Forty-five minutes on the A-train from the southern tip of Manhattan, a narrow strip of Long Island called the Rockaway Peninsula extends into the Atlantic. On a wintry evening, the avenues that run due east along the shoreline appear to be deserted but, looking out towards the horizon, across expanses of white sand, visitors may be surprised to see small figures bobbing up and down in the frigid sea – not seals, but surfers.
Though these quiet, beachy streets seem a world apart from New York City, the shimmering high-rises of downtown Brooklyn can be glimpsed just beyond the bay’s brush-covered dunes. And on the corner of 98th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, a light burns from behind a large window. “When do hipsters eat pizza?” reads a sandwich board next to the door. “Before it gets cool.”
This is the Playland Motel, opened for business last summer by Jamie Wiseman – a former lawyer now known as Williamsburg’s pre-eminent nightclub developer. Wiseman has been instrumental in transforming that formerly industrial north Brooklyn neighbourhood into what it is today, a byword for trendiness, with its locavore cafés, artisanal cheese shops and craft-beer pubs. His foray into the Rockaway seaboard has prompted many to speculate that this down-at-heel region might be on the brink of a cultural metamorphosis.
When I meet Playland’s head chef Whitney Aycock, he is listening to reggae and leisurely preparing Brussels sprouts for a white pizza with a gluten-free crust. “Tonight’s not as busy as it is in the summer,” he says, dotting the dough with garlic oil. “But you still have 100,000 people who live out here and might want to go out at night and eat good food and have a drink somewhere. Places like that didn’t really exist before Sandy but there’s nothing like being washed away by a hurricane to create a clean slate, literally and figuratively.”
Indeed, the Rockaway Peninsula, more commonly known as the Rockaways, suffered devastating damage in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy – the second-costliest storm in US history – made landfall on the East Coast. Reducing acres of homes to rubble and killing more than 140 people, Sandy brought this already fragile oceanfront economy to its knees. However, in the 16 months since, hordes of New Yorkers have flocked to the shore to help in the clean-up and reconstruction, businesses have been revitalised and a new local landscape has begun to take shape. Today, this is a region in transition, quickly adapting to accommodate an increasingly diverse population of visitors and residents with ever more cosmopolitan tastes.
Playland speaks to those demands, offering a concentrated dose of trendy Brooklyn. Each of the motel’s 12 rooms is redesigned every season by an artist, from British fashion designer Simon Spurr to local resident Pat Conlon, who brings a bright, pop-art aesthetic to his interior. There are no televisions or telephones, and bathrooms and showers (wainscoted, and painted in pastels) are shared by all paying guests, Hamptons-style.
In the summer, an enormous patio, carpeted with sand, hosts long nights of well-heeled revelry and concerts by Brooklyn’s hippest performers as models in Ray-Bans sip cocktails next to an inflatable pool and a raw oyster bar. “We made a very specific choice to be art- and music-driven,” says Wiseman. “Because this is a New York beach, accessible to every kind of New Yorker – not just Rockaway residents. In season, it’s like staying on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s.”
Lofty aspirations such as these are unprecedented in the remote region’s complex social history. Settled by Native Americans, then the Dutch and then the English, the Rockaways had become New York’s favourite summer retreat by the early 1800s. Playland, a vast amusement park, opened in 1901 (Wiseman’s motel is named after it). Things changed in the 1950s when Robert Moses – the urban planner New Yorkers love to hate – seized on the peninsula as a perfect dumping ground for the city’s undesirables. Close to Manhattan but not too close, the land was quickly given over to nursing homes, rehabilitation centres and low-income housing projects for deinstitutionalised mental patients. By the mid-1980s, Playland was shut down, most of the beach bungalows had been razed and the stable working-class populations had abandoned the district to decay, violence and federal neglect.
A new chapter began with the 2007 opening of Rockaway Taco, a rehabbed plywood shack two blocks from the Playland Motel. Devised by food entrepreneurs David Selig and Andrew Field and powered exclusively by solar energy, the stand has clean white walls hand-painted with a harlequin pattern, and the menu is scrawled on chalk board above the register. With its reasonable prices, proximity to the beach and watermelon agua fresca, it quickly became a neighbourhood favourite – and by the middle of its first summer, hundreds of beachgoers were streaming off the A-train and bee-lining for the fried tilapia tacos with cold cabbage slaw.
Selig is not your everyday developer. An eco-savvy self-starter, he is the kind of man who knows something about everything, from cooking to construction to beekeeping, and he has built his career as a pioneer of New York’s under-appreciated neighbourhoods, often leading the wave of gentrification with his experimental food ventures. “Rockaway Taco sat with a line in front of it for four years, with no competitors on the horizon,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it – I felt like I had to bring the competition there myself.”
He set out to do just that, battling bureaucracy to obtain permits for gourmet food stands along the boardwalk. And in 2011 the Rockaway Beach Concessions opened their doors, many of them outposts of Brooklyn businesses, from Bushwick’s famed Roberta’s Pizza to artisanal butcher The Meat Hook.
Hugging the shore behind a counter tiled in sea green squares, Rippers is a snack shack serving up gourmet burgers alongside tropical cocktails and fresh-pressed juice. Its shoreside patio becomes a dance floor at weekends and its rows of picnic tables host crowds of revellers day and night.
“Until Rockaway Taco appeared, we would go out to the Rockaways knowing we would never ever see another person from the art world but then the concessions opened,” recalls Eugenie Tsai, the curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum, who bought a Rockaway home with her husband in 2004. “One day I was in line at Blue Bottle Coffee and someone said ‘Hi’, and it was a big art dealer from Manhattan. That’s when I realised we were on the cusp of a transformation.”
Like Tsai, many members of New York’s cultural elite have recently decided to invest in Rockaway property. The famously reclusive Patti Smith owns a small bungalow on 97th Street and Klaus Biesenbach, director of PS1 (the Museum of Modern Art’s avant-garde outpost in Long Island City), lives here part-time. Swedish architecture firm White Arkitekter, which recently won a competition to rebuild a battered expanse of shore known as Arverne East, hopes the project will encourage the influx of creative types to Rockaway shores.
“We’re dealing with 80 acres of New York beachfront – it should be the most desirable property in all of NYC,” says Selig. “You can go surfing in the morning, get on the subway and be in Wall Street in one hour.”
Ari Zablozki, a sculptor who inherited Marina 59 in the Rockaways in 1998, has built a community of houseboat owners who spend the summers on his docks. In 2011 he launched a rental venture called Boatel, which offers “all summer adventure art camping” on artist-designed floating apartments. Halted by Sandy, Boatel will reopen this summer with a more evolved mission statement, including art performances, lectures and floating installations made from detritus found in Jamaica Bay.
The culinary landscape has been revived as well. Weekend evenings this winter find Sayra’s, the area’s first wine bar – which opened in June – brimming with twentysomethings from the neighbourhood. Low-key and tasteful, with industrial-chic walls of raw, repurposed wood and exposed Edison bulbs, the bar gets so full in warmer weather that customers overflow into the quaint backyard, strewn with seaside trinkets. And, in early December, the newly christened “restaurant row”, a 25-block stretch of Rockaway Beach Boulevard, hosted its very first Rockaway Restaurant Day. Recent additions such as Uma’s, whose traditional Uzbek cuisine often attracts a line around the block, joined the post-Sandy reopening of local favourites Bungalow Bar, Jameson’s and Thai Rock – known for a floating back deck that offers views of the sunset over the water.
The residue of the Rockaways’ troubled past is still present, of course, in the looming grey housing estates set in from the beach, the pothole-pocked streets and long industrial stretches of Rockaway Freeway, where the bay laps against littered banks. But signs of change are everywhere. New-builds with glistening glass balconies dapple the shoreline and the exposed concrete ribs of the old boardwalk – much of which was whisked away by the hurricane – are being fitted with newer, more resilient materials. New York’s Department of Transportation has already approved the installation of the Rockaways’ first public bike rentals along a stretch of oceanfront road that runs under elevated subway tracks, transforming the thoroughfare into NYC’s only all-weather bike path.
“Real estate value is based on human energy,” says Selig, recalling the first time he ran into Queens Museum director Tom Finkelpearl on the boardwalk. “Having Tom here just felt like such a positive thing. The presence of someone who lives in the world of culture and art reminded me that we are in the Rockaways and we are in New York. And that’s why there’s nowhere else like it.”