One springtime afternoon, my partner Scott and I drive to Beach 20th Street and Plainview Avenue, at the foot of the Rockaway Peninsula in Far Rockaway, Queens. We go exploring the Edgemere section of the Rockaways, running from present-day Beach 32nd Street to Beach 56th Street. The Edgemere Hotel, built in 1895, gave the area its name and could welcome 400 guests at a time. At its height, this land boasted over 60 hotels.
Today these are the emptiest blocks in New York City, razed in the 1960s and left to nature, which has reclaimed them. A few years back, the set for Boardwalk Empire included a replica of the Atlantic City boardwalk built between Beach 32nd and Beach 35th, the area so little visited that hardly anyone knew about it—this long-abandoned beach resort, however briefly, regained its glory by dressing up as another resort, in another time and place altogether.
Where the Edgemere stood, with its stately air and tennis courts and long, wide verandah, a crumbling paved street now intersects a dirt road. The usual assortment of trash sullies the shrubbery to each side, tires and crumpled aluminum foil among full black garbage bags that have been dumped here. Near the ramp leading up to the boardwalk, a bloated brown recliner faces the ocean.
Well-maintained street signs point out that we are at the intersection of Beach 35th Street and Sprayview Avenue, and indicate that the city expected these streets to be used, and possibly still does. The periodic fire hydrant peeking out from the brush will also drive that point home. On Beach 35th Street, closer to the main road, there’s the still-operating Public School 106, the only building remaining in these would-be beach blocks, like the only building left standing after an air raid, or a hurricane.
Farther west along the peninsula, there’s a bizarre apartment complex with tiny windows, no outdoor living space, and a beachfront given over to its dumpsters. Past it are the first buildings of Arverne by the Sea, a massive residential development that went up in the aughts, mostly buildings a few stories high with gray or beige siding and white trim that feel appropriate to their oceanfront location. Here at Beach 69th Street was the 300-room Arverne Hotel, built in 1888 (and burned down in 1935), with its Italian gardens and saltwater swimming pool, another hotel that gave the neighborhood its name. Around the Arverne Hotel, some 40 “cottages” stood, owned by various New York City luminaries—cottages in the same way that the mansions of Newport were.
The Rockaway of yore had more hotels than Cancún does today. And it had one that for a split second laid claim to the title of biggest hotel in the world. The Rockaway Beach Hotel once spanned the entire seven-block stretch of beachfront between what are now Beach 112th and Beach 119th Streets. Built by a crew of 1,500 men to be ready for the 1881 summer season, its endless red roof and series of conical cupolas promised a new cultural landmark. In the summer of 1880, visitors to Rockaway got their first look at its four stories, with a 125,000 square-foot footprint, 650 bedrooms, and a capacity to feed 10,000 people per day in its restaurant.
The Rockaway Beach Hotel was insolvent from the start, and never opened to full capacity. In 1883, suppliers went unpaid and complained to the press, a sure sign of financial trouble. Later that decade, the hotel was torn down and sold for parts. Today, in its place, you’ll find the Sand Bar, a boardwalk concession bar that Hurricane Sandy shuttered in 2012. Next to it you’ll see the terminus of Beach 116th Street, a main shopping thoroughfare perpetually on the verge of revitalization.
Across the street, you’ll see a new apartment complex looking to force the area a notch upmarket. Venture a block east and find a meticulously restored but shuttered bed-and-breakfast sharing a block with some down-and-out SROs straight out of 1970s Times Square. Along the beach, there’s the Promenade Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center, the Park Nursing Home, and the Beacon Nursing Home. It’s an area that fared poorly when the coronavirus pandemic took hold—one of three Rockaway neighborhoods that ranked among the top eleven in the city for COVID death rates by the late spring of 2020.
For a fleeting moment in the 19th century, the purported largest hotel in the world dominated this shoreline. In its failure, the Rockaway Beach Hotel perhaps succumbed to the limits of America’s emerging bigger-is-better ethos, but it did little to slow enthusiasm for the Rockaway Peninsula as a summer destination. The decline would come during the following century.
Entering the twentieth century, Rockaway’s popularity as a seaside resort continued apace. New hotels opened, while next to them small bungalows and seasonal tent colonies went up and began catering to those on a tighter budget. Playland opened alongside other, lesser-known amusements. A series of boardwalks teemed with all manner of entertainments.
Formerly part of the town of Hempstead, Long Island, in 1898 the Rockaways joined the borough of Queens when it in turn joined New York City. This opened up access to the city’s considerable resources, but would also make Rockaway victim to its whims, including those of the singular force that was Robert Moses. The notorious New York City parks commissioner came to power in the 1930s and took a particular interest in Rockaway. He wanted to turn the peninsula into a healthful place for people to live, but also a parklike span of leisurely beachfront for the masses. As Lawrence and Carol P. Kaplan put it in their book Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York, “for approximately thirty years Moses played the single most important role in determining the fate of the peninsula.”
Well before Moses’s arrival, signs of trouble were emerging in Rockaway. Where once the action had spanned both the ocean side and bay side of the peninsula, by the 1920s Jamaica Bay had become too polluted for recreation, rendering the many hotels facing it undesirable, and most of them closed. Throughout Rockaway, the elite travelers who had given Rockaway its sterling reputation were decamping to less crowded beaches farther afield. Still, in the 1930s over 100 hotels dotted the peninsula. But bungalows, rooming houses, and year-round homes were gaining ground. It was gradually becoming clear to local leaders that Rockaway was transitioning to a year-round community. By the end of World War II, only about ten hotels remained.
Instead of drawing visitors from all over the eastern United States, Rockaway now hosted working-and middle-class residents of the tristate area. The peninsula was less prestigious, but busier than ever. In the summer of 1950, an astounding 48 million people visited Rockaway during the summer season. This would be the peak. That summer, the wooden trestle that carried Long Island Rail Road trains over Jamaica Bay from Manhattan to Rockaway burned, cutting off a crucial transport link.
At the same time, American vacation habits in general were beginning to change—air-conditioning and suburban swimming pools made summers at home less brutal, while accessible plane travel, mass car ownership, and the advent of paid time off enabled travel to more distant beach resorts.
The new generation of prosperous travelers had expectations for their accommodations that the old bungalows and rooming houses of Rockaway couldn’t meet. Even before the trestle burned, summer rentals were decreasing. Rockaway’s seasonal population dwindled from its high of 225,000 in 1947 to 106,000 in 1952, just five years later.
Robert Moses was here for it. He recognized the current moment as his opportunity to fulfill his Rockaway vision. Many wanted to see the peninsula transition to a modern beach resort, but time and again they ran up against Moses, whose power was such that he could prevent any projects that would have commercialized Rockaway or reserved its shorefront for moneyed private interests.
While he would make some improvements to the peninsula’s public transportation options, Moses’s true allegiance lay with the automobile. He elevated the existing train tracks to make way for a thoroughfare for cars underneath it. He built the Marine Parkway Bridge connecting Rockaway and Brooklyn. He renovated Jacob Riis Park in Rockaway’s western section, building the parking lot for 9,000 cars there.
In 1939, Moses unveiled Shorefront Parkway, running from Beach 73rd Street to Beach 108th. A road along the beach was considered—by Moses in particular—an upgrade over the concession stands, bathhouses, ramshackle hotels, and houses he tore down in order to build it. He meant it to be the first leg of a parkway that would run all the way out to the Hamptons along the barrier islands of Long Island. Never completed, Shorefront Parkway became known as a road to nowhere.
The train reopened six years later, now as part of the New York City subway system, thanks to Moses. In the summer, the city offered a daily “Rockaway Special” train from Manhattan to Rockaway. But riders found that the trip had become longer and the system less reliable, nothing like the half-hour trip on the old LIRR. In 1959, the city cut Rockaway Special service to weekends only. At some point it disappeared completely.
In the late 1940s, New York City suffered a serious housing shortage, thanks to an influx to the northern United States of African-Americans and Hispanics, plus the return of servicemen from World War II. Moses proposed a short-term solution of winterizing Rockaway’s summer bungalows in order to house veterans. In the longer term, he wanted to tear them all down and build large-scale residential buildings.By 1975, Rockaway would contain 5 percent of Queens’s population, but 57 percent of its low-income housing.
In reality, the city soon shifted its focus in the Rockaways from housing veterans to finding placement for its neediest residents. The Rockaways’ seasonal nature meant a weaker local community to put up resistance. The decline of the summer bungalow crowd meant, too, that empty housing was instantly available, even if it wasn’t winterized and often involved shared toilets and outdoor showers. In 1949 the commissioner of welfare explained that the former criminals, drug addicts, and single-parent families being rehomed in Rockaway were not expected to find work, so its remoteness wouldn’t be a problem. The undertone of racism in these policies was not well concealed. The bungalows became some of the worst welfare housing the city has ever seen, as landlords welcomed the guaranteed rent payments while enjoying little oversight for maintaining the homes to a livable standard.
The first big publicly funded apartment buildings opened in 1950 on previously empty marshland toward the bay side of the Arverne section. After this, slum clearance became part of the development equation. In 1953 the city cleared fourteen acres in the Hammels section—historically one of the few areas Blacks were welcome—and built subsidized housing on it, but made no arrangements for the displaced residents, who simply moved into extant summer bungalows in Arverne. In 1956, Moses presented his plan to raze the 3,613 “dwelling units” between Beach 90th Street and Beach 74th Street and replace them with 28 high-rise apartment buildings.
A number of additional housing projects would go up across Rockaway in the name of improvement. In effect, many simply became slums in different form, with uninspired high-rise architecture that set them apart from the Rockaway community at large. By 1975, Rockaway would contain 5 percent of Queens’s population, but 57 percent of its low-income housing. Then came homes for the mentally disabled and low-rent nursing homes, following the same template. Only a few well-organized and affluent neighborhoods, mostly on the western end, managed to keep change out.
In the 1960s, more than 4,000 houses and bungalows were razed in Arverne and Edgemere. But thanks to a combination of complicated local politics, changing attitudes toward slum clearance and public housing, the federal government’s moratorium on federal housing subsidies in the early seventies, and a national recession that hit New York City particularly hard, redevelopment didn’t materialize for more than thirty years. In the first years of the new millennium, homes finally went up in the Arverne section—the first residents moved into Arverne by the Sea in 2004. The Edgemere section remains empty but for Public School 106.
Today, over the entire span of Rockaway, not a single one of the great old hotels remains.
Excerpted from The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach by Sarah Stodola. Copyright © 2022. Adapted with permission from the publisher. Available from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, Inc.