WHEN the sun glares down on the city, New Yorkers of means flee for the beach. Matt Kaye, a bar manager and D.J. who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was such a refugee.
He sat outside Rippers, a new grass-fed-burger shack that opened over the Memorial Day weekend, sipping an iced coffee. In the distance, a pod of surfers bobbed in the water, waiting for waves. An inked-up pal from Brooklyn, carrying a beach umbrella, wandered by to chat about swimming conditions. “The water’s too cold,” said Mr. Kaye, who wore a faded Spuds MacKenzie T-shirt and 10-day stubble. “But you know I had to get in for a minute.” It was a vision of summertime idyll that plays out every weekend in the beach towns around New York. But this was not the Hamptons, Fire Island or even Jones Beach.
It was the Rockaways in Queens — the sliver of dilapidated bungalows, drug-riddled public housing and W.P.A.-era boardwalk at the end point of the A train. Over the last few summers, this sandy and pockmarked peninsula has become an unlikely hangout for young, artsy types who make their home in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Arriving by single-gear bicycle, Zipcar and the occasional skateboard, they’ve turned the once- neglected beach community into an anti-Hamptons, where polo games and Champagne galas have been replaced by bungalow barbecues and piña coladas at old Irish pubs. “The boardwalk is the new Bedford Avenue,” said Mr. Kaye, 34, referring to the cafe-clogged commercial spine of Williamsburg.
The Rockaways’ rising popularity among the younger creative set has been profound. Not long ago, the remote beach at Fort Tilden, a former military base along the peninsula’s western side, hosted scattered picnickers, gay nudists and Russian fishermen reeling in spiny sea robins. Nowadays, the beachgoers are more likely to sport tattoo sleeves, Wayfarer sunglasses and Brooklyn ZIP codes, and fall between their mid-20s and mid-30s. And this summer, its newfound cachet as a weekend getaway has been elevated. Concession stands that sell quinoa black-bean burgers and rice-milk smoothies have popped up along the boardwalk. Outdoor concerts that evoke the original McCarren Park Pool parties in Williamsburg are being staged. And real estate agents are eagerly marketing condos as summer vacation homes for young professionals. “It’s got a little bit of everything,” said Chris Parachini, an owner of Roberta’s, the unofficial canteen of bohemian Bushwick. Mr. Parachini, who has been coming to the Rockaways for 10 years, is a partner in Rippers. “It vaguely reminds me of Venice in Los Angeles 25 years ago.” THE ROCKAWAY PENINSULA, nicknamed Rocapulco, or simply the Rock, is an 11-mile ribbon of land that juts out from the southern tip of Queens.
Its coastline is girdled with prime beachfront, including a pristine section that is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, home to a maritime forest, marshy dunes and nesting grounds for migrating birds. Despite such natural beauty, the Rockaways’ eastern side became a symbol of urban neglect and governmental shoulder-shrugging. Once an elegant resort lined with Victorian mansions, it waned in popularity after World War II, and neighborhoods were razed to make way for public housing projects. “You ceased to have a summer rental population,” said Lawrence Kaplan, co-author of “Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York.” Things started turning about a decade ago, and one of the first crews to plant their weekend flags on the grittier Rockaway Beach were hard-core surfers. (Breezy Point, a quiet beach community on the western tip long ago nicknamed the Irish Riviera, remains a popular summer getaway for older New York families.) Surfers would lug their boards on the subway and paddle out to Rockaway Beach. There was also an outlaw mentality: surfing was illegal, and wave riders would sometimes be ticketed. Their numbers have grown since 2005, when the city designated a two-jetty stretch near 90th Street New York’s first surfable beach. (A second, smaller break near 67th Street was designated in 2007.) Dave Youn, 34, a computer programmer from Greenpoint, and 13 other surfers rent a yellow two-story bungalow on 91st Street for $1,100 a month, mostly to store their boards.
Word of the cheap rents, easy commute and underpopulated beaches spread quickly, especially among beach-starved New Yorkers who find places like the Hamptons either too expensive or too bourgeois for their tastes. The Rockaway’s grittiness and lack of family-friendly amenities were not deal-breakers but part of the appeal.