My first introduction to the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance was as a teacher at Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability in Queens. I partnered with the organization as part of a summer program designed to focus on remedial writing skills and environmental sustainability, which was no easy task in an urban high school.
Over the course of two weeks, the Waterfront Alliance ran programs focused on urban planning, the importance of fair access to transportation, the option of healthy, locally grown food and embracing the natural community.
We made mayonnaise and compared the artificial ingredients in store bought brands to our own. We went kayaking, learned about the cleansing value of mussels on bay health and worked with lifeguards to recognize dangerous rip currents. We planted herbs in recycled plastic containers and hung them from the metal grated window coverings.
We cast nets from the bay, each student knee deep in water, and pulled them up covered with crabs, minnows and sea plants. The staff at the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance taught about each of the creatures in the net. We picked debris from the stones and sand on the shore, while the Waterfront Alliance staff explained the effects of such waste on beach health.
Founded in 2005, the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance works to protect the longest public waterfront in all of New York City. Through educational and community programs, the alliance has worked to close the disconnect between Queens residents and this valuable resource. Through environmental advocacy and work with government agencies, the group has helped to revitalize a once thriving waterfront community.
Rockaway’s vast history includes connections to several popular historical figures. The original “Reckouwacky” was inhabited by the Canarsie Indians as part of the Mohawk Nation. Early records show that Henry Hudson and his shipmates were the first settlers to dock at Rockaway, where he studied maps and routed his passage to China, in 1609.
In 1640, the land transferred to the Dutch and, in 1690, Richard Cornell and his family established a homestead on the peninsula. Descendants of Richard Cornell include John and William Lawrence, who should sound familiar to Bayside residents as they were given the plot of land now known as the Lawrence Family Cemetery.
By the late 1800s, Rockaway had become a bustling beach community, equipped with hotels, amusement parks, boardwalks and dance pavilions. The Rockaway Beach Hotel, dubbed the ‘biggest hotel in the world,’ ran from 116th street to 112th street and provided accommodations for over 7,000 people. It cost $1.5 million to build and never opened. It was later torn down in 1884.
The question remains, what happened to Rockaway? What caused the eventual transition from a bustling seaside vacation spot to an area greatly underutilized? According to the authors of "Between the Ocean and the City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York," the answer lies in new found wealth after World War II.
People were looking for space instead of crowded bungalows and boarding houses. The tremendous funding needed to replace existing housing left buildings to fall into disrepair as tourists vacationed elsewhere. Landlords rented their houses to families on welfare and eventually the city picked up on the trend.
Crowded tenement houses eventually became high rise housing projects, many of which were built facing inland obscuring ocean views. City budgets were reduced and the Welfare Department placed families in summer houses without regard to space and health. Tuberculosis and fires spread throughout the houses and beaches were left untended.
Reclaiming the natural beauty and connection to beachside life has been the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance’s goal since 2005. Through educational outreach programs and beachside events, they’ve managed to reach a wide audience along the 11-mile Rockaway Penninsula. In 2013, the historic Rockaway Firehouse will be transformed into the Rockaway Institute for Sustainable Environment, a public arts center focused on a sustainable future. Projected programs include community planning, environmental based programs and green collar job training.
Throughout the year, the alliance offers opportunities for Queens residents to explore Rockaway through bike, water and walking tours. Upcoming summer programs include beach clean-up days, bike tours led by environmentalists and paddling lessons, all of which are free or low cost for participants.
The concept behind sustainability is to leave the environment in the same or better condition than it was initially. Through community gardening, beach clean-ups and advocacy for not only the environment, but for the residents of a vibrant community, the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance continues to work towards a sustainable future each day.
For more information about the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, visit the group's site.