It was one of the last warm summer nights, where people try to squeeze every last drop out of the season as it crashes to its close; and the Rockaway Boardwalk was alive with cyclists, roller skaters, musicians, and dance parties.
Frenzied pockets of activity around the concession stands punctuated long stretches of quiet — where the only sounds were the ocean breeze and the soft lapping of waves at the shore.
It’s hard to imagine a time when the boardwalk didn't define this 5.5 mile stretch of coastline. It was first constructed in the 1920s – and remains one of the longest boardwalks in the country.
But when Hurricane Sandy battered New York City 10 years ago, it not only damaged hundreds of homes on the peninsula – it also destroyed the beloved boardwalk. A decade after the storm, and six years after its full reconstruction, the boardwalk is both the heart of the Rockaway community and a beacon for visitors, as well as a bittersweet memorial of an impossibly painful time in the peninsula’s history.
“We have a beautiful new boardwalk and a lot of gorgeous new parks, and the community has definitely expanded, but I think anyone who is here during that time knows that it came at a really high cost and there was a lot of suffering,” said Bridget Klapinski, is a community organizer with the Rockaway Beach Civic Association. “It will always be a little bit bittersweet.”
Though the boardwalk had been around for decades before the storm, Sandy revealed a key design flaw: it wasn’t anchored to the concrete pilings that supported it. So when 10 feet of storm surge crashed across the peninsula, it simply lifted the boardwalk up and took it away. Some chunks of boardwalk were lost forever in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, others came crashing down into the flooded streets of the peninsula.
“We saw sections of boardwalk on top of houses. It was like Godzilla came through,” said Jonathan Gasko, the longtime district manager of the local community board.
The boardwalk’s reconstruction generated fierce debate. Everyone wanted it rebuilt, but how it would be constructed became a source of contention.
“We wanted them to come back with wood cause that's what a boardwalk is,” Gasko said.
In the end, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration said it would be rebuilt with concrete, which the administration argued was more sustainable and more durable than tropical hardwood.
“The way they really sold it to the community was that it can be a barrier to keep the Atlantic Ocean from coming in,” Gasko said.
Reconstruction took four years. Maribel Araujo, owner of boardwalk arepa joint Caracas, reopened her eatery in the summer after Sandy. But for three summers, her stand was on more of an island than a boardwalk — hers was the last concession area to be reconnected in 2016. When that finally happened, it felt like a homecoming, she said.
“We went back to the boardwalk life,” she said. “The boardwalk is a lifeline for Rockaway. The boardwalk is a common thread.”
Araujo has even begun to see Sandy as a blessing in disguise.
“I want to believe that what they have done has been positive and it's protecting us,” she said.
But the boardwalk’s rebound since Sandy hasn’t been linear. In 2012, the summer before Sandy, a record 7.79 million visitors visited Rockaway Beach and the boardwalk. No summer since has surpassed that. COVID-19 caused further disruptions to summer traffic and this past season about 4.45 million visitors came, according to data from the parks department.
And while the new concrete boardwalk provides more protection than the last one — and won’t simply float away when the next Sandy-like storm hits — it still falls short of an actual storm wall. Claire Weisz is an architect with WXY Studio, which helped design the new boardwalk. In most locations, it’s 6 to 9 feet higher than the old wooden boardwalk, she said. But other areas, particularly around the concessions, remain at their original heights.
“If they flooded, they are likely to flood again with the next Sandy-like storm,” Weisz said.
Others like Klapinski point out that surge water can still come up through storm drains and flood the homes behind the boardwalk.
“This is not a sea wall,” she said. “I personally think there's also a naiveté to think that that level of storm can't or won't happen again.”
Longer-term fixes – like a series of coastal barriers along the shorefront, as well as storm surge gates to protect the vulnerable back bay – are still years away. The Army Corps of Engineers is taking feedback on that plan through the end of the year. Weisz and other planners have put forth an alternative plan; a series of “blue dunes” – or newly erected manmade barrier islands about 9 miles off the current coastline to absorb the worst impacts of wave action and storm surge.
“If we built another barrier island out there, which could be where surfers really go to surf and it would be good for fish and … put all of our winter turbines out there, you could lessen the effects for everyone,” she said. “And maybe not have to build 9-foot-high walls everywhere.”
But on this warm summer night, the prospect of the next storm feels far away. Naomi Tyminski, 42, who was pushing her newborn in a stroller, said she comes out every day to clear her head. Her family moved to Rockaway Park two years after the storm.
“The boardwalk is like a sanctuary for us,” she said. “I never want to leave this place. Never.”