Beach Closings Ain’t ‘Keeping the Beach Out Of Rockaway Beach’

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This past Memorial Weekend was a solemn one, with locals not just mourning our soldiers who died in service for this country, but also for the sudden closure of 11 blocks of the peninsula’s most popular beachfront due to “dangerous” beach erosion.

However, folks were not just grieving, they were outraged, and came out full force in the bright sun at last Friday’s official beach opening and in pouring rain at a rally on Sunday morning to protest NYC Parks’ abrupt announcement last Monday, May 21, that the beach from 91st to 102nd Streets would be closed to swimmers.

The official beach opening on Beach 108th and the boardwalk, strategically hosted by Parks, blocks away from the now fenced-in beach, became a circus with angry protestors heckling Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. Attendees kept shouting, “What Beach?” And in true Rockaway fashion, some creative locals went all out, interrupting the opening ceremony with a mock funeral as a group of men carrying a homemade coffin, followed by a bagpiper playing a somber tune, marched through the crowd of protestors who wore black and carried signs stating things such as  “RIP B98.”

People were even more incensed upon discovering that Mayor Bill de Blasio sidestepped Rockaway and instead attended Coney Island’s official beach opening. One local called into the Brian Lehrer Show on Friday asking the Mayor: “How come such a huge section of Rockaway Beach is closed this summer? The New York Times reports Parks knew it was eroding, but decided not to act. What gives?” The Mayor responded, “Yeah, it’s a very tough situation and not one that I feel happy about to say the least. We all knew the beach was eroding and I was at a town hall meeting in the Rockaways about six months ago and this topic came up. I pledged to folks in the community that I would go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). I went down to Washington to meet with the head of USACE to get a firm answer by this summer for the timeline for doing this work.

“But the erosion, which was bad six months ago, got a lot worse in the last couple of months because of storms and then the question became Parks’, who talked to the lifeguards, who really have to be the final word here, and said, ‘Can we secure this area properly as this beach has gotten a lot thinner than it was a year ago?’ And they did not feel we could. So, the decision was late because the situation changed…Parks felt strongly this was a question of safety…we had to make a safety-based decision,” de Blasio said.

Judging from reactions at not just the “funeral” on Friday, but also at the rally on Sunday, and from the immediate area’s business owners — not just safety, but resiliency is a prime concern, and folks refuse to wait any longer for what they have been demanding for decades — rock jetties.

With local advocate, Eddy Pastore stating, “You don’t take the beach out of Rockaway Beach,” and Community Board 14’s Dan Ruscillo shouting, “Instead of groins we got kicked in the groin!” the anger resonated at Sunday’s rally, even in pouring rain. Activist John Cori, Councilman Eric Ulrich, Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato, Senator Joseph Addabbo, former Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder and Rockaway native, Andy Cohen, who serves as a councilman in the Bronx, all came out along with residents and other leaders, to demand what Rockaway deserves.

Scores of locals and supporters in attendance let their voices be heard as they chanted:

“What do we want — JETTIES? When do we want them — NOW!” Addabbo said, “Enough of the finger-pointing, it’s enough that the city is saying it’s a federal problem, and the federal government saying it’s a city job. Enough! We need action. We need the Army Corps here. We need the city to cooperate. Let’s not mourn today. Let’s start action to get these beaches open this summer.”

Community Board 14 Chairwoman Dolores Orr stated, “This has been a battle of 50 years. It’s not just five years ago, it’s not 10 years ago. Years ago, when they put the first rock jetty here, this community said to USACE, it’s not enough. After Sandy, when they replenished the sand, they should have had a plan. Fifty years of sand had washed away. We have to keep the pressure on to build these jetties.”

Some are taking action. Amato highlighted Senator Chuck Schumer’s letter, released on May 25. “Our Senator is calling out for emergency measures. He’s not sitting back saying, ‘We heard it’s going to happen in 2019.’ He’s demanding that they tell him (which is really telling us), what can be done on an emergency basis.”

Amato also encouraged everyone to support local businesses and let everyone know that Rockaway is still open for business.

Michael Powers, operating manager for the Beach 97th Street concession, Low Tide, said, “It’s an honor and privilege to serve this community every day. No matter what goes on with these beaches, we’re letting you know we’re invested, the show will go on, we just want the government to let us know what is going on with our shoreline.”

Surrounding business owners are not so optimistic. Beach 91st Street’s Rockaway Beach Express Deli’s Malik Shahbin, said, “I have been a business owner here for over 20 years. This stretch of beach closings will have a huge impact on year-round businesses like ours. We wait all winter to survive in the summertime. We look forward to making money during the summer to make up for the winter to pay for the bills. Though people will still come, it’s not going to be the same.”

Phil Cicia of Beer House Beverages says he’s more concerned about the weather. “The media is not giving the right information, only 11 blocks of beaches are closed, not the entire beach. This erosion is just part of what Mother Nature has delivered to us as a coastal community for decades. Pouring millions of dollars in sand is not going to save us, much less prevent the erosion. We need rock jetties. That being said, for me the biggest factor is the weather. Memorial Day to Labor Day is only 100 days to turn a profit and survive. This past Memorial Weekend was lousy because of the weather, not because of the beach closings. People are going to keep coming to Rockaway no matter what, as long as the weather is good,” Cicia said.

That seemed to hold true for Brooklynite Harley Bosco as she stepped off the Q52 bus with beach bag in tow. “A lot of people who love and care for Rockaway Beach are going to keep coming. I am still going to go to all the concessions because they always have great food and entertainment. On a hot day, Rockaway is a great place to walk around and explore. When I want to jump in the water, I’ll just walk, definitely not a big deal.”

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