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Rockaway Boardwalk Re-emerges With a New Identity

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The last wooden sections of the historic Rockaway Boardwalk will soon be removed and replaced with a newer, sturdier concrete promenade. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, in the latest in a sequence of essays about New York City's vernacular architecture, Kensinger visits the Rockaway boardwalk.

Down in the Rockaways, a tide of change is sweeping over the beachfront neighborhoods, as new businesses, buildings, and residents transform this narrow peninsula. Summer is in full swing, with crowds of visitors enjoying the hot August beach, restocked with fresh sand since Hurricane Sandy. "There's totally a renaissance happening, and it's in full effect right now," observed Kalin Callaghan, a Rockaway native whose apartment looks out over the waterfront. Yet at the edge of the crowds, a gaping hole can be seen in the community. The Rockaway Boardwalk, greatly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, remains fractured and incomplete, symbolic of the ongoing struggle to recover from the storm. "It's sorely missed, you know," said Callaghan, whose family has lived here for three generations. "It's one of the very few things that united all the different neighborhoods in the Rockaways."

The entire length of this 5.5-mile boardwalk is now being remade, and like much of the Rockaways, it is taking on a new identity. For over eight decades, this classic piece of New York City vernacular architecture retained its traditional wooden planks, but today, just three small sections of the old boards remain. Foot by foot, a newer, more resilient concrete promenade is being constructed by the Parks Department, scheduled to be completed by 2017. The first segments opened this summer, revealing an extremely sturdy, utilitarian design. But for some residents, the importance of the old wooden boards will never be forgotten. "Everyone has memories of the boardwalk," said Callaghan. "It was the same boards that my parents hung out on, that my grandparents strolled on when they first came to this country. So there is a lot of history there."

Dating back to the 19th century, sections of the wooden boardwalk were once lined with grand resorts, amusement parks and summer bungalows. The entire, unified length of the Rockaway Boardwalk was completed in the 1930s, but by the end of the 20th century, it had fallen into disrepair, with some segments better known for wild dog attacks and empty wastelands than for summer fun. The current renaissance along the boardwalk began several years before Hurricane Sandy, and by 2012 the Parks Department had already begun to replace boards with concrete, while investing in new playgrounds, concessions, and amenities. Like Hurricane Irene before it, Hurricane Sandy helped hasten the old boardwalk's demise.

During the storm, sections of the unsecured wooden boardwalk were lifted up from their concrete pilings like flimsy rafts and pushed far inland. The stormwater's retreat left behind a landscape of splintered wood, twisted metal railings, and crooked lampposts, in neighborhoods inundated with flooded cars, crushed houses, and burnt buildings. "For a long time, the boardwalk seemed like something not worth mourning, because there were so many people suffering in so many very real ways. Their survival and their livelihoods were at stake," said Callaghan, who is the lead organizer of Rockaway Wildfire, a community group organized in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. "But I feel like I came back around to reflecting on how important it was in all of our lives, and I do still mourn for it, for the old boardwalk."

When complete, the Rockaways' new waterfront promenade will be a much different structure than what existed before the storm. "This is a major capital investment by the city, with resiliency in mind…and built with measures that we believe will withstand a major next storm," said Dorothy Lewandowski, the Queens Parks Commissioner. "In New York City, given the predictions for the rising of the oceans and future storms, the new boardwalk is being built above the hundred-year flood level." To ensure its survival, the new walkway is being constructed with sunken steel pilings coated in epoxy, anchored to thick concrete pads, and built above a retaining wall designed to keep sand from being pushed into neighborhoods. The final product will have no wooden walkways, though some recycled planks are being used for benches and steps. "Over the course of time to 2017, that whole entire boardwalk will be completely replaced," said Lewandowski, a Queens native who fondly recalls childhood trips to the Rockaway Boardwalk. "The intent is that the boardwalk will last forever."

It is difficult to gauge what the ongoing changes in the Rockaways may mean for its older residents, neighborhoods, and traditions, but it is clear that the urban wooden boardwalk has now become an endangered piece of historical architecture. With the ongoing evolution of the Rockaway boardwalk and the planned removal of the Coney Island boardwalk, New York City may soon be left with just one significant wooden walkway, the little-known Franklin D. Roosevelt Boardwalk in Staten Island. For those who grew up along the city's waterfront, this is all part of the new reality of climate change, which poses a fundamental challenge to their way of life. "If another Sandy hits, we are all screwed. The boardwalk is going to be the least of our worries. If another Sandy hits, we are probably all going to be giving second thought to the idea of planned retreat," said Kalin Callaghan. "But if Rockaway is going to be going underwater in a hundred years, I would have liked a nice wooden boardwalk to hang out on and enjoy."

Sections of the new Rockaway Boardwalk opened this summer, between Beach 107th and Beach 86th Street, and are anchored by two concession stands at either end, which house the popular eateries Rippers and Caracas.

More akin to a sunbaked sidewalk than a boardwalk, the new walkway is made from two hues of concrete and lined with new benches and metal railings.

Its sturdy, utilitarian design makes for a smooth bike ride, like traversing a raised city street. "Its a few feet higher from the original boardwalk," said Lewandowski. "The boardwalk itself is at the hundred-year flood level."

Sections of the old wooden boardwalk were used to create these new modular benches, which face out over plastic planking. "We created seating, like a decking, stadium seating, and steps down to the beach with recycled lumber from the original boardwalk," said Lewandowski.

The last remaining segments of old wooden boardwalk are located farther east along the boardwalk, between the Beach 20s and 40s. Approximately 16 blocks remain, from a boardwalk that once stretched more than 100 blocks.

The old wooden sections of the boardwalk are not in the best condition. Some are overgrown with weeds, others are separated at the seams, yet they remain popular with visitors. "The old wooden boardwalk lasted for a good hundred years, and had it been maintained, it would have probably lasted for a lot longer," said Callaghan.

After Hurricane Sandy, the boardwalk in this area near Edgemere was almost completely destroyed. Large sections were broken off and pushed ashore, into the neighborhood. "It was like we were in the middle of the sea," said Callaghan, "because we were looking out and there was nothing but water everywhere."

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the empty, fractured boardwalk pilings stretched out to the horizon, hinting at the extensive damage caused throughout the Rockaways.

Today, a narrow wooden pathway has been erected above these same pilings, creating a connection between a patchwork of different boardwalk segments.

Pedestrian access to this four-block section of the boardwalk is difficult, and some visitors prefer to walk along the empty blocks of south Edgemere, which may soon be redeveloped as Arverne East.

Two years before Hurricane Sandy, sections of the wooden boardwalk had been replaced by a concrete pad, like this segment in the Beach 40s and 50s.

Another concrete section in the Beach 20s abuts the wooden boards. Both wood and concrete will be removed here, to make way for the new design. "For the most part, those concrete areas had minimal damage from Sandy, while the adjoining wooden boardwalk was severely damaged," said Lewandowski.

During the construction process wood from the boardwalk was discarded in heaping piles, as seen here in 2010. After Hurricane Sandy, contractors vied to salvage the old wooden planks. "I have a piece on my desk that one of the carpenters had given me," said Lewandowski. "You can tell how worn it is."

The currently incomplete sections of the boardwalk include a stretch from Beach 60th Street to Beach 86th. Contractors are now working on these sections.

New pilings and retaining walls are in place, while access to the beach is kept open for visitors. "It was like a mainstay in everyone's lives, and it didn't occur to us to be grateful for it until it was gone," said Callaghan.

Like the new community of Arverne By The Sea, which is still being constructed, the new concrete boardwalk will completely change the landscape of the Rockaways. "I am hopeful for the future," said Callaghan. "But I have my nostalgia, and my missing of the old boardwalk."

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Rockaway Boardwalk coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]