Note: An different version of this column originally appeared in The Rockaway Times on Oct. 26, 2017
The office on Rockaway Beach Boulevard is finally for rent.
A fixture in my neighborhood for several years, it’s been filled with men and women working for Skanska, the massive company hired by the city to rebuild Rockaway’s boardwalk after the storm. Next door to the shuttered office is Rockaway Roasters, a coffee shop that opened after the hurricane and is thriving. And then there’s CROM, a bustling gym that relocated on the corner after its old home was flooded by Sandy. Across the street is our branch of the Queens library. With a beautiful garden, it’s now reopened and renovated, better than what stood there five years ago.
This half-block is a microcosm of Rockaway in the storm’s aftermath. There’s been plenty of change; some of it was temporary, a lot of it has been good.
It’s the dirty little secret that we understand but don’t tell outsiders: the storm has sparked us to be better than we were before. And the storm put us on the map. Thousands of New Yorkers who had never been here before came to pitch in – and some of them never left. And now we have a ferry for all these new visitors.
That’s not to say we still don’t have real problems. The city’s Build It Back program has been a case study in how not to help homeowners who have been hit by a hurricane. The beach is badly eroded in places and would likely do little to stop another storm surge. It all feels a little bit like the town in “Jaws” that reopens the beach with a shark still lurking in the waters – only our shark is the next big hurricane.
We’re not yet stronger than the storm but we’re a better community in the wake of Sandy. We also have a long way to go. Like the rest of the city, we continue to be divided by race and income. And it doesn’t help matters that the maps for Assembly, State Senate, and City Council carve up the peninsula largely along racial lines and include areas like Howard Beach and Southeast Queens that don’t share many of our concerns.
Like the last kid in a large family, we complain a lot and make a lot of noise in an effort to get noticed. (If you want to get depressed, just read the “Friends of Rockaway” page on Facebook where the sky is falling every five minutes.) But that noise can be helpful when it’s funneled in a positive direction. We heard a lot of pretty words after the hurricane so it’s smart to ask the city why it’s delaying a playground that was destroyed by the storm. How are those “temporary” lights doing on the boardwalk? And why not come up with a real plan to keep the beach from washing away almost every winter?
The storm forced many of us into action, creating new bonds while giving the peninsula a mandatory makeover. The challenge for Rockaway residents is to finish the job and build on it – while making sure many promises by the government aren’t forgotten over time. Meanwhile, a sign in the window says a Japanese restaurant is moving into that vacant office space.