Surf's Up, Ferry's Down: The Rockaways' Transit Troubles

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In the past decade, developers have detected potential in the Rockaways. Now that it's harder to reach by ferry and more expensive to leave by car, will the peninsula's promise peter out?

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

In the past decade, developers have detected potential in the Rockaways. Now that it's harder to reach by ferry and more expensive to leave by car, will the peninsula's promise peter out?

In recent years, a rapidly growing surfing community and attractive residential beach developments have brought enough renewed life to Queens' Rockaway Peninsula—an area that has struggled for decades with a dwindling population and rising crime—that one might be tempted to dust off the area's illustrious 19th-century nickname, “New York's Playground,” or at least replay that old Ramones album to remember why they wrote a song about it.

Yet, since June, during Rockaway's busiest beachgoing season, the city and the Metropolitan Transit Authority have made two major transit cuts to the area that could undermine Rockaway's fragile commercial and residential growth.

The commuter ferry, which was run by a private company and subsidized by the city, was discontinued on June 30 after only two years in service. On the weekends, tourists can still board at Wall Street for $25 one way and flood the beaches at Rockaway's Jacob Riis Park, but the ferry's initial purpose as a commuting alternative to the subway has been shelved indefinitely.

About a month later, on July 23, the MTA modified the Rockaway Rebate program on the Cross Bay Bridge toll. Since 1998, E-Z Pass-toting residents had been fully reimbursed for their trips on the intraborough bridge to mainland Queens that brought many to the nearest hospital or post office. Now, residents with an E-Z Pass must pay $1.13 for their first two trips over the bridge each day.

The double layer of cuts has many locals concerned: one eliminates an entire mode of transportation, the other takes back, at least in part, a privilege that Rockaway residents fought hard to get over 10 years ago. “While I would hope the cuts wouldn't have an impact on the area's growth,” says John Lepore, president of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce, “I'm afraid they will. They make it difficult to do business and travel here.”

That traveling includes both local and city-dwelling surfers. “Not having a toll to Rockaway was a huge plus,” says Morgan Rae Berk, co-founder of the New York Surf Film Festival and an active member of the Rockaway community. While she has witnessed the surfing boom since the sport was legalized there in 2005, attracting businesses like Rockaway Taco and Veggie Island on Beach 96th Street, she worries about its future: “The cuts will reduce incentives for new businesses—surf or not surf related. Making it harder to get there equals less bodies equals less potential revenues.”

Voting with their feet?

Despite new oceanfront developments like Arverne by the Sea and Ocean One Condominiums, potential new residents could also be tempted to go elsewhere. “If you can't get to work in the city easily, why not live closer to it?” says Berk, who thinks Long Beach, Long Island, which gets LIRR service and is only 10 minutes further from the city than Rockaway, might now be an even more viable alternative than before for those who want a beachside address.

Others are less concerned—and less surprised. For Boarders Surf Shop owner and lifelong Rockaway local Steve Stathis, traveling to and from his native neighborhood has always been a struggle. As a kid in the 60s, he paid twice as much to get home on the subway because the Rockaway peninsula was a “double fare.” In the 80s, a short-lived ferry to downtown Manhattan was a retired fishing boat that belched black smoke over the Atlantic. As for the Cross Bay Bridge, it has been charging a toll to pay off construction costs since it was built in 1939. For him, the latest round of cuts is par for the course.

“Rockaway could be a jewel for the city,” says Stathis. But “they don't care much about the Rockaways. Transportation's always been horrible.”

Yet the MTA has had to contend with an $800 million dollar budget gap this year, and Rockaway is not the only neighborhood affected by the cuts. The toll was part of a series of “difficult service cuts to buses, subways, and rail lines as well,” according to an MTA spokesperson. Gerard Romski, planning executive of the city-subsidized Arverne by the Sea development, which has sold out four of its six oceanside complexes since 2004, understands that pressure. “It will have some impact on the desirability to come to Rockaway,” he says. “But the MTA has to do what it has to do. Could it be better? Yes. Is it terrible? No.”

As for the ferry service, the city discontinued it simply because it wasn't making enough money. According to reports from the New York Daily News, there weren't enough riders paying the $6 fare to maintain the $1.5 million subsidy. And while most agree that Rockaway is a perfect candidate for a commuter ferry, this particular service was always flawed. “It was doomed from the start,” says Paul Garcia of West End Realty in Rockaway Beach. “Wrong schedule, wrong boat.” Beyond departing only twice a day, the small boat operated from a dock in the middle of the sizeable Jacob Riis Park, which for a majority of commuters is most easily accessed by car, not public transportation, adding another leg to a lengthy commute.

A peninsula's potential

Residents speaking about city and MTA officials' taking away both the ferry and rebate program, display a mixture of frustration, bitterness, and pride in the Rockaways. Overwhelmingly, residents say they feel ignored. Many claim that it all started under former Mayor Lindsay's administration in the 1960s, when it razed miles of beach bungalows and built nothing in their place, and the only new developments attracted to the available space were nursing homes, housing projects and psychiatric facilities.

But according to Lawrence Kaplan and Carol P. Kaplan, authors of Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York, it wasn't Lindsay's fault; Rockaway had lost its allure as a beach resort well before then due to the advent of air-conditioning and the proliferation of the automobile, which allowed people to travel further faster. And though Lindsay's administration allegedly attempted to revitalize the area, nothing seemed to stick and the economic downturn of the 1970s cemented the blight for decades to come. Arverne by the Sea, a 308-acre stretch of land off the Beach 67th Street subway stop, remained a no-man's-land that was patrolled by packs of wild dogs, according to numerous reports, until the developers finally arrived six years ago.

Back in the 1830s and 40s, before the cars, the housing projects, and the dogs, Rockaway was a premier seaside resort. Powerful and famous New York figures like the Vanderbilts and Washington Irving traveled there often, and in the 1880s the Long Island Railroad—which stopped service to Rockaway over 50 years ago—brought even more success to the peninsula, drawing hordes of visitors and spurring the construction of a massive amusement park, numerous hotels, and private bungalows. Until Robert Moses arrived to build bridges and highways in the 1930s, Rockaway was one of New York's most glamorous getaways.

Boats, trains and beaches

The glamour might never return, but locals are working to see that sensible transportation alternatives do. Lepore of the Chamber of Commerce is on a committee to explore options for another private ferry service and hopes the city might invest in it again. His immediate goal is to find a boat that's faster and can therefore make more trips. “I know of a boat that can make the trip from Fort Tilden to South Street Seaport in 19 minutes,” he says. “The last ferry made it in 58.”

And the MTA is contributing to the improvement effort in another way: Last fall they began a rehabilitation project costing $117 million at several A and S line subway stations that stretch from Far Rockaway all the way to Beach 105th Street.

For all the barriers that residents and businesses face, the Rockaways do boast the only actual ocean beach in the five boroughs. Thomas Brookins, a local surfer and filmmaker, is encouraged by what he's seen since moving there in 2004. “I must know about 15 couples who in the past three years have met on the beach and decided to move here together permanently,” he says.”There's definitely something building here. It must be something in the water.”

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