky”, perhaps meaning “place of the sands” in Munsee (Algonquian language).

The New York Rockaways are gentrifying;  Is this a good thing?

The classic midsummer Rockaway beach scene. Photo: Alistair Macrobert//Unsplash

Overall, the sands remain, but largely due to a continued onslaught from what appear to be increasingly intense hurricanes and tropical storms, they are shifting. Another reason could be the recent rise of Airbnb and VRBO rentals, as well as a number of new restaurants with hip rooftops, independent cafes, surf shops and even a four-star hotel, complete with spa, sauna and all.

But the question remains, is this all a good thing? As with any case of gentrification, the answer is complicated.

For reasons that are likely due to New York City’s relatively recent decentralization, pandemic-induced work-from-home model, and perhaps not least including a surge in the popularity of surfing, the value Rockaway real estate has more or less doubled over the past decade.

Resident for fifteen years, Lou Harris, the founder of the Rockaway Chapter of the Black Surfing Association, witnessed much of the transformation in and out of the water. He was once the only black person to ride the waves for most of his sessions: “I remember 14 or 15 years ago people were looking at me. Now it’s like they don’t even look at you. You have black female surfers, young kids trying it.

During the warmer months, when less than five or six millimeters of neoprene is needed, Harris runs daily surf lessons on the beach, as well as skateboarding lessons at the new Rockaway Skate Park. In the winter, it offers swimming lessons, often held at the Rockaway Hotel and Spa, a resplendent four-star property with floor-to-ceiling windows, a rooftop terrace, and more. “They’re mostly black kids, but we’ll have white kids… I bet they never thought a tattooed black guy would teach them how to swim,” laughs Harris.

Harris himself has been something of an attraction and a beacon for the community. Since the founding of BSA Rockaway, it has been featured in rolling stone, QG, The New York Times, CNN, men’s diary, and far too many local and national outlets to mention. He starred in the children’s series “Surf Guard” on YouTube and organized several paddle outings in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in recognition of indigenous people, the latter which he organized with the Rockaway Hotel and Spa.

Since then it has garnered the attention and support of professional surfers, celebrities and sponsors including Red Bull and Vans. Last Christmas, he teamed up with the local 100th Police Station to dress up as Santa Claus and parade, delivering free vans to children.

All in all, he has hope: “I am 50 years old. By the time I turn 75, this area here in Rockaway will be heavily, heavily desegregated.

Recently, Far Rockaway native Rashaun Banjo, a former college athlete who now works in real estate and runs the community basketball program Team cratehosted the first of what he calls the Community Conversations under the banner of Far Rock Strong, the sports and education-focused public outreach initiative he leads.

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According to Banjo, there is a growing gap both between Rockaway residents across various socioeconomic divides and between Rockaways and greater New York City. According to Banjo, the solution lies in the cooperative economy: “to learn, to grow, to conserve the resources that are in our community, to develop them and to grow together”.

“Don’t be discouraged,” Banjo tells those feeling a boost in response to recent developments in the neighborhood. “Feel independent. Don’t feel misinformed, get informed. People do not want to live in oppressed and disinvested environments. They want improvement. They aspire to have parks. The problem with gentrification comes when they are not involved in this process when these opportunities arise. Everyone wants to be part of something. Especially where you live and grow up, and where you raise your family, you want to be a part of it too.

Gentrification can be, and clearly has been, the culprit of many disbanded communities, but organization, initiative and hopeful leadership can go very, very far. The same goes for a small dose of good old Hawaiian aloha and the tossing of a shaka.

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