Tracing the history of one of New York City’s waterfront communities
Some neighborhood names appear to be jokes. Some have stuck around for centuries, despite changing connotations. Some shift with the winds of gentrification. Welcome to Blurred Lines, in which writer Keith Williams studies New York City’s changing neighborhood boundaries.
“The atmosphere down here in the hottest weather is fresh, cool and delightful, and visitors experience new inspiration and increased vigor by repeated plunges into the ocean.”—unknown quote from an 1890 Brooklyn Daily Eagle retrospective of 1850s Far Rockaway
Far Rockaway, despite what its name might suggest, is not at the farthest point from the mainland on the Rockaway peninsula. Its name originally distinguished it from the former village of Near Rockaway (now East Rockaway) in its proximity to the town of Hempstead. Until the 1800s, the seven miles of peninsula to the west of Far Rockaway appeared to be of little value; it was marshy, and crossed by several creeks connecting Jamaica Bay with the ocean.
The derivation of “Rockaway” is still uncertain, but the most likely candidate is “Reckouwacky”, meaning “place of our own people” or “neck of the land” in the Lenape language. In 1639 or 1640, a tribe related to the Mohegans of Connecticut sold most of Long Island, including the Rockaway peninsula, to the Dutch. They continued to live in the Rockaways for several decades, as few white men desired to settle at a location so far from the city with little arable land.
The tribe sold the area of Far Rockaway a second time in 1685 to Captain John Palmer, an Englishman. The town of Hempstead also laid claim to the land, however, and sued Palmer. This was too much for the Captain to bear, so in 1687 he sold his holdings to Richard Cornell, a successful ironworker in Flushing who had struck it rich by securing the right to sell alcohol to the indigenous peoples. (Richard’s descendant Ezra would found a certain university in Ithaca in 1865.)
Early development & the Marine Pavilion
The Cornells held fast in Rockaway until the early 19th century, when the parceling of lots took over. Several prominent New Yorkers calling themselves the Rockaway Association sought to develop Far Rockaway into a resort. In 1833, on the location of the former Cornell home, the group broke ground on a large hotel: the Marine Pavilion.
At a cost of $43,000, the Pavilion was the most expensive hotel ever constructed at the time. It attracted luminaries “from the East, West and South,” ranging from writers (Irving, Longfellow) to business magnates (Vanderbilt). But 1864, it suffered a fate that befell many Rockaway buildings of the era: it burned to the ground.
No image of the hotel is known to exist, but we do have this description from an 1890 retrospective in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
It is in all respects a convenient and magnificent edifice, standing on the margin of the Atlantic, and it has been kept in a style not exceeded by any hotel in the United States. The main building is 230 feet front with wings, 75 and 45 feet in length on each side. The peristyles are Ionic, the piazza being 235 feet long by 20 feet wide. The sleeping apartments number 160. The drawing room is 50 feet long and the dining room 80 feet.
The loss of its grandest structure marked the end of an era for Far Rockaway. It would soon suffer another blow from the new communities to its west.
When the Pavilion burned down in 1863, getting to the beaches of the Rockaway peninsula took some persistence. One typically took the LIRR to Jamaica, then rented a private stagecoach to traverse the swampland en route to Far Rockaway. (The Times description of the Pavilion fire describes how many vacationers, upon hearing the news at Jamaica, elected simply to continue their railroad journey eastward to other beaches.)
Just two years after that tragedy, in 1865, the Brooklyn & Rockaway Beach Railroad began passenger service. Rather than go all the way out to Jamaica and slog it over rutty roads, sun-seekers could take the train to Canarsie, where a ferry would whisk them across Jamaica Bay to Rockaway Park, halfway down the peninsula, bypassing Far Rockaway entirely. The South Side Railroad linked Valley Stream directly to Rockaway Beach in 1869. Spurred by these new connections, and several others that followed, development boomed to the west of Far Rockaway.
That’s not to say Far Rockaway stagnated; the area had grown enough by 1888 to declare itself a village. That distinction would last just ten years, when it was absorbed into the new Borough of Queens in the consolidated New York City.
Today, there are two ways to get to Far Rockaway by train: by subway or Long Island Rail Road. Until 1950, when a fire destroyed multiple wooden trestles near Broad Channel, the two lines were unified in a single loop, operated by the LIRR. The LIRR soon sold the right-of-way to New York City Transit, which redeveloped the route as an extension of the A train, opening in 1956.
Enough Irish had moved to Far Rockaway by the 1850s that it became known as “the Irish Saratoga”. A century later, after World War II, Far Rockaway was still 90 percent white. Like many areas along New York City’s southern periphery, however, it would soon become subject to a demographic shift.
Because the Rockaway Peninsula had a lot of unused space compared with the rest of Queens, about half of the borough’s public housing was built there. That housing was originally intended for veterans returning from the war; requirements were soon loosened, however, and the projects in the Rockaways became a haven for those displaced by Robert Moses’s slum clearance program.
At the same time, changing tastes caused the Rockaways to lose luster as a resort, as many would-be visitors, enriched by the post-war economic boom, shunned the peninsula’s simple bungalows in favor of more comfortable digs. A handful of bungalows on the western end of Far Rockaway are now protected by national and state historic districts.
The arrival of the subway in 1956, on the other hand, convinced many people that Far Rockaway was feasible as a year-round home. Many white families moved in as a result, and today Far Rockaway is much more diverse than other neighborhoods that experienced so-called “white flight”: about a third each white, black, and other minorities (mainly Latino).
What Far Rockaway is like now
I visited Far Rockaway on a recent steamy afternoon. My primary goal was to walk the length of the border between Far Rockaway and Nassau; I wanted to see if it made a noticeable demarcation between Far Rockaway and the “Five Towns” to its east. As the crow flies, the boundary is just under two miles, but of course it wouldn’t be quite that easy.
I took the A train to Far Rockaway–Mott Avenue, the farther out of the line’s two full-time termini. (Woe unto the airport-abound traveler who mistakenly takes the Howard Beach branch.) At what should be the heart of the former village of Far Rockaway is a decrepit strip mall, its largest tenant long since departed.
I had a few options as to how to reach the neighborhood’s southeastern corner. I decided to go through the area once known as Cedar Hill and Cedar Lawn for two reasons: first, it maintains some of its original curvy roads; second, it has a street named Elvira. Whether the name is related to a certain Mistress of the Dark is unclear, but it certainly predates the character.
The neighborhood has a suburban feel: the homes, mostly two stories but with a few larger edifices mixed in, have garages and lawns. Like much of the area along the Nassau border here, it is a largely Jewish neighborhood. At one point, when I had paused to take a picture of an unusual fire call box, a young man stopped his car to ask if I was trying to catch a Pokemon. (I was not, at the time.)
I wandered through the neighborhood down to Seagirt Boulevard, which takes its name from a 19th-century tune written in honor of the area. (“Girt” is the past participle of “gird”, to encircle.) The road more or less marks the original extent of the ocean water; now the only thing that flows here is traffic. You also get your first glimpse of the hulking 916-unit Sand Castle, once known as the Roy Reuther Houses. It was built for Union electricians in the 1950s and, after several years at market rate, it returned to the aegis of the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
Beach 9th Street has a nice waterfront, and plenty of people were taking advantage of the cool air and water on this blistering day. The Long Beach Peninsula provides protection from high water. Speaking of Pokemon, this was prime hunting territory – a few groups of adults had organized, busy finding the extremely rare Dratini that had come ashore.
Finally down to Beach 3rd Street and one final look at the water from the Queens side. At the street’s end, there was a private beach and some kids playing basketball in the cul-de-sac. As I captured a photo of one particularly appealing house, an elderly resident on the porch behind me yelled, demanding to know why I was taking pictures. Rather than give an explanation of the concept of public property, I explained I liked the cat standing in front of the stoop, and went on my way.
The border is hard to find. Like many of New York city’s boundaries, it was devised arbitrarily when the area was little more than farmland. This, too, uses a temporary marker to mark the divide. The NYC administrative code describes the boundary, in part, as:
…easterly along the boundary of such village [Far Rockaway] to a point described in the articles of incorporation of such village as a certain large pepperidge tree, whose coordinates, based on the Tenth Avenue system which is used in the borough of Queens, are south 62552.329 and east 85574.915; …
Said large pepperidge tree no longer exists, sad to say.
The border, first set when Far Rockaway broke away from Hempstead, rarely runs along actual streets. In the south, it splits the difference between Beach 2nd and 3rd Streets. As luck would have it, just as I crossed this invisible line for the first time on Seagirt Avenue, I came across a resident, who correctly identified the divide. Of the dozen or so people to whom I’d pose that same question on my walk, she was the only one to answer with any certainty.
It’s difficult to tell where exactly the border lies, but you can look for a few indicators. Among the easiest to recognize: buildings at a weird angle to the street, as the homes might be built parallel to the boundary. In the photo above, the house at left is on Empire Avenue, in Far Rockaway; the house at right is on Broadway, in Lawrence.
Then again, sometimes the border runs right through one’s property. A 2005 review by the Times suggested that the lower property taxes of New York City would be more or less offset by the higher income taxes levied on NYC residents.
For most people passing between Queens and Nassau on these smaller roads, I imagine the transition is an everyday occurrence, and not as important an occasion as, say, someone road-tripping to the city for the first time via a major highway. I did not see the large “Welcome to Queens” sign Kevin Walsh of Forgotten NY captured in 2003—Google Street View suggest it no longer exists—but I did find a few smaller markers.
At the northern end of Far Rockaway sits the Redfern Houses, a collection of 604 NYCHA apartments wedged underneath the Nassau border. Redfern was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy; its residents had to wait two weeks for electricity to return, at which point a mold infestation had taken root.
To Redfern’s west is a strip mall, capped at its northern end right at the Nassau border. (I did not go inside to see how the tenants use this angled space.) Then it was back to the Mott Avenue station, named for the man who gave up seven acres of land for the original railroad terminal. Along the way, I was reminded how easy it is to forget that Far Rockaway is part of New York City.