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Queens Chronicle

Jacob Riis beach: the place of our people

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Posted: Thursday, August 26, 2010 12:00 am

Let me let you in on a secret: Every weekend for the past month, I have gone to Jacob Riis beach.

There is nothing better than getting knocked down by the fierce waves at Riis, except maybe waving to the fierce LGBT crowd found on the far left of the beach when facing the water.

In one Sunday of people watching, I saw enough innovative swimwear styles to last a lifetime. Picture this: a man in a wrestling-style, plunging v-shaped straps over the shoulder, lime green one-piece thong bathing suit with a white mesh shawl draped about his birdlike shoulders. He was of course wearing a large matching white hat — the kind the Queen of England might pick for a derby. He made at least three costume changes throughout the day, each more outlandish than the last, but at least he wore something! The left side of the beach is also home to a small but visible naked and nearly nude population.

For those looking for a more familial atmosphere — not the “We are Family” kind — stick to the middle of the beach and arrive early to claim one of the area’s barbecue spots located just before the sand. There are even shaded tables so the only thing that will cook is your food, not your precious skin.

Bike riding hipsters are instructed to turn right when facing the water. Stack your ride at the end of the boardwalk and take a sullen walk to the rocky shores of Fort Tilden, where tattoos abound and everyone knows each other but pretends not to. Just keep walking past the last snack bar and the public restrooms to the land without lifeguards, because hipsters are too cool for CPR.

The waves at the Rockaways have inspired beach-goers for years — from the Ramones to the American Indians who settled the peninsula, calling it Reckonwacky, which meant “the place of our own people” and “Reckanawahaha,” meaning “the place of laughing waters” — just pick whichever translation you like best.

Though the area generally entertains middle class day-trippers from the five boroughs, in the 1800s, the Rockaways hosted some of New York’s most elite, who fled Manhattan amid a 1832 cholera outbreak for the warmth and relative isolation of a seaside resort in the Rockaways called the Marine Pavilion. Henry Longfellow, Washington Irving, colonial artist John Trumbull, and prolific journalist George P. Morris were just a few of the notables who stayed there.

The Rockaways continued to gain in popularity among the upper crust until we, the sunken middle, were allowed access to the peninsula via the Cross Bay Bridge in 1925, the Marine Parkway Bridge in 1937 and the true enemy of rich enclaves — the subway — in 1956.

Designed by Robert Moses in 1936, Jacob Riis Park was named for the journalist and author of “How the Other Half Lives,” who exposed the horrors of urban tenement life in the late 1800s. The park was envisioned by Moses as a place for poor city dwellers to find the respite its namesake sought to bring them through his work.

Today, Jacob Riis Park is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, which hosts visitors of all shapes and sizes for some of the best beach bumming the tri-state area has to offer.

The sand at Riis is generally soft and powdery, the current water temperature is in the 70s and lifeguards are on duty until 6 p.m. Dogs are not allowed in during peak season, but from Sept. 15 to March 15 they are welcome.

To get to the beach using public transportation, take the A train to Broad Channel, then transfer to the S train to Beach 116th Street, then board either the 22 or 35 bus and get off at the park. If driving, be prepared to pay $5 for parking and $5.50 in tolls. The beach is open 24 hours a day, but parking is only available between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

For visitors hungry after a day on the sand and looking to get away from standard boardwalk fare, Rockaway Taco at 95-19 Rockaway Beach Blvd. serves fresh and delicious food until 8 p.m. daily. The fish tacos are remarkable, as is the corn on the cob. Prices are reasonable and the restaurant’s back yard, decorated with surfboards, feels worlds away from the mean streets of New York City. After your taco, DiCosmos Italian Ices next door serves a lemon ice so fresh that it has pits in it.

One word of caution: After 6 p.m. bathrooms near the beach are hard to come by; be prepared to be resourceful.

‘Jacob Riis beach’

Where: From Beach 169th St. to Beach 149th, The Rockaways

(718) 338-3799

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