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History of the Rockaways, Queens – Past and Present

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In the summer, New Yorkers line up at Pier 11 to catch the New York Beach Ferry. It takes up to 250 passengers from Wall Street to the Jacob Riis Park Beach in the Rockaways. The ferry travels by the Statue of Liberty, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and past numerous scenic landmarks on the way from Manhattan to Riis Landing. It’s a journey that countless New Yorkers and tour guides have made over the years. In honor of this storied community, let’s take a look at Rockaways’ history from the turn of the century to the new millennium and from Jacob Riis to the Ramones.

What exactly are the Rockaways?
They are a group of communities located on the Rockaway Peninsula in the Borough of Queens. They’re next to Long Island, across the bay from Brooklyn and down the street from the John F. Kennedy International Airport. The Rockaways are famous for being New York’s playground. During the summer, day-trippers and adventure seekers flock from the five boroughs to spend time on the beaches with their friends and family. The area’s popularity and place in New York culture goes back more than a century. Things have changed over the years, but the community’s status as a travel destination shows no signs of diminishing.

Five Fast Facts about the Rockaways
The villages of Far Rockaway and Rockaway Beach were established in 1888 and 1897 respectively. They were incorporated into the metropolitan area in 1898 despite various campaigns to secede.
Although New Yorkers love to argue about their different opinions, most people agree that the Rockaways take their name from the Indian community called Rechaweygh, which is translated as a place with bright waters or a lonely place.
From 1902 to 1982, Rockaways’ Playland was one of the biggest attractions in the area. When the amusement park closed due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances, it was truly the end of an era. Now, the site is home to a new crop of apartment buildings.
The Jacob Riis Beach Park was named after a famous Danish writer who lived in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens. He was one of the first photojournalists. Riis was a social commentator who wrote about disparities between the classes and was good friends with Theodore Roosevelt. The park features an eclectic beach bazaar that’s open for tours all year.
One person who left a mark on the villages was New York City’s master planner and resident maniac Robert Moses. In addition to building several important bridges for local travel, Moses expanded Shore Front Parkway. Locals call it the road from nowhere to nowhere. Victorian houses just steps from the beach were sawed in half to accommodate the widened road. Despite ravages from Hurricane Sandy, these relics are still standing.
Today, the area’s main attractions are the miles of beaches, the thriving food scene and the family-friendly parks. For a peninsula that’s just 10 miles long and half a mile wide, the Rockaways have a lot happening throughout the year. There is an unbelievable food truck community offering everything from vegan desserts to tacos made with locally caught fish. You’re more likely to find a Paleo-friendly restaurant than a pizzeria in the Rockaways today. There are surf shops, family owned and operated boutiques, boardwalk events and concerts. It’s a great place to soak in some New York history and culture.

I hear the sound of music…
While you stroll down the beach, you might hear Motown hits or cutting-edge DJs. One band that you may know for its connection with the area is The Ramones, who immortalized the line “We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach” back in 1977. Fans instantly associate those two minutes of solid punk rock with the beaches that the native New Yorkers frequented back in the day. We talked more about New York culture and music history during our overview of the Punk Rock School Bus Tours that the our tour guides hosted back in June.

Our comparison between the punk rockers in the late 1970s and the original gangs of New York was accurate. The hit TV series “Boardwalk Empire” used Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park to double as Atlantic City in the final season. Celebrities ranging from Frank Sinatra to Woody Allen filmed movies in the Rockaways too.

Whether you’re interested in New York history, the food scene, local music or an outdoor adventure, you can discover new sights in this special part of Queens. On behalf of Levys’, the area’s first family owned and operated tour company, we invite you to explore the Rockaways like native New Yorkers.