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The Slow Resurgence of the Rockaway Bungalow

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After decades of neglect and severe damage during Hurricane Sandy, the last bungalow courts of the Rockaways are fighting to survive. 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 bungalow courts of the Rockaways.

Another season of beaches, boardwalks, and barbecues is now over in the historic bungalow courts of the Rockaways. Inside a dozen bungalow communities scattered across the peninsula, from Breezy Point to Far Rockaway, seasonal visitors are preparing to winterize their homes, while year-round residents are looking forward to a quiet fall. A few hundred bungalows and 16 blocks of wooden planks are all that remain from the early 20th century resort culture that once covered the Rockaways, when over 7,000 of these simple homes were built up to the very edge of a five-mile-long boardwalk. The bungalows here are still being slowly whittled away and, like Brooklyn's last few bungalow colonies, were badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, which put an enormous strain on their already tenuous future. Unlike their neighbors in Brooklyn, however, many Queens bungalow residents say they are staying put, with no plans to move out or tear down their homes.

Throughout the Rockaways, a spirit of renewal seems to have taken hold, and numerous bungalows are now being renovated on dirt roads, pathways, and backyard lots. In the Far Rockaways, the change since Hurricane Sandy has been remarkable. "Yeah, it made some mess, that flood," said John Yeager, who has lived in a bungalow here for over 30 years. "I was here for three hurricanes. This one came up bad." Despite severe flood damage, from which several homes remain empty, things have significantly improved since the storm in this four-block bungalow community. Six years ago, in the midst of the economic crisis, Far Rockaway was littered with abandoned bungalows which were used as squatter camps, gang hideouts, and dog fighting pits, but many of these houses have slowly been rebuilt and repaired, especially in recent years. "It's getting better. More and more people are moving in," said Yeager, who lives in a narrow, overgrown court near Beach 26th street, alongside a mix of rebuilt and empty bungalows. "They are going to be fixed, and someone will buy them. They're strong. They ain't gonna move. They've been here 100 years. They're not going anywhere."

This sentiment was echoed throughout the peninsula, where several other historic bungalow courts have fought to recover from both decades of neglect and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  Built in the first half of the 1900s, the Rockaway bungalows were "the vacation architecture of the working class," according to the 2010 documentary The Bungalows of Rockaway, and were a popular escape for families seeking a refuge from crowded Manhattan neighborhoods. As a piece of vernacular architecture, the Rockaway bungalow includes great variation in size and style, but most are one-story, prefabricated structures with comfortable front porches and generous windows, which add a feeling of spaciousness to the interiors of these tiny homes. After World War II, in the midst of social upheaval, large swaths of bungalows were mowed down by the city to make way for several failed Urban Renewal schemes, which have left the Rockaways scarred to this day by enormous empty wastelands created in the 1960s. In the ensuing decades, many of the remaining bungalows fell victim to arson, crime, developers, and abandonment.

"I got here in 1988, and it was like the shootout at the O.K. Corral. It was bad. It was the height of the crack epidemic," said Michael Valentino, who was a police officer in the Rockaways for 20 years. After retiring in 2004, he bought the Steeplechase Court on Beach 100th Street, a collection of ten historic one-room bungalows. "These were built for the workers. I think it was 1914 or 1918. It was right after the tent colonies. These bungalows were made in Maryland, and hundreds of them were shipped up here." By the end of the century, however, these seasonal homes had been condemned by the city and fenced off. "This was a notorious crack den," said Valentino, who renovated the entire court for year-round rentals. "It was a massive undertaking. New floors, new kitchens. And then, of course, Sandy wiped it out." Valentino was ready to give up on his bungalows in the aftermath of the storm, but was bolstered by an outpouring of support from volunteers, along with recovery assistance from the government, which convinced him to rebuild. "Everything got gutted again. But this time, I went all out. We took them down to the studs." He is now committed to staying put, despite the pressure of several residential developments that have sprung up in the once-empty lots around his property, which spurred a recent offer from a developer to buy his court for $1.4 million. "These will be here. I have no interest in selling."

Michael Valentino believes that some of the current interest in preserving the remaining Rockaway bungalows can be traced back to Richard George, who has been the president of the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association of Far Rockaway since the 1980s. "In Far Rockaway, it was shootings, squatters, and drugs," said Valentino. "Richard George was one of the foremost guys, putting up a fight to save the bungalows." Today, George lives in a small, pristine bungalow across a courtyard from his elderly mother's home, in a vibrant, diverse court near Beach 24th Street. "I've been here for 30 years. I got here in February of 1986, and have been here ever since," said George. "I've been fighting for years." Aside from having to completely gut renovate his abandoned bungalow before moving in, George has also battled against several outsized development projects that have hemmed in the community here, and has struggled to gain recognition for the bungalows from preservation groups. "We got the preservation downzoning, we got the State and the National historic preservation designations. Now we just need the City Landmark status," said George. "These are the last remnants of thousands of bungalows that once lined the Rockaway peninsula. My hope is that they are preserved and appreciated and restored as part of the Rockaways' history."

Looming on the horizon is the ever increasing threat of rising sea levels, which may determine the future of the Rockaway bungalows, as the government and private individuals decide how much they are willing to invest into a sandy strip of land surrounded by water. At least one bungalow in the Rockaways is currently being raised up high above its neighbors, while numerous others have been replaced by sturdier, taller structures, especially in Breezy Point, where hundreds of homes were destroyed by the storm surge or burned to the ground during Hurricane Sandy. The decision to stay and build toward an uncertain future is not one that locals residents take lightly, and Michael Valentino has seen some bungalows in his immediate vicinity remain empty for years, while others have pushed to rebuild in the aftermath of Sandy. "They took a beating," said Valentino of his neighbors, "but they're proud of their bungalows."

On Richard George's bungalow court in the Far Rockaways, residential towers hem in small, vibrant bungalow community. "We used to have a view of the ocean," said George, but newer towers have blocked off the the traditional low-rise colony, leaving the one-story homes in a state of siege.

Many of the bungalows in the neighborhood have been renovated since 2009, with colorful paint and flowers planted out front. "There's 100 bungalows in this district," said George. "People put their own individual flair on them."

These bungalows on Beach 26th Street were badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy and only repaired in the past few months by a new owner, with new roofs, floors, and paint. "They got it bad over there. They were emptied out after Sandy, and got vandalized," said John Yeager, who lives nearby. "They redid the insides, and ripped them all out."

This bungalow has been boarded up and abandoned for over six years, bordering a large empty lot where numerous other bungalows once stood. "Sometimes, it's not so good if it's empty.  People come and vandalize them," said Yeager.

Though residents fought against it, the Metroplex residential tower was built along the boardwalk several years before Sandy. Now abandoned and falling apart, it blocks the ocean view from Yeager's bungalow court. "In the summer, it don't affect you. But in the winter, it affects your sun. In the winter, they get no sun."

The interiors of several Far Rockaway bungalows remain gutted and empty, but "there's a lot less abandoned than before," said Candela Prol, a Brooklyn resident who maintains a bungalow in the area. "It's been very slow. It has taken 30 years to get to this point."

By contrast, the inhabited bungalows offer up a wealth of different interior styles. "It's an accumulation of years," said Prol, whose mother has owned this bungalow for over 30 years. "This is the original wood and floors. The walls, we did. They were a wreck."

Richard George's mother, Carmela, has lived in this bungalow since 1990, after completing a gut renovation. "This place was falling down. It had trees, mushrooms, a hole in the ceiling that was leaking for seven years," said Carmela.

"I had 15 men woking here. I kept the floors and moldings. All the walls and plaster had to come down," said Carmela, who uses a small room in her bungalow as a painting studio. "I try to keep it simple."

On nearby Seagirt Avenue, one of the last completely abandoned bungalow courts awaits development or demolition, after sitting empty for many years. Far Rockaway is still a haven for violent crime and gang activity, with multiple teen homicides taking place near here over the summer.

A number of individual abandoned bungalows dot the Rockaway peninsula, from Edgemere to Rockaway Beach. This single room home in the Beach 90s was missing its back door, and was used to hold a shopping cart, plastic bottles, and other material collected from the street.

Near Beach 87th Street, a narrow bungalow was being renovated on Dormans Court, a dirt road lined with several other well maintained bungalows. A number of unique bungalows are clustered in this area, near the Rockaway Beach Surf Club.

Around the corner, Alex Hein was working to complete renovations on three small bungalows in the backyard of his house. "They were built in 1910, as far as I know," said Hein, who has listed the homes on Airbnb as The Primary Bungalows. "We plan to rent them for short term stays."

Another abandoned bungalow court, at Beach 100th Street. "Those have been empty for at least five years, since before the hurricane," said Michael Valentino, whose bungalow court is just up the block. "Those are bank owned. They haven't been released."

One of the bungalows here is adorned with a large piece of street art, and it is currently being renovated into a community arts project called Stilt City after being badly damaged during hurricane Sandy, according to the Rockaway Times.

By contrast, a gated bungalow court across Rockaway Beach Boulevard was in pristine condition, with families enjoying the last days of summer. Approximately 16 bungalows are situated here, all fully occupied during the summer.

Up the street, near Beach 101, several small bungalow courts are clustered together around narrow footpaths, named the Constance, Ida, and Marie courts. This area was badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, according to Valentino, whose bungalows are less then a block away.

At least one home here is being raised up above the flood level, with assistance from the city's Build it Back program. Like the bungalow colonies in Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, homes here are down below the surrounding street level.

Further west at Irene Court, a small grouping of eight bungalows near Beach 108th Street, work is still being completed on an ambitious tiki-themed renovation. Several abandoned bungalows are hidden behind this restored court.

One of the largest collections of well-maintained historic bungalows outside of Breezy Point is hidden away along a dozen courts on Beach 108 and Beach 109 Street. "Almost every bungalow has a front porch, whether it's open or enclosed and several are decorated with lights, lanterns and beach signs," wrote Katie McFadden, describing a recent bungalow bike tour for the Rockaway Times.

During Labor Day Weekend, a constant flow of visitors came and went from barbecues and parties in the various courts, which date back to 1905. "These bungalows are some of the liveliest on the peninsula," wrote McFadden. "Viewing these simple, tiny, beautiful homes all around Rockaway, made the chaos of life seem not so important."
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Is This The End of the Brooklyn Bungalow? [Curbed]
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