If Howard Beach had its own Facebook page, it would perhaps not come as a surprise if its relationship status were “It’s complicated.”
In it’s relatively short, turbulent history, the neighborhood has experienced some of the worst of nature’s elements — and has also been forced to contend with some of man’s own nuisances.
Fire, wind, water, low-flying planes, squealing subway trains, packed buses and the oft-congested Belt Parkway make Howard Beach, for some, an unlikely place for anyone to want to make a home, let alone the 30,000 residents who do.
But here they are, some spending their entire lives living in the one- or two-family homes on tree-lined streets, some on shorelines that sparkle pristinly in the summer months.
“There’s a word to describe people who live in Howard Beach: resilient,” said Joann Ariola, president of the Lindenwood/Howard Beach Civic Association. “People who live in Howard Beach love their neighborhood, love their community, love their religious institutions and their schools. They can choose to live wherever they want, they choose to live in Howard Beach.”
Roger Gendron, president of the Hamilton Beach Civic Association, said many residents can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“It’s home,” he said. “Everybody knows everybody. Everybody looks out for everybody else.”
It is one of Queens’ youngest neighborhoods, but Howard Beach has a tale to tell like any other community in the borough.
Speaking to its location on the shoreline, Howard Beach was born as a resort — a bayside getaway for folks seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of Industrial Revolution-era Manhattan.
It was branded as “the coolest place in New York,” because its location near the Atlantic Ocean put it in the path of cool sea breezes that chilled the summers while searing heat scorched Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The marketing campaign was headed by William Howard, who in 1899 opened the Victorian Howard Hotel at what is now Frank M. Charles Park. A boardwalk and several homes were build there — what’s referred to now as “Old Howard Beach” — in the first decade of the 20th century.
Vacationers were able to reach the hotel via the Rockaway Beach LIRR, which had a stop in what is now Hamilton Beach, where the A subway line now passes through.
The grand hotel burned to the ground in 1907 and the neighborhood never recovered as a resort location, instead be coming one of Queens most desired places to live.
With the hotel and resort gone — and more modern, quicker modes of transportation coming into vogue — Howard Beach began to develop as a bedroom neighborhood.
First to develop was Hamilton Beach, followed by Howard Beach near what is now Charles Park and around the current Coleman Square, where the area’s train station is located.
By World War II, new houses had sprung up along the canals, which cut through the community like arteries, giving it the nickname “Little Venice.”
And that was long before the Italians showed up.
Besides the man who is perhaps the neighborhood’s most famous resident, mobster John Gotti, the neighborhood was also home to tennis player Vitus Gerulaitis, Keith Gottfried, a senior aide to former President George W. Bush, and American Idol contestant Pia Toscano. Folk singer Woody Guthrie and rocker Joey Ramone also called the community home for a time.
As the community developed, so did the area around it. In 1948, Idlewild, later JFK, Airport opened next door and Howard Beach residents were forced to contend with the problem of low-flying airplanes.
On at least one occasion in the 1970s, a landing airplane clipped an antenna on the roof of a home in Hamilton Beach. The plane landed safely, but the story is often told as an example of the concerns residents have and the often-contentious relationship the community has with the airport.
That same decade, Howard Beach was front and center in the fight against allowing the Concorde supersonic jet to fly into JFK Airport. The battle was lost and for 35 years, the roaring jet, which served London and Paris from JFK, flew over the neighborhood at least twice a day.
Airplane noise has been an ever-present concern at civic meetings since then.
What we call Howard Beach is actually six different neighborhoods sharing the same ZIP code: Howard Beach, Hamilton Beach, Ramblersville, Rockwood Park, Lindenwood and Howard Park.
Howard Beach is the area around Coleman Square, often referred to as “town,” while Howard Park is the section of the neighborhood inland from the canals between Shellbank Basin and Hawtree Creek.
Sitting on a marshy peninsula between two branches of Hawtree Creek just south of Coleman Square is Ramblersville, often lumped in as part of Hamilton Beach, which is actually located just south over the 102nd Street bridge.
Together these four communities make up the section of the neighborhood known as “Old Howard Beach.”
Rockwood Park is the section of the neighborhood west of Shellbank Basin — including Cross Bay Boulevard — commonly referred to as “New Howard Beach,” and Lindenwood is the more densely populated section, with co-ops, condos, garden apartments and semi-attached homes, between the Belt Parkway and Conduit Boulevard.
The communities each have a distinct flavor. Ramblersville and Hamilton Beach are known for their bungalow-style homes and narrow streets, while Howard Beach and Howard Park offer larger homes, but still boast a working-class environment.
Being on the bay, Howard Beach is often at the mercy of Mother Nature. Low-lying parts of the neighborhood, like Hamilton Beach, Ramblersville and parts of Lindenwood, often suffer from flooding during coastal storms or even a regular high tide.
Nor’easters have brought flooding to the area, most notably during the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 and the December 1992 storm.
But nothing has been as bad as the neighborhood’s experience with hurricanes, especially Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which most residents would say was the worst crisis Howard Beach has ever faced.
Howard Beach was hit hard by Hurricane Donna in September 1960. That storm brought down trees, flooded homes and destroyed boats in Shellbank Basin and Hawtree Creek. However, the neighborhood at the time was sparsely populated and not nearly as dense as it is today.
The community was spared major damage in hurricanes Belle in 1976, Gloria in 1985, Bob in 1991 and Floyd in 1999. In August 2011, Hurricane Irene flooded some homes in Hamilton Beach and along the canals.
But it was Sandy that brought the neighborhood to its knees. Nearly every home suffered flood damage, with some, especially in Hamilton Beach, nearly destroyed. Power was out for nearly two weeks.
It’s been more than a year and a half since the storm and dozens of residents still have not recovered, some still unable to live in their homes.
Sandy has also led Howard Beach to face a new reality — living with the constant risk of floods. New regulations may force homeowners to purchase insurance or raise their homes above flood level.
The trials the community has faced is what makes it great, residents say.
Gendron noted that after Sandy, a family who had just moved to Hamilton Beach brought out a barbecue grill and helped feed their new neighbors.
“That certainly helped bring out community together,” he said.
“With each adverse happening, people become closer,” Ariola said, noting that neighborhood was also affected by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Residents lost family and friends in the attacks and Firefighter Raymond York of Howard Beach was killed.
Just about half of Howard Beach’s residents today are of Italian descent — one of the biggest percentages of any neighborhood in New York City. Many of the Italian residents are third-generation and their families moved to the neighborhood from elsewhere in the city, most notably places like Canarsie and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Manhattan’s Little Italy or other parts of Queens, including Corona, Ridgewood and Ozone Park.
Italian-American pride is obvious to anyone who comes to Howard Beach. Italian eateries line Cross Bay Boulevard, as do Italian and Sicilian flags during the annual Columbus Day Parade. Every October, that event draws hundreds, sometimes thousands, to Cross Bay Boulevard and bathes the community in green, white and red.
The neighborhood also includes a significant population of Irish- and Jewish-Americans. Hispanics have a small but thriving population in Lindenwood, which has seen its population grow faster than elsewhere in Howard Beach in recent years.