Beach disparity in Rockaway is a black and white issue
Call it a tale of two Rockaways.
Maybe it’s about race. Maybe class. Maybe both.
Whatever it is, there is definitely a double standard in Rockaway.
On a recent sunny Tuesday morning when I toured the golden 9-mile stretch of Rockaway Beach, the largest oceanfront in the state, with Chief Lifeguard Janet Fash, I was shocked to see that almost all the beaches at the affluent western end of Belle Harbor and Neponsit were open. Each beach on Rockaway’s western Gold Coast – where houses go for millions, where there is no subway service, no public boardwalk, and where parking permits are required – had four lifeguards protecting the sparse, vastly white bathers.
These are public beaches that essentially function as private beaches for the white locals affluent enough to access them.
In contrast, several miles to the east in the less affluent area of Far Rockaway – serving a largely minority community where more than 100,000 people are squashed into 2 square miles of housing projects, multiple dwellings, and single family homes – only two beaches from Beach 25th St. to Beach 72nd St. are open to the public.
On Beach 25th St., at 11:15 a.m. on the sunny Tuesday I trudged the sands, well over an hour after the beach’s official 10 a.m. opening, there was but one lifeguard to safeguard the entire bay. There are supposed to be three lifeguards and a supervising lieutenant. (A second lifeguard, transferred from Belle Harbor, showed up as I was leaving.)
These two Rockaways couldn’t have been more different than, well, black and white.
The average poor kid who lives with his back to the sea in the Edgemere or Hammel projects on this forgotten edge of the city called Far Rock – where gunfire rattles the druggy night, the murder rate is double the borough average, Far Rockaway High School is slated for closure because of a shameful 30% graduation rate, and where subprime mortgage foreclosures lead the city – must walk 20 sweaty blocks lugging beach gear to go for a swim.
Meanwhile, a typical white kid at the western end of Rockaway – living on an immaculate low-crime block where parking is prohibited at all times to keep away transients – can race from his front door into the rollicking surf and swim the summers away under the watchful eyes of four lifeguards per bay.
And yet the people who drown in places like Rockaway are usually not the rich, strong-swimming kids from the affluent end. They are minority kids like the 16-year-old girl who drowned last month off Beach 116th St., a mostly minority bay near the A train stop. In fact, a national study released by USA Swimming and conducted by the University of Memphis found that drowning rates in large American cities among minority youth, particularly African-Americans, is disproportionately higher than white youths.