Field Trip: The Rockaways

Rockaways welcome signPossibly because I spend most of my time in one neighborhood, I crave novelty. So when someone told me I should try taking the Seastreak ferry to the Rockaways in Queens, I didn’t require much persuading. Designed for commuters, the ferry makes the trip from Pier 11 at various times in the morning and late afternoon/early evening, so the choice was to go for a couple of hours or the whole day. I chose the former. (The ferry is currently subsidized, so it’s an astounding $3.50 each way.)

map courtesy GoogleI departed Pier 11 on the 3:05 p.m. ferry, and the trip takes just under an hour. I love being on a boat, any boat, so I sat up on the top deck even though the wind was fierce. (If you stayed seated, you were protected, but getting up to check out all the views was irresistible. The wind was insane; my shirt collar would flap up and slap me in the face so hard it stung.) The ferry went along the west side of Governors Island, then stopped at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, between Red Hook and Bay Ridge. I wasn’t the only one to take a photo as we went under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but I may have been the only person who thought the gated community of Sea Gate was worth the trouble.

Rockaways Verrazano Narrow bridgeSea GateAnd while it was fun to see Coney Island from the water, I couldn’t help but be just as intrigued by how visible the Manhattan skyline was—especially what I assume is 432 Park Avenue, to the right below. (All of these photos enlarge when clicked.) And the Marine Parkway Gil Hodges Memorial bridge was worth a snap.

1WTC and 432 Park behind Coney IslandMarine Parkway Gil Hodges Memorial BridgeThe Rockaway ferry pier is at Beach 108th Street, a little to the east of where it says Rockaway Park on the map above. To be honest, I was dismayed by the area around the pier. I felt like I was being released from prison.

Rockaways disembarkingI had done only minimal research about the place because I wanted maximum spontaneity, but I did get the sense that if I went to explore Fort Tilden, to the west, I wouldn’t have time to do much else. Instead, I went to the beach, where I discovered that the boardwalk reconstruction was very much underway, with a lot of chain link fences and beeping construction equipment. It felt like home!

Rockaways boardwalk reconstructionRockaways boardwalk reconstruction signI pretended it was earth art.

Rockaways earth artAnd I stopped to watch whenever a jet flew by.

Rockaways jetNow and again, as I walked east, I’d come a across a part that was done—a lifeguard building, or a picnic area.

Rockaways beach station Rockaways reconstructed landscape Rockaways lifeguard station It’ll be much nicer when it’s done. Generally, I respond to a scruffy beach town or a fancy one; the middle, not so much. A lot of what I saw of the Rockaways is smack in that middle, and I came to think of it as Queens-by-the-Sea. (Ugly buildings abound.) Every now and then, you’d get a sense of how the place once was, how it might’ve turned out different, and how it might be in summer. The Jersey barriers painted by John Garcia are a good start. Shades of Raymond Pettibon….

Rockaways jersey barrier Rockaways jersey barrier2 Rockaways jersey barrier3 Rockaways jersey barrier4And the old wave-shaped bus stops painted with surf and nautical scenes are fantastic.

Rockaways bus stop Rockaways bus stop2The very best part of my outing, better than I had even hoped, was Rockaway Taco. It’s gotten a lot of press, so I didn’t want to love it, but I did. Everyone should go (but not till next summer, because it has since closed for the season).

Rockaway Taco from corner Rockaway Taco juice sign Rockaway Taco menu Rockaway Taco seating Rockaway Taco shell signI thought I’d find a whole micro-neighborhood like it, and to say I didn’t is a massive understatement. But I’ve resolved to focus on the positive, and I spent the latter half of my career in travel media insisting that you can have a good time anywhere if you bring the right attitude. On a dreary, off-season afternoon in the Rockaways, that meant walking around and focusing on the little details that make the place different.

Rockaways mural Rockaways muralists Rockaways piano Rockaways respect the beach Rockaways bike coconutRockaways i do meThis dog was barking furiously at me while wagging its tail so hard that its whole body was jerking back and forth. Adorable!

Rockaways dogAdam, who was traveling for business, asked if I hadn’t come across the funky cottages that artists have redone. I saw some cottages, but they didn’t seem artist-y. And I saw a lot of decrepit homes; a few had Halloween decorations, as if they’ve been waiting all year for just this moment.

Rockaway houses Rockaways above ground pool Rockaways cottages Rockaways house Rockaways house3Rockaways above ground poolRockaways Halloween houseBy the time I boarded the return ferry at 5:50 p.m., I was ready to go home. But I’d like to return, because I don’t think I gave it a fair shake. Next time, I’ll go in summer (if not on a weekend), and I’ll take my bike—I have a feeling the quicker pace of bike travel will help smooth over the rough parts. Plus, I’ll be able to explore Fort Tilden. If you can’t wait till next summer, you might enjoy this Sunday….

Rockaways beach fest

Previous Field Trip posts:
S-Cruise by Smartboat
Wave Hill
Governors Island
F.D.R. Four Freedoms Park
Litchfield County, Conn.
One Wall Street
Behind the Scenes at Grand Central Terminal
The Howard/Crosby Microneighborhood
Federal Reserve Bank of New York
East River Ferry
Museum of American Finance

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  1. I adore you Eric!

  2. As I recall there’s a passage in The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s giant biography of Robert Moses, about how Moses hired all these people to plant millions of individual sea-grass plants *by hand* so as to establish the beach scape in the Rockaways.

  3. We went to the Rockaways 3x this summer. The beach is actually really nice–its the Hampton’s beach, but without the exclusivity, and without the crowds of the other big public beaches. The Caracas Arepa bar is so much better than the hot dogs/fried food fair at other beaches. Who eats like that ON the beach? It is an hour on the train, with a 10 minute walk to the beach–it is hard to beat that. There are many new residential developments right along the beach, and while they are cookie cutter, they are fresh and bright almost make you feel like you are in some quaint beach town. Please try it in the summer!

  4. Well, you got a great photo essay for your troubles.

  5. A typical Manhattan centric view of someplace other than Manhattan.