If You’re Headed to the Rockaways, Part of the Beach Just Died

Local residents stage a ‘funeral’ for a stretch of eroded beach that, they say, could have survived if the city had been paying attention


Summer in the Rockaways is prime time for the city’s beachside community, which has been clawing itself back to life since it was all but wiped out by Superstorm Sandy. But just as the peninsula was getting ready to kick into high gear and welcome thousands of beachgoers for the season, the city suddenly announced this week that an eleven-block stretch of the beach, from Beach 91st Street to Beach 102nd Street, would be closed indefinitely because of erosion.

And so as the city attempted to go on with its usual beach-opening ceremony this morning on the boardwalk at Beach 108th Street, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver and a host of other speakers were met with a “funeral procession,” including a rendition of “Amazing Grace” courtesy of a bagpipe player, and taunted by a crowd who say the beach closing could have been avoided if only the city had installed rock jetties that they say are long overdue.

“From an outsider’s perspective, there’s an attitude of, ‘Who cares, it’s only ten blocks?’ ” said Mike O’Leary, who helped lead the funeral. O’Leary is the manager at Connolly’s, a bar that is steps from the boardwalk at Beach 95th Street.

“But this bar is only open from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend,” he continued. “This is what I do for a living — this is how I live.”

While the closure affects just a half-mile stretch of beach out of a total of five miles, the erosion almost stretches up to the dunes that protect the boardwalk, and the resulting beach closure threatens the revenue of nearby businesses that rent the beachside concession stands, and Bungalow Bar on Beach 92nd Street.

A New York Times article late Thursday reported that the Parks Department didn’t replenish the depleted beach this year with fresh sand after a November study found that it was “wider than at almost any time in the last 100 years.” But Rockaway residents who showed up to the opening ceremony questioned why other beaches like Long Beach, where a jetty reconstruction project was completed this year, were given the rock jetties they needed to prevent deep erosion, but the Rockaways has been denied them.

“I grew up on 90th Street, I’m almost fifty, they’ve been dredging my whole life,” said Rich, a local resident celebrating Connolly’s season opening. “The beaches are always getting taken out and replenished every six years. They know Mother Nature’s game plan.”

Residents say they’ve been asking local and federal officials for jetties in the area since before Hurricane Sandy, but since then the Army Corps of Engineers has only committed to a plan that would start installing jetties after the 2019 beach season. After the opening ceremony, Parks Commissioner Silver told reporters that the beach needs jetties, a reinforced dune, and more sand, but deferred to the Army Corps timeline. As for what happened this year, Silver blamed “four nor’easters in March and April that did severe damage to the beach, which we realized was much worse this year than last year.”

The local level of desperation regarding the jetties, according to O’Leary, is at the point where “I could get half the town together to put old pieces of torn-up sidewalk down in the ocean with our hands at this point.”

Added Sarah Kenny of Rockaway Women for Progress, “It’s been study after study after study, we’re tired of studies. Any person with half a brain can tell you a beach with a jetty does better than a beach without one.”

Kenny also worried that since the city’s ferry drops people off at Beach 108th Street, the crowding between Beach 103rd and Beach 108th streets might turn people off from coming back to the area for a return trip. “People who are coming down here will hopefully love the sunshine and the sand, but it will be such a concentration of people that I’m afraid they’ll leave and never come back because they’ll think there’s no beaches and no bathrooms or facilities,” she said.

Rockaway locals also demanded to know what the city would do to help the local businesses between Beach 91st and Beach 102nd streets that suddenly had the rug pulled out from under them, and questioned the timing of the beach closure announcement, which only came this past Monday.

“Three weeks ago I got an email that the opening would be on Beach 108th instead of Beach 95th, where they usually have it,” said Kenny. “I thought maybe it had something to do with the ferry, but then we heard about the closure, and obviously they can’t have a beach opening where the beaches were closed. So, what, did they know for three weeks that this would happen?”

O’Leary stressed that Connolly’s, which has been in Rockaway since the early Sixties, would find a way to make it through this and any future dry summers. But he said there are “hundreds, if not thousands” of people who work at small businesses in the area who will find themselves struggling without the presence of beachgoers on the closed stretch.

“We have fifteen weeks, maybe eighteen weeks to make our money,” said William Servidio, a local business owner in the area. “We get a rainy weekend in there, that hurts us a little bit, that’s a scrape. But to shut our beaches down is a knife in the back, into the lungs where you can’t breathe.”