In Which We Go to Far Rockaway

Our special series on New York continues today with Brian DeLeeuw’s examination of Rockaway Beach. Enjoy.

images courtesy the bridge & tunnel club

Surf City USA

by Brian DeLeeuw

Sometimes the genius of a place is found not in its surprises, but instead in its more or less exact confirmation of your expectations. It’s gratifying when this happens, because it marks a rare intersection of how you think the world might be and how it actually is. The place takes on a sort of defiantly singular existence: it not only is a certain way, but also can’t even be imagined to be otherwise.

In precisely this fashion, if you were to envision a surfing spot lying within the borders of New York City, Rockaway Beach in far Southern Queens is pretty much what you’d be forced to come up with. Near the most popular surfing area, at Beach 92nd Street, wind-stripped bungalows and ominous project towers jostle up against the ocean. Police cars join the joggers and dog-walkers in a slow cruise down the boardwalk. There are rumors of locals duct-taping knives to the undersides of their surfboards to settle disputes over wave-etiquette. At high tide, the snaggle-toothed remains of scrapped piers lie concealed just beneath the water’s surface.

Maybe most New Yorkers don’t feel a particular need to entertain any specific idea of a hometown surf-spot. But for me, after twelve years of being a surfer who lives, but has never surfed, in New York City, my first visit to Rockaway Beach was more or less an exercise in a perverse sort of wish-fulfillment: in all its grimy juxtapositions, it was exactly as I thought (and hoped) I would find it.

Even surfers like me often forget that their city is unequivocally a coastal town, that the rivers and harbors and bays that encircle and subdivide the five boroughs are not just scenery and props, but the fingers of a very real and very unpredictable Atlantic Ocean. After passing underneath Crown Heights and East New York, then rising above ground and hooking south on Rockaway Boulevard, the A train shudders across a series of bridges spanning Jamaica Bay. Here, low-lying marshlands and wind-whipped inlets are bisected by elevated subway tracks and two-story strip-malls, and the city’s familiar concrete and metal infrastructure maintains an uneasy balance with the encroaching waters.

On a cloudy and raw mid-October Sunday, the clatter of the train pulling away from the over-ground Beach 98th Street station fades and is replaced by the whistle of a gusty north wind. It’s about three blocks south to the boardwalk and another six blocks east to the only spot that, on this day of minimal surf, is showing any signs of life. Tiny sets trickle in next to the jetty, and about a dozen wet-suited long-boarders scramble for anything that moves. On a solid south-east swell this particular line-up is said to offer a thick left bowl, but on this afternoon the waves are knee-high at best. And yet even today, the flat and chilly ocean is the most appealing thing in sight.

In most areas of the country, proximity to the ocean bears a direct relationship to property prices – but apparently not in New York City. Ever since Manhattan’s tycoons abandoned the Rockaways for the North Shore and East End of Long Island in the early part of the 20th century, the area has encompassed a heterogeneous cluster of working and middle class beach communities. Even the Bell Harbor and Breezy Point neighborhoods on the western end of the peninsula, nicknamed “The Irish Riviera,” are hardly Amagansett and East Hampton, and, as warns of the east end, “the surf in the area between 30th Street and the mid-40s can be perfect, but don’t expect your car to be there when you get out of the water.”

Today at 92nd Street, I don’t spot any car thieves, just a group of teenage skateboarders busting kick-flips and tossing around a Nerf football. Rusted orange trashcans dot the beach as the silhouettes of massive tankers motoring in and out of New York Harbor punctuate the horizon. I sit on a graffiti-covered bench, freezing, waiting for something to happen in the water, but, as the tide drops and the waves pretty much disappear, even some of the diehards are calling it a day.

Crossing Ocean Promenade on my way back to the subway, I’m overtaken by a jogging surfer wearing only a dripping wetsuit. He carries his board under one arm and his car keys in the other hand; he’s sporting sunglasses despite the gloom.

Keeping his head low against the wind, he dodges a few cars and hustles around the corner, the soles of his bare feet flashing a startling bright-white against the gray concrete.

Although it was flat today, he probably already knows that the remnants of Hurricane Wilma are creeping up the Eastern Seaboard just as another extra-tropical low-pressure system spins off the North-East coast. Wednesday morning, the surf reports say, is shaping up to be solid overhead with favorable north winds, and, with its dead-south swell window and relatively sheltered wind exposure, Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York City, terminus of the A train, home of the Edgemere House projects and the NYPD’s 100th Precinct, may just be the best spot to go surfing on the entire East Coast.

Brian DeLeeuw is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find his previous work here, here, here, and here. He writes frequently on travel and food for CITY magazine. His writing has also appeared in New York, Tin House, and New York Press. His novel In This Way I Was Saved is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in the spring of next year. He last wrote in these pages on the Tsukiji fish market.

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4 thoughts on “In Which We Go to Far Rockaway

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