August 25, 2003
The Sand. The Surf. The Projects?
By COREY KILGANNON
Thursday afternoon was a scorcher, but only a small group took advantage of the beach near the Ocean Village housing complex in Arverne, Queens.
The windows on one side of Desiree Bentsen's third-floor apartment overlook the hot concrete courtyard of the Ocean Village public housing complex in the Rockaways. Coarse arguments, loud rap music and sometimes the sound of gunfire waft in.
But the windows on the other side of her apartment overlook a very different scene — the Atlantic Ocean and a pristine stretch of beach — and let in the roar of the waves, the squawks of sea gulls and the smell of salt air.
On Thursday afternoon, it was scorching outside. Mrs. Bentsen has no air-conditioning in her apartment, but the kitchen window let in a continuous cool sea breeze.
Mrs. Bentsen, 47, has lived in this spacious three-bedroom apartment for seven years. The monthly rent is $900, $500 of which is covered by federal Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers. She has struggled to raise her four children.
"This is the only thing keeping us here," she said, pointing out her kitchen window to the beach. "There's a lot here I never wanted my kids to grow up with, but I look out at that beach and I say, `No, we can't leave.' Once you go down by that water, it's another world. All the arguments and bad feelings people here have, it's all gone."
Ocean Village, in Queens, is not the only public housing complex in New York with water views.
There are housing projects in the Rockaways and Coney Island within sight of the ocean, but none are as close as Ocean Village.
From the front, the Ocean Village complex, aging beige buildings from Beach 56th Street to Beach 59th Street in the Arverne section of the Rockaways, looks like most blighted urban projects.
The residents are mostly poor, and outside the entrance, young men gather around loud radios and hold 40-ounce bottles and smoke marijuana.
But out back, the complex abuts the boardwalk and hot concrete gives way to clean, white sand. The ocean, clean and kelpy, bears no resemblance to the murkier water at popular city beaches like Coney Island and Orchard Beach. A minute's walk across the sand from the complex's rear gates, the waves roll in gently and there are three lifeguard stands.
But most Ocean Village residents do not use the beach or celebrate its proximity. Mrs. Bentsen recalled the way her uncle from Lefrak City would rave about her $400-per-month oceanfront deal.
"He used to come over and have a fit about the view," she said. "He'd say, `Some people just don't realize what they got. Do you realize people pay thousands of dollars to be on the beach?' I just chuckle at him."
Most residents, she said, do not take advantage of the beach or even the views.
Jonathan L. Gaska, district manager for the local Community Board 14, said that a lot of the working poor in the Rockaways do not know how to swim.
"It's a little bizarre for an oceanfront community," he said, "but it happens to be the case. They don't have a place to learn, and you don't learn to swim in the ocean. The waves can get rough.
"Hopefully, that will change," he continued, "because they're building thousands of units of affordable housing in the next five years and we've insisted on a rec center so they can learn."
For now, rather than learning how to swim, the children in Ocean Village — O.V. to its residents — learn how to deal with trouble. Just across the elevated A train tracks are Ocean Bay Houses, also known as the Edgemere Houses, long considered one of the city's most crime-ridden projects.
"People here got mad troubles in their life," said Steven Rocker, 22, who moved to Ocean Village when he was 12. "You don't want to sit on no beach to relax." Residents smoke something or drink something for that, he said. "You go through your own personal hell. This place is like something out of Dante."
Mr. Rocker never traveled to Manhattan until after high school, but now he is an undergraduate at Columbia University on full scholarship. On Thursday, he stood on a sunbaked stoop in O.V. keeping a sharp eye on his younger siblings and nephews. He wore a do-rag under his baseball hat, some jewelry, and expensive sneakers.
Mr. Rocker grew up the third of eight children in a first-floor apartment with ocean-facing windows. The sea breeze, not an air-conditioner, kept them cool. He pointed toward the complex's centerpiece: twin basketball courts.
"You see hundreds of people watching a basketball game there and not one person down on the beach," he said. "It's almost like that ocean doesn't exist. When my friends from Manhattan want to go to the beach, I say, `Come to the one at my house. No one's ever on it.' They're shocked to see a housing complex on a beach."
He continued: "When I moved here, I thought I'd be on the beach the whole time. People think that just because we have it, we're going to use it, but a lot of black people don't swim."
He asked a teenage girl walking by in a full-length sweatshirt to explain to a stranger why the kids do not use the beach.
"It's dirty," she said without stopping. One of Mr. Rocker's younger brothers mumbled: "We go to the beach. We swim, we get tired. We stop and we come home."
Another brother, Jonathan, 21, said that the beach had a reputation for being dirty, even though that is no longer true.
Proving his point, Nikeema Perry, 12, said, "The beach is dirty," and her friend Goldie Campbell, 13, added: "Yeah, and the seaweed gets on your feet."
Ocean Village is flanked to the east and west by empty lots waiting for redevelopment. The elevated A train is to the north and a rickety boardwalk and endless ocean horizon are to the south.
Right now, schools of bluefish feed 50 yards offshore behind the complex, and large striped bass are running. But there are few fishermen here.
The sand and water seem to be as clean as they are at Long Beach and Jones Beach to the east. But even on hot summer days only a few dozen people are here. Sometimes the lifeguards outnumber beachgoers. The lifeguards know the O.V. residents and keep many of them from going in past their waist.
One recent evening, Von Miles, 31, and her sisters Kiki and Sunshine barbecued on the beach.
"Everyone comes to visit us here says the same thing: `I can't believe you're right on the beach. If I lived here I'd be out there every day,' " said Von Miles. "And our first summer here, we did come here most every day. But then it gets to be like, it's just there."
Ms. Miles lives with her daughters, Fantasia Miles and Taniqua Watson. Kiki Miles, 26, has a balcony with a view of the ocean.
Both Kiki and Von said that Ocean Village was inconvenient and dull, but a far cry better than the family shelters they lived in before this.
Many young people speak of feeling trapped here. They lack the money to go elsewhere and the patience for the long train and bus rides.
"We've always had the beach, so it's no big deal," said Eddie Banks, 17, who lives in an ocean-view apartment from which he can flick a cigarette butt onto the boardwalk. "What we really need is stores and movie theaters: somewhere to go. We're stuck here with nothing to do."
In Mrs. Bentsen's kitchen, her oldest son, Bruce Smith, 26, made himself some chocolate milk and said he was saving money as a security guard to move "anywhere else but here."
"I wouldn't care if there was a beachfront casino down there," he said. "I wouldn't go."
But some residents still do.
On Thursday, Sean Debouse, 12, and Dwayne Banks, 13, met outside the projects and ambled down to the water. Both dropped their pants on the beach and pulled on their bathing suits and made their way through the waves. They looked back toward O.V., which rises high out of the sand.
"Whoa, it's cold," said Sean.
"Feels great," said Dwayne.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
So sad that there's so much potential that hasn't been exploited yet.
I think Rockaway is the the best stretch of beach in NYC. The water is very clean because of the strong currents. It can also be dangerous, especially when there are tropical storms out in the Atlantic. Real waves here.
As stated in the article, the views are magnificent. View east from Riis Park.
People pay big money for the privilege. Oceanfront property in Neponsit.
Still, the area should be developed, where it needs to be, kinda like Miami, with nice new condos and some waterfront restaurants, clubs, etc. *Would be nice to have NYC be a real beach destination again. *Rockaway should be for residential and CI should be amusement, etc.
The area is being developed, but they are opting for two and three family row houses. *It is a neighborhood being designed for lower income families.
The "free" market should decide on how to develop such prime property, though. *Beachfront in NYC. *What a waste.
In case you got the wrong impression from my 2nd photo, I am not advocating that sort of development at Arverne. I was just illustrating the attractiveness of Rockaway Beach.
I favor Arverne be developed as an affordable community. Unfettered free markets are what we had 100 years ago.
And like the residents quoted in the article said, more than just quality housing is needed. *Rockaway should become a new BID, if it isn't one already. *Commercial growth, particularly stores, should be emphasized initially to give the area a sense of staying power.
Key to the area's revival is ferry service providing a faster alternative to the subway ride.
It's a long ferry ride too.
It can't be much longer than an hour. The Rockaway communities are fighting for it.
Better access to Long Island should be emphasized as well, especially with ferries.
Sand, Surf, and Permission to Brave It
By COREY KILGANNON
April 4, 2005
ost surfers try to avoid sharks, jellyfish and wipeouts, but Rockaway surfers have long had to worry about another hazard - summonses.
Because state regulations have heavily restricted surfing at Rockaway Beach, wave riders trying to perfect their cutback, bottom-turn and nose-riding have also had to learn the fine art of stealth surfing and dodging periodic ticket blitzes.
Crackdowns have left them feeling like outlaws, but now this exiled tribe has found its promised land: a two-jetty stretch of Rockaway Beach near Beach 90th Street in Queens.
City officials say it is New York's first beach set aside for surfing only, year-round. To many locals, the decision represents the culmination of a decades-long struggle for legitimacy.
"It's long overdue," said Jim Gallagher, 30, a longtime surfer who moved from Brooklyn last year into a Rockaway bungalow to be closer to the surf.
Mr. Gallagher, a lighting technician, was one of two dozen surfers in the ocean off Beach 90th Street one morning last week, riding glassy waves that often towered well over their heads.
With the water at roughly 40 degrees, Mr. Gallagher wore a wetsuit five millimeters thick with boots, gloves and a hood.
He said that surfers had always flocked to the site, looking over their shoulders for a police or Parks Department vehicle. Riders who were issued summonses were told that it was because no lifeguard was on duty, but they say the rule was sporadically enforced.
"There have been times when they were issuing tickets for no reason," he said. "It was just stupid. And in the summertime, the swimmers get in the way and create a real hazard to the surfers and to themselves. So it'll be good to get a beach of our own."
Assemblywoman Audrey I. Pheffer, whose district covers the site, said city officials were able to crack down on surfers in the past by citing a longstanding state regulation prohibiting bathing without lifeguards present.
She said that she recently helped get the regulation amended to exempt surfers, and that she, along with the local city councilman, Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., had asked the city's Parks Department to put an official surfing beach at the spot, which has long been popular.
"It's been a real saga for Rockaway surfers," she said. "They've never gotten the recognition they deserve, and neither has this great New York City surfing beach; the surfers know it, but most people don't. Having an official beach finally gives recognition to something that's been going on for decades."
The parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, said: "It's a big deal. There have been surfers there informally and unofficially for years. Now there is no need for them to challenge authority."
Once a treasure known mostly to locals, Rockaway Beach has become renowned as a good surf break, a spot that attracts surfers from all over the city and beyond. It is perhaps the only surf break in the world that can be reached by subway, and it is common to see riders carrying boards on the A train.
Some local surfers complained last week that publicity for the new surfing beach would attract a large influx of city-its (rhymes with idiots), a local term for neophyte surfers from Manhattan.
Tom Sena, who owns the Rockaway Beach Surf Shop, on Beach 116th Street, said officially designating the beach as surfing only would change little at Beach 90th Street.
"It's always been a surfing beach, except for certain times the police decided to write tickets," he said. Rockaway surfers have always braved obstacles, he added, from muggers and drug addicts to the wild dogs that roam the large, undeveloped parts of the beach.
Mr. Addabbo said that the police usually cracked down after swimmers had drowned. For instance, there was a lengthy ticketing campaign after three girls got caught in a rip current off Rockaway Beach in July 2001.
Shawn Arora, 25, who moved to Brooklyn from Southern California last year, marveled at the diverse set of surfers he has seen riding waves in Queens. Mr. Arora stripped off his wetsuit last week on the boardwalk near Beach 90th Street. Rockaway, he said, also holds its own against well known breaks he has surfed at Malibu and Sunset beaches.
"It's funny," he said. "Manhattan Beach in California breaks a lot like here. Rockaway is a really quick wave. I tell people, 'If you can surf here, you can surf anywhere.' And all you need is a MetroCard." Alexander Zaklynsky, 27, a surfer with a long beard who was wearing an Army jacket, walked over carrying a video camera. He is making a surfing documentary that will include the Rockaways.
"It's good idea," he said of a surfing-only beach. "In the summer, there are hordes of kids swimming and it's dangerous. I think it will make it safer."
Mr. Zaklynsky said he was born in Iceland and still returns to surf there. "It can be just as cold here," he said. "Except there, you have to watch out for killer whales and icebergs."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company