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Letter From Rockaway Beach

don’t knock the rockChistine Haughney of the Times recently took the long ride (from pretty much everywhere but Marine Park and Broad Channel) out to Beach 116th Street in Rockaway and found it rather wanting. This is not a surprise. If, for aesthetic reasons, I happen to love that Rockaway isn’t boomtown, there are lots of Radio Days fans and a good number of others who’d like something different than what is. Forget the recession, this has been the case since the 1970s— when the Publisher was busy playing with whatever little toys he could get from the L.H. Martin store in the he-didn’t-know-then-it-was-ghetto strip mall Rockaway Beach Blvd between Beach 84th and Beach 90th— and if “even Richard Nixon must have soul,” as  Neil Young sang, it’s likely to remain so for years to come.

flea market & kittensI first met U.S. Army veteran and polymath Christopher Ciesla during a charity bowling tournament at Gil Hodges Lanes in Mill Basin in the 1990s and we’ve been fast friends even since. A man of many unlikely talents, including being the repository of more Cross Bay Bridge lore than anyone I know, the former Rockaway resident considers the fate and future of the peninsula below. — Ellery Tompkins

Rockaway was never going to be Williamsburg or any other reborn/reinvented neighborhood. My all-time favorite comment about Rockaway was from a friend of mine who visited Rockaway in the winter of 1999 and said, “the only thing this place is missing, is tumbleweeds blowing down the street.”

end of the lineA lot has changed in ten years, the Playland side has been built over and a bunch of new condos went up, but the sheer remoteness of Rockaway will keep people out. It’s an hour on the A to Manhattan and who the hell wants to ride an A line local (express service ends at 10pm) through Bed-Stuy at midnight after taking in a Broadway play? Then comes the final insult, having to change at Broad Channel. I’ve found myself standing on the platform in Broad Channel freezing in a howling, winter wind more than once.

The toll bridges don’t help either. You can go out through Lawrence, but it’s a big detour if you’re headed West.

There’s also the sheer lack of fun stuff in Rockaway. There’s no shortage of Irish dives. The hipsters simply don’t go for that and I’d be willing to bet money some of the old Irish have gone out of their bonny way to make the invaders feel less welcome.

Then I see the prices have jumped considerably. They’re asking $4.5 million for the Beach Club building? You could buy the old Jewish Press building and get two acres on the Gowanus Canal for $10 million! If I had real money, I would consider maybe getting a nice single family, ocean-view in the mid-90s (East of Beach 97th and West of Beach 93rd). If I had mega-$$$ then I’d buy Baxter’s Hotel so I could make sure it stays Baxter’s Hotel forever. John Baxter may not sell out, but his heirs probably will.

It always amazed me that with all the Orthodox Jews in Belle Harbor, there are no kosher restaurants and not much kosher anything on the peninsula. I remember having to drive an ex-girlfriend to Boro Park on Sundays so she could shop at Landau’s supermarket. Calling Landau’s a supermarket is like calling the Flatiron Building a skyscraper, it may have been (a skyscraper or supermarket) at one time, but not anymore.

I don’t know if the attempted Rockaway boom town is going to go back to the low-rent, but still safe neighborhood it was, but it would be nice. It would have to first make a stop at the bust-town of the 1970s first.

Christopher Ciesla

All photographs by Brian Berger

Corey Kilgannon of the Times writes about the Baxter Hotel.
A former WWIB food contributor shows off Rockaway Taco.

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