It may not feel like it, but summer has been officially over for months now. Lazy days at the beach are a distant memory, which means, among other things, many New Yorkers have gone back to ignoring Far Rockaway.
Twenty-year-old Sean Blaise and his friends TrisNEV and RNL, who together form the group Strong Currents, want Rockaway to be remembered even after tan lines fade—but they also have mixed feelings about the area's rising popularity as a hipster recreation destination. Last year, they released their first music video, decrying the gentrification of Rockaway Beach and racking up close to 16,000 views on YouTube as they called out "Nazi pizzerias," luxury condos and the new businesses pushing out the corner stores Blaise remembers from his adolescence.
"It all centers around this idealized vision of a beach community. They turned it into some behemoth fake paradise of surf culture and fish tacos," said Blaise, who's lived in the Rockaways since he was three. He described the Rockaways as a continuum of wealth, starting from Far Rockaway, home to more poor people and people of color, and ending at Breezy Point, where he said the population is largely made up of the rich and white. "I'm like smack dab in the middle: regular, lower middle class. That's where the most change has occurred is right there."
Blaise's catchy new song and accompanying video, called "Che Guevara," features lyrics like, "Why you want a white bro to make you tacos?" and "If I see another pop-up, son, I'm done."
While Blaise and his fellow artists dole out their criticism indiscriminately to new Rockaway establishments, their most pointed fuck-you might still be from their first track, where Blaise says simply, "Fuck Playland Motel."
"Some 19-year-old kid with a bad rap album isn't going to make me change my business plan," said Daniel Cipriani, the new manager of the motel.
Cipriani took over Playland Motel this past April, with the goal of making it the exact opposite of what it was before: a hipster dance party hotspot. A 47-year-old veteran and father of seven hailing from a blue collar family, Cipriani has lived in New York since the early '80s. He got into the restaurant business by first building restaurants for other people, but now the Playland Grill is one of three establishments he runs in the city, including Williamsburg's Lodge.
"All of my restaurants are family restaurants. We're joining the neighborhood, not coming in and wrecking it. Tell Sean I'll give him a job when his music career fails," said Cipriani of Blaise. He said the restaurant's employees consist entirely of locals, and that they're not just in it for tourist season. "There's always going to be people coming here during the summer who aren't from the neighborhood. Do we want to serve them? Yeah. But am I targeting them as my sole source of clientele? No. I'd rather not alienate the neighborhood I have to live and work in every day," Cipriani explained.
Mikey Reen, owner of ByTheBeach Coconuts, insists he's determined to employ Rockaway residents. "Myself and my two founders are born and raised in Rockaway [and] when we saw all these 'hipsters,' as one would say, come into our town and start making money off of the summer crowds, and, for the most part, not hiring locally, we felt we needed to take advantage." Though he admitted they don't stay open year-round, he said it was more symptomatic of the nature of their business than anything else: "We doubt anyone wants coconuts in the winter."
Reen maintains that he and other local businesses give back to the community. Over the summer, Reen helped run "Kreative Native Fridays," an event for local musicians, businesses and artists to perform, display their work and sell their merchandise. "I don't feel that we compete or push out anybody. Our customers come in all genders, races, religions, shapes, and sizes from near and far," said Reen.
"With the other [business owners] I know, it's a labor of love," added Cipriani. "It's really hard to make money down here. It's not a get-rich-quick place. I think that people who open businesses here love the Rockaways."
What Cipriani and Reen describe, Councilman Donovan Richards refers to as "the soul" of the Rockaways. "The Rockaways is a beachfront community that's always been open to everyone. It's an affordable beach; it's not like the Hamptons where you have to have millions of dollars to live there. It's a place where you'll find different races, religions and ethnicities. It's a very diverse place," he said. "I call it the urban riviera."
Richards says Blaise's criticisms are valid: "I've always said there's a tale of two Rockaways. I'm starting to see it more and I've heard stories like Sean's before. There are new restaurants popping up, but a burger is going for $15. They're not catering to the community." Richards says local residents haven't been getting their fair share.
Or, as Blaise, a redhead himself, put it: "Rockaway has always been considered the redheaded stepchild of the city."
For the Rockaways, Hurricane Sandy was a turning point in getting people to start paying attention to the area and its needs. "We were hit and hit hard. But it's a gift and a curse: people have now discovered it and we have to fight to keep it affordable," said Richards. The councilman went on to detail new improvements and funding aimed at improving the Rockaways for locals who have seen it through hard times. Last month the city broke ground on 101 affordable housing units, allowing families to rent beachfront apartments for about $700 a month, according to Richards. A facade improvement program to beautify storefronts and streetscapes is underway. Last year the mayor's office funneled $15 million for infrastructure and resiliency upgrades to the Rockaways' commercial areas; in August the city began building 154 units of senior housing; construction for public housing will begin in January 2016.
"I've never seen this much momentum happening in the Rockaways," Richards adds. "There's a new page to be turned, and I would encourage Sean to get involved."
In an email, Blaise argues that he and his crew are a "loose collective of artists...not politicians... We are young artists with a message that isn't necessarily profitable or trendy and because of that we are overlooked in the wave. 'The wave' being the wave of trendy yuppie art and aesthetics."