A Requiem for Rockaways: After the Deluge (an excerpt)

A mysterious island once appeared just off the southern coast of the Rockaways, like an Atlantis or a Lemuria risen out of the sea by unknown forces. It was given the name Hog Island by old-time New Yorkers for a shape that was said to resemble a hog’s back. Instead of being built from molten earth, Hog Island was a barrier island, created over many years by the ocean depositing sand near the Rockaways’ southern shoreline.

By the time of the Civil War, Hog Island was home to several bath houses, bars and restaurants. A mini-Atlantic City. She later vanished in the years after an 1893 Hurricane nearly swallowed her whole.

I learned of this bit of New York history while researching the hurricane records of the Northeastern United States for an article I intended to write. It was on my mind in the days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, when I traveled with a friend and her band of volunteers to help the residents of 19th Street survive the cold without electricity.

What follows are some thoughts and images from the forthcoming article:

The smell of gasoline perfumes the SUV as we drive onto the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge into the Rockaways peninsula. Fifteen plastic containers of fuel slosh around in the back. It’s giving me a headache. We blast heat onto our bodies and let the cold Atlantic Ocean air pull a small percentage of the fumes out into the atmosphere. As I’m about to find out, gas is like gold. It’s the only currency in this anti-world that is the Rockaways.

Exiting Marine Parkway, the horizon, in which overcast grays clash with the pastel rays of the semi-hidden sun, is broken by small mountains of garbage. Circling the serpentine chains of rubbish are seagulls. Inside those mountains, the stolen memories that littered the streets and lawns of the Rockaways only days ago.

I think of something the volunteer group’s leader, Jessica, told me as we started the day: her main citizen contact on the Rockaways, Issy, told her that he had looked out the front window during the worst of the storm and saw the ocean’s waves rolling rhythmically along the street, beating against the houses.

Beneath the waves: the cars, the grass, the trees and sidewalks, the spiraling eddies of stolen objects. The ocean had come to reclaim what she’d left behind in 1893, I thought. But this is too poetic. Rockaways in the immediate aftermath of Sandy may have been a surreal place, but its problems, its destruction were very, very real.

Within ten minutes of arrival I met an old man named Anthony and his wife, and gave them some coffee. The man had a gift for gab. I could have listened to him talk for hours, for days. Simple things made him happy. A new pair of boots, for instance, to ward of the cold during the day. I talked to him, trying to make him less conscious of the digital recorder in my hand. I showed him a slide that I’d found on the street: a photo of a vintage firetruck. Anthony wondered it it was his but determined that it was not. He took me to his backyard. Stuffed in a shed were canvases of art—his art; some of it water-damaged beyond repair.

He gave me a painting, then told me he’d been in the military—that he’d once been pulled by a truck along an icy road somewhere in Alaska. We laughed. He wept for his son’s adopted boy who had died the previous year.

I nearly cried.

[Image: DJ Pangburn]

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