Rockaway Beach is the 'Hipster Hamptons'
Rockaway Beach was in decline for decades, but in the past few summers, the stretch of Queens oceanfront has rapidly emerged as a hot destination. Some even call it the "Hipster Hamptons."
On a recent sunny Saturday, the A train was crowded with young people sporting tattoos, beards and Wayfarer sunglasses. Beachgoers carried surfboards and tote bags from popular Williamsburg restaurants.
Last year, a concession area on the Boardwalk at Beach 97th Street reopened with trendy new food stands from Brooklyn and Manhattan. A bar sells cocktails and beer to patrons who sit on picnic benches in an adjacent covered area and watch indie bands perform.
Whether it's because of the unusually hot summer this year, word-of-mouth or both, many say this summer is busier than last.
"It's just snowballing out here," said Mattias Garcia Simmons, 26, a cook at the popular Rockaway Taco outpost on the boardwalk.
"More people know about it now," said Sean Newell, 42, a cook at Rippers on the boardwalk and Beach 86th Street, a snack bar that opened last year.
The food vendors helped Rockaway Beach become a hipster hangout, the locals say. Rockaway Taco was one of the pioneer food destinations for the Williamsburg crowd when it opened in 2008. Last year, the taco stand added its boardwalk location, a block away from the original stand at Beach 96th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard.
"The food vendors on the boardwalk have been an amazing success. There have been nothing but rave reviews from residents," said Jonathan Gaska, 51, the district manager for Community Board 14.
Busier than ever
According to Gaska, the "so-called hipster invasion," which started when surfing became legal on the beach in 2009 and really took off in the past two summers with expanded foodie options, has been good for local businesses and residents.
"It seems much busier out here this year," said Elisa Dorn, who works at Veggie Island, a health food store next to the original Rockaway Taco on Rockaway Boulevard.
As an alternative to the subway, a shuttle bus started this year between Union and Meeker avenues in Williamsburg and Rockaway Beach. The "Rockabus" -- a fleet of former school buses that run regularly on weekends -- costs $10 one way or $18 round-trip.
There are two beach areas designated for surfing, board rentals and surf shops that offer lessons.
The seven-square-mile beach neighborhood has a long history as a summer escape for city residents. In the first half of the 20th century, it was a popular destination for working-class New Yorkers. Many rented unheated bungalows, explained Jack Eichenbaum, the Queens borough historian.
But by the 1950s and 1960s, expanded car ownership, improved highways and affordable jet travel made it easier to leave the city for summer vacations.
Bungalow vacancies grew and eventually, except for a three-block stretch, they were sold to the city and torn down. Some of the land became public housing and some remained empty.
"That's the way the Rockaways tumbled down," Eichenbaum said.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, there were attempts to revitalize the area, but none took hold until the early 2000s, when "developers caught the wave of the housing boom," Gaska said.