New York Times Article - June 26, 1999


The 11-mile-long Rockaway Peninsula, flanked by Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, has a diversity of cultures and communities so great that only the beach itself provides a unifying theme.
 

The Rockaways comprise several neighborhoods stretching from Far Rockaway in the east, bordering Nassau County, to Breezy Point in the west. Its well-maintained beach and a six-mile, uninterrupted boardwalk where residents stroll, jog and bike are among the Rockaways' outstanding attributes. Residents also enjoy the playing fields and beaches of Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden, a former Army base, both in the Gateway National Recreation Area.

In the 1960's, New York City razed thousands of bungalows in the Edgemere and Arverne sections of the peninsula for housing developments      one proposal called for 10,000 condominium apartments      that never advanced beyond the proposal state. In recent months, however, new plans have been put forward for these still-barren areas, calling for both housing and a billion-dollar entertainment complex.

Rockaway residents have widely disparate ethnic roots and incomes. While 11 percent of the households have incomes of more than $100,000, 30 percent earn less than $20,000 and receive public aid. The community is nearly equally divided between whites and blacks; nearly a fifth of the population is Hispanic and there is a handful of Asians.

Residents of the Belle Harbor and Neponsit neighborhoods tend to be of Italian and Irish descent or Jewish, while residents of Breezy Point, a gated co-op community of detached houses, are mostly of Irish descent, with some of Italian descent, according to Curtis L. Archer, executive director of the nonprofit Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation.

The well-tended properties in Belle Harbor and Neponsit to the west are the costliest. Between 126th and 148th Streets, houses fetch from $350,000 for a modest cottage to $1.8 million for a large beachfront house on an oversized lot, said Barbara J. Morris, a broker who owns West End Realty.

On a recent day there were 24 houses for sale in the two neighborhoods, and brokers said demand handily outstripped supply. "This is like a hidden treasure, so whenever it gets out that there's a house for sale 12 brokers are on the phone calling its owner," said Annette Farina, a broker who owns Belle Harbor Realty.

That tight market has benefited Rockaway Park and Rockaway Beach as home buyers venture east of the choicest areas. A more urban feel takes hold in those neighborhoods amid smaller home lots, the buzz of traffic and a more diverse population. Housing prices range from $150,000 to $300,000, the higher end for units closer to Belle Harbor, brokers said.

In the last year, housing prices have risen 9.8 percent in the Rockaways, according to the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island.

Far Rockaway's housing stock is eclectic, including early 1900's mansions, colonials, Tudors and ranches. Prices go from $100,000 for a small two-bedroom house to the low $500,000's for larger homes in the community, which is home to thousands of Orthodox Jews, said Melvin Steinmetz, a local broker.

Throughout the peninsula, new two-family homes selling in the low- to mid-$200,000's are being built. "This is the last stronghold of affordable vacant land in Queens," said Andrew Langer, who owns Century 21 Langer in Far Rockaway. Mr. Langer said he was building 27 two-family houses in four different Far Rockaway locations that will sell for $215,000 to $250,000.

Another developer, Jonathan Miller, is building 90 homes in the Beach 98th Street area on land once occupied by the Playland amusement park. His two-and three-family semi-attached homes will begin at $240,000, he said. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development plans to develop 40 two-family homes in the Arverne section. Along with the New York Partnership, it is to develop 350 more two-family units in Edgemere. The developments may increase homeownership in the Rockaways.

With the exception of Neponsit, which prohibits rentals, nearly 60 percent of the peninsula's 40,700 housing units shelter renters; 5,000 of those units are in public housing, the largest of which is the 1,395-unit Edgemere Houses. An additional 9 percent is vacant and 31 percent is
owner-occupied.

"There hasn't been any new construction in that area for 20 years in any quantity," said Vincent L. Riso, president of the Briarwood Organization, which is building the Arverne project. "But the time is ripe and our studies have shown that we have a purchasers for all of our product."

The most ambitious plans for the Arverne area are for a $1.2 billion sports and entertainment complex called Destination Technodome. Behind the project, which is supported by Claire Shulman, the Queens Borough President, is Canada's Reichmann family. But financing hurdles leave its fate unclear.

"People are excited about it but also kind of skeptical," said Jonathan Gaska, district manager of Community Board 12. "They've seen project plans come and go."

The Rockaways began to be settled in the early 1900's as a summer refuge for New Yorkers escaping Manhattan. They built cottages and lodged in seasonal hotels. Construction of permanent residences and the conversion of summer retreats into year-round residences occurred in the 30's. By the end of World War II the peninsula began to fall out of favor as a summer resort. The subway reached the Rockaways in 1956 and in the 60's, the bungalows between Beach 32d and Beach 73d Streets were reazed, creating contiguous urban renewal areas totaling 442 acres.

Now, most Rockaway neighborhoods boast their own civic and community groups. Jay Velazquez, owner of a scuba shop named Almost Paradise, organizes planting and cleanup activities from Beach Ninth to Beach 32d Streets with the Department of Parks and Recreation. He coordinates scuba volunteers to remove submerged shoreline refuse.

Mr. Velazquez also helps to organize a twice-yearly amusement fair at a city lot he leases on Seagirt Boulevard. There are also neighborhood volunteer security patrols in Belle Harbor and Neponsit.

The Rockaways' education record is mixed. Steve Good, a 15-year resident, spoke ruefully of his decision to leave the Rockaways last year. But the father of two children      9 and 11      saw few viable education options for his son and daughter once they left the well-regarded Public School 114 elementary school. "The main drawback of the Rockaways is the decision of where to put your kids after fifth grade," said Mr. Good, who lived in Neponsit before settling in Atlantic Beach in Nassau County. "Everything else is wonderful."

Education is a problem for many parents of the 16,500 public-school students at the peninsula's 11 elementary and three junior high schools and its two high schools. Residents often complain about the low quality of the junior high and high schools and seek out Brooklyn schools like Mark Twain and David Boody Junior High Schools following elementary school, said
Bernard Gassaway, principal of Beach Channel High School. But relatively few Rockaway students can get into those distant Brooklyn schools.

P.S. 114, at Beach 135th Street, which serves the peninsula's western neighborhoods, is the "jewel of the Rockaway education system," said James Sanders Jr., a member of School Board 27 and its former president. The elementary school rates 26th in math and reading scores out of the city's 326 elementary schools, Mr. Sanders said.

Officials are trying to improve the performance of other schools. The district operates a program for 300 gifted children, Mr. Sanders said, adding that it also plans to create a magnet school at J.H.S. 180, at Beach 104th Street, in either science and computers or math. J.H.S. 198, at Beach 56th Street, aims to expand its Michael J. Healy Maritime Academy, begun
last year with the Coast Guard, in which children receive a very structured education and training.

Beach Channel High School, in Rockaway Park, where 82 percent of last year's 225 graduates went on to college, is the favored local public high school. Its oceanography program attracts 125 new students a year, said Mr. Gassaway. The school has a crew rowing team and the Queens District Attorney's office helped it create a pre-law program complete with moot
court starting in September.

Stella Maris High School, at Beach 112th Street, is the only Roman Catholic high school on the peninsula, with 480 students in the seventh through 12th grades. Tuition is $4,450 a year. Among Catholic elementary schools are St. Francis de Sales, St. Rose of Lima and St. Mary's Star of the Sea.

The Orthodox Jews of Far Rockaway generally shun public schools entirely, sending their children to yeshivas including the Torah Academy for Girls, which covers kindergarten through 12th grade, and Bnos Bais Yaakov Jacob, which has kindergarten through eighth grade. Tuition at both schools is $5,300 a year.

Rockaways shopping is limited. Shoppers tend to visit the Green Acres mall in Nassau or Kings Plaza in Brooklyn for major purchases.

"We've got about 25,000 families here and not a single national men's brand clothing store, a movie theater or even a kosher deli," said Leon Locke, publisher of The Wave, a 106-year-old Rockaways weekly newspaper.

A popular family restaurant is the Beach Club on 116th Street, which has a children's arcade and an outdoor Polynesian-theme section with tiki torches and Hawaiian music. At Pier 92, on Jamaica Bay at 92d Street, boaters can dock and dine and occasionally hear live jazz.

Rockaways boosters point hopefully to both the long-solid communities and the grandiose plans for long-neglected areas. "We've cleaned up half the Rockaway peninsula, and it shines," said Alfonso C. Stabile, a City Council member. "The rest is a diamond that needs polishing."

(ed. note - I guess the best thing that could be said about Far Rockaway High School in this article was nothing!   H E L P !  if you can......)

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