The best and the worst of the city's response to Hurricane Sandy was on display in the Rockaways this weekend as a coalition of artists helped reopen Fort Tilden while large swathes of the city's beaches were closed elsewhere as the Army Corps of Engineers added sand to the beaches.
Thousands of beachgoers headed to the Rockaways on Saturday, only to learn that they couldn't actually swim on the beach, more than a month after it was supposed to be ready on Memorial Day. There was no notice on the department's website and no advance warning to the media, leaving people to wander aimlessly with their children, forced to either admire the water from afar on a hot summer day or take a risk by breaking the rules and plunging into the ocean without any lifeguards.
The sand replenishment project is making the beach a bigger and better place but there's simply no excuse for it not to have been done before the beginning of summer. But because there is a delay, it's incumbent on the city to communicate with beachgoers and elected officials about what exactly is happening on a daily basis. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz was in full scramble mode this weekend, left in the dark like everyone else while trying to find out which beaches were open and closed. If this seems like a minor thing, you should be sentenced to drive in a car with three screaming children for 45 minutes and then take them to an ocean they can't touch.
As confusion reigned in one part of the Rockaways, hope and harmony were on display in nearby Fort Tilden on the west end of the peninsula. While the federal government dithered for 20 months before reopening that park, a coalition of artists and musicians made last night's ceremony memorable and filled with hope as part of a summer-long arts festival titled "Rockaway!" (The exclamation point is all theirs.)
The man behind the celebration of Tilden's stark post-apocalyptic beachfront beauty is the director of the MoMA PS1 museum, Klaus Biesenbach, a Rockaway resident who has done much for the area in the wake of the storm.
Last year, Biesenbach erected a large geodesic dome in the middle of the peninsula that served as a temporary community center for the Rockaways. The dome, which easily could have turned into a weird white elephant, was a hit with residents, who used it for a variety of events during its life of several months.
Biesenbach is taking his notion of the dome in dropping it in Fort Tilden, a place that had been a military base (complete with Nike nuclear missiles) for 50 years before becoming a federal park since 1974. The park recently has served as the home of the Rockaway Artists Alliance but has struggled mightily in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Rather than bigfooting the local artists, Biesenbach has worked hand-in-hand with them as he planned the Fort Tilden project. They played a large role in last night's festivities, which also featured actor James Franco and musical legend Patti Smith, who has a home in the Rockaways.
With the exception of a shortage of bus service following the event, things ran smoothly. Biesenbach successfully navigated a difficult path, getting help from local residents, Brooklyn hipsters, powerful philanthropies – as well as the state, city, and federal government. That's a work of art in itself.
The city's Parks Department could learn a thing or two from Biesenbach, who understands that collaboration and communication are a major part of any successful project. While much of what the city wants to get done in Rockaway is commendable, it's largely imposing a solution on local residents and doing a poor job at keeping them – and the rest of the city – in the loop. (And we’ll save the wretched ineptitude of the city’s Build It Back program for another column.)
Patti Smith sang last night that the people have the power. It's time for the bureaucrats who are rebuilding Rockaway to remember that.