America by Birth, Rockaway by the Grace of God: A New York Surf Story

For people who grew up on the Rockaway Peninsula, the gradual loss of our homeland was as senseless as it was staggering. Once a shimmering seaside summer haven for New York’s working families, over time huge chunks of our coastal “Everyman’s paradise” fell to ruin. Across this geographically isolated barrier reef on the southeast Queens, miles of waterfront property were transformed into desolate urban wastelands – for nothing. Everyone has an opinion. Some blame the City of New York for piss-poor urban planning policies. Others claim an accelerated influx of impoverished minority populations transformed Rockaway into “Welfare-by-the-Sea.” Or was it white flight that pushed things to the tipping point? By all accounts, Rockaway’s history has been a perfect shit storm. But perfect storms also bring awesome waves. Somehow, through it all, across the Peninsula, four generations of surfing dynasties survived.

When outsiders imagine great surf spots, they picture sun-bleached youths on shiny boards riding crystal clear waves in places like Hawaii, Costa Rica, California or Bali. Not some crusty old beach an hour away from Times Square. But two new documentaries are about to change that. Celebrating its century-old surfing roots, the filmmakers explore Rockaway as a buried urban treasure, establishing it as a serious contender among the great surf spots of the world. Each documentary traces the volatile social history of Rockaway through its vibrant, too-tough-to-die surfing subculture and the old school ‘surfinbrrrds who made it happen.

Debuting in Fall 2010 within weeks of each other, Kryssa Schemmerling’s Our Hawaii (http://ourhawaii.net/) and Thomas Brookins’ Shadows of the Same Sun (http://www.wix.com/thomasbrookins/earthmovers) utilize archival footage, hypnotic surf shots and colorful first-person narratives to honor Rockaway’s glorious surf past. Both stories recount collective loss and suffering, fierce courage and regional pride. Documenting different voices and locales, Schemmerling and Brookins themselves bring different generational perspectives, rendering the two films complimentary, not redundant. Together, the documentaries offer a passionate portrait of Rockaway’s local economy and ecology through the region’s robust surfing traditions.

In 1912, Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku, “Father of modern surfing” and three-time Olympic swimmer brought surfing to America’s Atlantic coast when he visited Rockaway Beach. He didn’t go out to Montauk or Long Beach that day, he landed in Rockaway. According to some, that’s the day New York surf was officially born. Travelling without a board, the Duke got into the water and bodysurfed, lending credibility to surfing’s boardless underclass. So hallowed is this day in Rockaway history that a street sign, Duke Kahanamoku Way was formally dedicated in 1991. Unfortunately, nobody can find it – M.I.A. like everything else. As with motorcycle culture and car mania, surfing really took off in the late 1940s with our dads – returning WWII veterans stationed in Hawaii and California. They brought back very long, heavy boards that their kids chopped up for easier navigation. But as early as 1940, the boardwalk at Jacob Riis Park already had a surf shop concession. By 1965 Rockaway’s surf scene was so well established, a television reporter named Gabe Pressman visited Beach 88th Street to interview three Jewish surfers – distinguished members of our Far Rockaway High School’s football team. Some of those guys are still in the water – now grandparents teaching the groms (little surfers) the Zen of the waves. Others got lost at sea, caught in the riptide of the drug epidemics – heroin in the 1960’s and then crack in the 1980’s. As Rockaway fell under harder times, a glorious surfing legacy got buried too, forgotten by the outside world.

Mystical and magical, in its prime Rockaway fired up the literary imaginations of Henry Miller, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. In 1977, the Ramones further immortalized our homeland in a song called “Rockaway Beach.” As a teenager, Forest Hills songwriter and bass player Dee Dee Ramone hitched rides to Beach 116th Street, (Rockaway Park), hoping to catch a wave, sniff some glue and score some chicks. An end of the line stop for subways and trains, the foggy remoteness of the place filled the soul with a bleak longing that quickly turned into existential despair. Tell any addiction specialist you’re from the Rockaways and they know you never had a prayer. Our alcoholism and addiction rates were so notoriously high, at one point Rockaway was affectionately known as the intake unit for Creedmoor’s detox ward. Today, most of the people I grew up with in the 1960’s are either clean and sober, or dead.

So many years later, Rockaway lingers in the sights, sounds and smells that seeped into our bones like the seaweed and soggy salt air. Today, cyberspace unites a Diaspora of lost Rockaway (www.farrockaway.com). Over the years, generations of native scribes have chronicled the Rockaway experience with a mix of rueful tenderness and outrage. Jill Eisenstadt’s 1989 debut novel, From Rockaway explores the diminished expectations of four dead-end working-class Irish Catholic kids shipwrecked in uptown “Rotaway.” In 2002, Kevin Boyle’s Braving the Wave: Rockaway Rises – And Rises Again, offers a heartfelt post-9/11 tribute to the turf known as “firefighters’ capital of the world.” Boyle was the longtime editor of the Wave, Rockaway’s award-wining local newspaper. The Rockaways sustained the highest number of first responder casualties on 9/11. Then, a year after 9/11, tragedy hit again when en route from JFK airport to the Dominican Republic, America Airlines Flight 587 crashed on Beach 129th Street leaving 264 known casualties.

“Tonite We Fight Again” is an anthem penned by the Bullys, a prominent New York City punk band with Rockaway roots. Where the Ramones celebrated the fun and freedom of Rockaway Beach, Bullys’ songs express its do or die resilience. Discovered and produced by members of the Ramones, the Bullys’ founder was a Rockaway guitarist/songwriter and sober surfer known as Johnny Bully. The last time I visited my hometown was for his funeral at St. Camillus Church; Firefighter John Heffernan went down with the second tower. Some say the Rockaways have more 9/11 memorials per square mile than heaven itself.

Along with Rockaway’s peculiar geography, a complicated socio-economic history provides the context for the surf warriors we meet in Our Hawaii and Shadows of the Same Sun. In 2009, Lawrence Kaplan and Carol Kaplan published a chilling historical account of Rockaway’s years on the road to ruin. Between the Ocean and the City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York is a critical study of racism and heartless public policies that tells “[a] clear-eyed and harrowing story of a largely African American community’s struggles in the face of grinding poverty, urban renewal schemes gone wrong, and a forced ghettoization by the sea.” Beginning in 1949, Robert Moses’s urban renewal projects relocated welfare families to the remote, freezing slums of Rockaways. Some were dumped into dilapidated summer bungalows lacking heat and hot water, ten people to a room. Others languished in Far Rockaway’s once elegant rooming houses, former mansions that relegated twenty-five families to two bathrooms, equipped with maggot-infested bathtubs. The kids had to bathe in the sink. In 1969, under Mayor Lindsay, in yet another exquisite urban planning disaster, New York City bulldozed miles of housing stock and then never replaced it. For almost thirty-five years, three hundred and ten acres remained fallow. Every decision New York City politicians and planners made pummeled the Rockaways further into oblivion. The land of my parents and grandparents looked war torn, like a combat zone.

Airing on PBS in Fall 2010, narrated by Estelle Parsons, Jennifer Callahan’s extraordinary documentary Bungalows of Rockaway (http://thebungalowsofrockaway.com) explores the life, death and revitalization of the charming summer dwellings that once populated the seascape. Inexpensive and built to last in 1930s, seven thousand bungalows across the peninsula offered summer bliss to New York City’s working-class – cab drivers, bus drivers, butchers, domestic workers, longshoremen. The boardwalk, fresh air, swimming and Italian ices gave kids a break from apartment life. Between 1910 and 1950, the Rockaways were predominantly Jewish, Irish and African American. Jews settled in the downtown communities of Edgemere, Arverne, and Far Rockaway, including holocaust survivors and their children. Uptown, Seaside’s famed “Irishtown” was a Celtic celebration of pubs, music and dancing. Nearby, was Rockaway’s Playland, an amusement park as magical as Coney Island. Black people were initially brought in as labor, to clean the summer dwellings, eventually they settled there too. Today there are less than five hundred bungalows standing, some now preserved as historical landmarks, replenished with love and defended by relentless community activism, “Yes, you can fight City Hall” declares one resident.

In 1969, the year of Helter Skelter, the year after I graduated from high school, everything began to change. Heroin choked the Rockaways as high school athletes, hippie freaks and shell-shocked returning Vietnam War vets alike spent aimless hours strung out on the boardwalk looking to score. Entrepreneurial surf-junkies became international dope smugglers, while pretty boys and girls sold themselves at train stations, hustling dirty old men in seedy hotels on Beach 116 Street. A sleaze factor had set in, and Rockaway was going down. I left the street-corner around 1970, in search of truth and sociology. With Rockaway repurposed as a dumping ground for the City’s most impoverished and powerless populations, the crack epidemics of the 1980’s hit hard. Nursing homes, prostitution, gangs and adult group homes emerged as Rockaway’s primary industries. As violent street gangs and drugs began taxing police resources, Rockaway became known as a rough place, a garbage pail of broken dreams and desperate living, a “Ghetto-by-the-Sea.”

In the housing boom of the 1990s, uptown communities like Belle Harbor and affluent Neponset flourished. An influx of Orthodox Jews had settled in Far Rockaway, building yeshivas and other self-sustaining community institutions. A thriving hip-hop scene grew out of Far Rockaway too, producing such artists as Father MC, MC Serch, Stack Bundles and Bee Ez, but the vibrant creativity and growth across the peninsula was overshadowed by the bad news. Still, people kept on fighting, navigating Rockaway’s ever-changing tides.

In my 2003 memoir, A Misfit’s Manifesto, I wrote about Jewish-Irish tensions that dominated the early 1960’s of my middle class Belle Harbor neighborhood. By the middle 1960s, street-fighting, ethnic cleansings and the stigma of forbidden inter-faith romances that had characterized the pre-Beatles era began to dissolve in a Neptunian haze as drugs and surfing united us. The Irish drank, the Jews preferred the “dry goods,” they joined forces and everyone lived happily ever after in an alchemical transmutation of peace and love. Rockaway had middle and lower income New York Housing Authority projects in the early 1950s, but they were racially mixed, safe and well maintained. Unless you were sequestered in private school, everyone attended Far Rockaway High School. We went to parties together, got high, made music, played sports or hung out. In the late 1960s, interracial dating was still unusual, but not unknown. Still, we white kids remained largely oblivious to the local undercurrents of racism at the core of Rockaway’s story.

In most Rockaway stories, people of color remain situated on the margins. They appear as signifiers of decline, menacing, fighting, or as homeless people pushing shopping carts, winos, bedraggled, often deranged. We see the gloomy housing projects in the background. We know who lives in them. But nobody asks what they think about Rockaway. As heirs to its broken streets, what’s the view of everyman’s paradise from the bottom? With some housing projects situated right on the ocean, why don’t these seaside residents use the beach? Why don’t black people surf?

Surfing was never a rich man’s sport. As a local-to-global subculture rooted in early Polynesian society, surfing’s history is multicultural and integrated, but it rarely included African-Americans. Why not? Some of these presence-of-the-absence questions about race and surf are explored in Whitewash—an award-winning documentary narrated by Ben Harper, which is scheduled for release in 2011. Director Ted Woods wondered why he never saw black people surfing – anywhere. His film “[e]xplores the complexity of race in America through the eyes of the ocean,” and examines “the history of black consciousness as it triumphs and evolves into the minds of black surfers.” The numerous cultural and social barriers that have kept blacks out of the water are breaking down. Like women, black surfers are paddling out to catch America’s best waves.

To this day, embittered local residents maintain the trashing of the Rockaways was systematic and carefully calculated, all part of a cynical conspiracy; let the area rot, make it so scary and ugly that nobody wants to live there. Leave the colored people to starve and freeze in substandard housing and walk away. Let ‘em fend for themselves without social services or basic amenities, whatever it takes to depress the area and lower property values. Then bring in big shot developers to buy up the cheap land, flip it into luxury waterfront housing, make a killing and walk away. Bring in the casinos, Atlantic City style…

But big money never came and plans for the casinos got shot down. In recent years rezoning laws have helped replenish the area with affordable, low scale housing stock. Middle class families moved into planned communities like Arverne-by-the-Sea, with some long time residents describing this influx as gentrification. After so many years of broken promises, old timers remain jaded and skeptical that anything can bring Rockaway back to life.

 

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion

 

About ten years ago, California transplant and baby boomer Kryssa Schemmerling took a subway ride on the A train and spotted a sign that read Far Rockaway. “The name sounded exciting, mysterious, and romantic,” says the working mom. Rockaway’s ocean is mighty and breathtaking, with fierce rip currents. Schemmerling was astonished to see people surfing there, amidst chaos and decay – even in winter. She doesn’t surf but found the sport supremely photogenic.

On some days, as a child, I remember water so crystal clear I could see my feet. But eventually, our precious beaches got soiled, littered with syringes, crack vials, used condoms and broken beer bottles. Rockaway’s sacred waters were habitually desecrated by medical waste, sewage and ships’ debris. Periodically, everyone in the water got impetigo. Eventually, the sand crabs died out – even the jellyfish stayed away. Edgemere got badly hammered in the Rockaway beat-down. With all the vacant lots, there was plenty of free parking – amidst packs of wild hungry dogs and poor folks hunting local pheasant and squirrel for dinner. If you came for surf, you didn’t leave your gear on the beach or walk alone under the elevated train tracks. Stop at a red light, a sunrise car jacking was as likely as a sunset mugging.

Exploring the area, Schemmerling ran into James Breslin, (son of Jimmy). A lifelong surfer from Forrest Hills, “Brez” was a regular at the Beach 38th Street surf break at the center of the story. Surfing movies can be as tedious as porn flicks, endless loops of dudes-on-waves. Initially interested in male bonding patterns, Schemmerling avoids a journalistic approach in favor of something more literary, poetic and anthropological. Having made contact under the most serendipitous circumstances, she engages a group of neighborhood surf buddies – ten or so lifelong friends who claimed the surf break at Beach 38th Street in Edgemere as their own. The men Schemmerling interviews introduce themselves with dual identities; “Iron worker/Surfer,” “Firefighter/Surfer,” “Sanitation Worker/Surfer,” or “Real Estate Broker/Surfer.” Surfer is the primary identity.

“There was a freedom about this place that defined itself,” says Breslin, “Back then, nobody worried about trains, nobody worried about watches, only surf.” In the late 1960’s, the Breslin twins were already familiar faces in Rockaways. Breslin introduced Schemmerling to John “Tank” Gallagher. Tank’s been in the water all his life. We grew up together, three doors down on the same idyllic Belle Harbor street. According to Schemmerling, Tank became her liaison between the uptown (Breezy Point, Belle Harbor, Rockaway Beach) and downtown (Arverne, Edgemere, Far Rockaway) surf cliques. Surfing is very territorial, you surf your break on your street with your friends. Two to three blocks away, you’re a stranger and you’re trespassing. Tank works for the Department of Environmental Protection, teaches surfing and knows everything about ocean ecology, dredging, and dumping. A devout practitioner of the Aloha etiquette, Tank gets along wherever he surfs.

To protect their turf from tourists, local surfers from Daytona Beach to Oahu will employ covert names for secret spots. If you know them, you’ll never say – it’s codified surf law. Localism dictates the status hierarchy of surfing, and it’s universal and a reoccurring theme in both documentaries. Surf spots are like a neighborhood bars in a close-knit community, outsiders are not welcome unless they follow the Aloha etiquette of surfing – show respect, learn the rhythm of the water, go with the flow. In any surf town, the locals are the kids who surf the same breaks their fathers and grandfathers did before them. Deeply rooted in their communities, they hold the power and the local knowledge, the key to the secret spots and the wisdom of the water. Violating local customs can lead to violent confrontation – interlopers beware.

In the ocean, localism plays out as turf war. During tourist season, it can become class war. Especially volatile in summer when less experienced surfers show up – weekend warriors flashing pricey surf gear. The influx of “kooks” (novices, posers) disrupts the natural order of things. It overpopulates the wave and dangerous collisions become unavoidable. “Dropping in” is a severe breach of Aloha etiquette, a serious norm violation among surfers. A drop-in is where somebody hijacks a wave when there’s already a surfer on the wave. Fistfights over drop-ins are not unusual. In season, drop-ins and overcrowding can drive aggro-locals off the wall. Graffiti sends a first warning. If ignored, cars can be vandalized. In rapidly gentrifying Montauk (Monhampton), summer road rage surges on the narrow highways as Range Rovers square off against pick-up trucks. But class antagonism is most apparent in the water. Still, when the Aloha etiquette is practiced with humility and grace, surfing has no boundaries of race, religion, sex or class. It’s individualistic yet tribal, local yet global.

Our Hawaii begins with a funky subway train ride across bridges and tunnels, past dilapidated waterfront shacks to a boardwalk assembly at Beach 38th Street. In true ethnographic form, Schemmerling follows a group of neighborhood surf buddies over time as they recall critical moments of their lives spent riding the waves. The music too, reflects a time gone by, the rise and fall of a once-epic surf break, of Rockaway itself. The guys recall personal and generational experiences – childhood, high school, jobs, addiction, Vietnam, marriage, rock & roll, children, deaths, and 9/11 all the while riding the waves. For these old school aquaholics, surfing has been a constant. More than a sport or a hobby, it’s a spiritual practice that’s bound them together as a group, sustaining them long after they’d grown up, married and moved away. Even now, the ocean offers freedom, creative self-expression and solidarity. Behind the clean-cut crew we spot Edgemere’s broken streets, the housing projects, the vast nothingness where the bungalow colonies used to be. In front of them, the beach, also left to die, strewn with broken glass and concrete and rotted jetties. James Taska points to the ocean and remembers the glory days, “When it got good here, it was like Hawaii. This was our Hawaii.”

Tan and fit, the father of five has been surfing since high school, including winters. Circa 1967 Taska sported a sun drenched two-tone Afro the size of the moon. After work, before school, Taska hit the waves, even on his wedding day. As guests gathered in on wife’s family’s spacious Arverne yard, the bridegroom was still out in the water. The waves were so spectacular he arrived late and wet. That night, his wedding night, Taska went back for more. He says “People still talk about the waves that day.” Jimmy Taska married his high school sweetheart, Carolyn. They made a handsome Rockaway couple, football player and cheerleader. Early on Mrs. Taska understood surfing was crucial to her husband’s wellbeing. But like any sports widow, sometimes she runs out of patience. Even now, she tries to interest him in football and golf, all to no avail. She can’t pry him off the beach if there’s surf. At one point, Mrs. Taska describes threatening to run over her husband’s surfboard.

There’s a shot of them as newlyweds standing together at the shoreline. Mrs. Taska holds her husband’s beer while he gets ready to paddle out, board in hand. I saw the first girl stand up in Rockaway waters around 1967. Theresa Gentile came from a famous family of Belle Harbor surfers, on a good day their boards lined the beach. She surfed with her older brother Nick, and with her girlfriends Joan and Susan. The story of Rockaway’s seminal women of surfing has yet to be told. Most of Rockaway’s old school surfers are men between fifty and sixty years old. Now their daughters and granddaughters surf. With few exceptions, we wahini’s (women) grew up making necklaces from shells and beads, watching for hours as our men walked on water. That’s changing along with America, as women’s surfing aims for a fair share of the market, the line-up and the pro circuit.

One day, Schemmerling was meeting one of the guys for an interview up on the boardwalk at B.38th Street. Meanwhile, John D’Anna, “Iron Worker/Surfer,” told everyone a filmmaker was coming down to interview “the legends of Rockaway surfing.” Ten guys showed up. Shot all in one day, that serendipitous moment set up Schemmerling’s storyline. Baby-faced and ready to kill, the B.38th Street crew is blessed with the indigenous gift of the gab, replete with regional dialect, street-smarts and Rockaway logic. Filmed in H-DV, with no real budget or support, the first-time director-writer-producer lets the guys tell the story, there’s no voice-over narration. But “B.T.” aka Robert Turano, the soft-spoken “O.G.” of the group serves as a de facto narrator, mixing indigenous surf-lore with philosophical reflection, sage wisdom and oral history.

A mystic, carpenter and artist, B.T. was the owner of Full Moon Surf, a shop he founded in 1969 with his brother Donny and their pal Denny Farrell. The storefront was perfectly situated on Beach 114 Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, surrounded by three Irish bars. Alas, he explains, “We weren’t really businessmen, we were surfers,” more interested in getting girls and putting people in the water than getting rich – especially Denny. According to B.T., “If you walked into the shop with no money, and Denny was there, you usually walked out with a board.” Shapers and glazers of finely crafted surfboards, Full Moon Surf closed after a year, as life started getting more complicated for everyone. As B.T. reflects, “We were fighting the police, heroin, the Vietnam war, adulthood, and the decline of the area.”

Restless on land, Robert Turano grew up surfing in the exclusive “No Jews Allowed” enclave of Breezy Point. Five families lived in bungalows there year-round. In winter it was isolated and desolate, says B.T., “We lived like Maoris.” Early on, he recoiled from the scripted regime of marriage, military, work, debt and mortgage. Instead, he pulled a classic 4F deferment, avoided the war and wandered the world, searching for something. Most of the Beach 38th Street crew settled down locally, got married, had kids, bought houses and had jobs. As Mrs. Taska explains, “Everything seemed to blend together.” Only Jerry Amello was a dedicated lifer, travelling the world for surf, free of ties.

B.T.’s journey took a different turn. Sometimes he wonders if a more rooted life might have served him better. He ultimately finds what he needs on the East End of Long Island. Now over sixty, the former guitarist in an infamous local “Bonac Rock City” band called Chum, B.T. is also the father of Ray Doll Hummer, a Nashville rockabilly musician I proudly call my niece. Although she grew up in Hawaii, Ray Doll doesn’t surf. Hates the whole thing. I was renting a room in B.T.’s house in the summer of 2002, the summer Dee Dee Ramone died of a drug overdose. B.T. had settled in Springs, an arty fisherman’s hamlet of East Hampton, it’s glorious light made famous by Jackson Pollack and Willem DeKooning. Ray Doll and I were immersed in cosmology and cosmetology when Schemmerling came by to interview us. I was brought in as a sociologist, American by birth, Rockaway by the Grace of God.

Everyone in Our Hawaii recalls the day the twin towers were hit. From the shores of Rockaway, you could see the smoke bellowing, it made the air putrid. That day, B.T. worried about his pal Denny. Firefighter Dennis Farrell would never pass up the big action. B.T. sent his crew home, walked off the job, and started leaving phone messages for Denny, “ I know you’re in every fire everyone gets killed in. If you’re not in this one, please call me!” But the day dragged on. Eventually Denny did call back, he’d been in the water all day – the waves at Breezy Point were so sweet he had to surf. “Surfing saved Denny’s life,” claims a jubilant B.T. Sadly, it didn’t save every surfer’s life. Cast member, friend and Firefighter Henry Miller died when the towers fell. Schemmerling dedicated Our Hawaiito his memory.

Solemnly recounting the crew’s eventual exodus from Beach 38th Street, Brian Daniels, Iron Worker/Surfer, recalls: “As Rockaway started going down hill, people wanted a better life.” Standing on the boardwalk for the last time, with acres of nothingness behind him, Daniels points east, towards Long Island. “It’s a little nicer over the bridge, people take care of their houses, their community.” At the end of the fifty-eight minute documentary, some of the guys are hanging out together, they’re spending a day at the beach, Mrs. Taska is relaxing in a lounge chair. The sand is white and clean, the boardwalk is full of life, and the waves are incredible. But it’s not B.38th Street or even Rockaway. Jerry Amello explains, “We surfed that break for thirteen years until it got so seedy you couldn’t really stay. So we started surfing here in Long Beach.”

Across the Nassau County line, Long Beach is just over the Atlantic Beach Bridge from Far Rockaway. Duke Kahanamoku visited “The City by the Sea” in 1913 – a year after he consecrated the holy waters of Rockaway. Almost a century later, in September 2011, big prize money is coming to town. Earlier this year the Association of Surfing Professionals announced Long Beach would be a significant stop on its World Tour. The competition, Quicksilver Pro New York, will cough up one million dollars, unprecedented in our regional history. Other stops will include Hawaii, Brazil, France, French Polynesia and Australia. Centrally located between Rockaway and Montauk, fifty minutes direct out of Penn Station Long Beach boasts endless amenities – surf shops, bars, restaurants, surfing schools, and designated “surf only” beaches – all within walking distance of the Long Island Railroad and the ocean. In June, St. James of Jerusalem by the Sea Episcopal Church offers annual boardwalk blessings for surfboards and bicycles. People complain about hefty beach access fees for non-residents and hyper-vigilant lifeguards, but it keeps the beaches clean and well regulated. Spawning pro surfers like Balaram Stack and the Skudin brothers, the adopted home of rocker/surfer Joan Jett is poised to become New York’s Surf City. This is a victory for surfers from the tip of Breezy Point to the Montauk lighthouse. After generations of defending our “puny” waves, 2011 could be the year New York surf finally gets proper respect.

Now a longtime resident, every Labor Day Tank Gallagher hosts an annual end-of-the-summer cookout, celebrating the glorious day “when we get our beaches back from the tourists.” For locals everywhere, this is a high holy holiday. At the end of Our Hawaii, a cookout is in progress, Long Beach kids are surfing, kayaking across the horizon, and the sun is shining. But the area surrounding Beach 38th St. remained an urban prairie, the sand coarse and brown from dredging, the boardwalk empty and the water flat – an American dead zone.

Beach erosion can be a serious threat to coastal towns. To protect waterfront property and preserve the beach, the Army Corp of Engineers will come in and dredge the beach. Sand is brought in from a few miles out in the ocean, and then deposited. Sometimes dredging kills off surf. John D’Anna reads last rites for the Beach 38th Street surf break, recalling the moment of final defeat. “They dredged the beach one day and that was one of the best days of surf ever, and I was on it that day. They dredged all the sand and filled in the beaches and covered the jetties, and now instead of just having one sandbar across the beach, the sandbar extends a mile, maybe even two miles across, and a mile out. So now the waves break all the way out there. So once the beach died and people died from all the drugs and rock & roll, it kind of just faded out.”

 

One man gathers what another man spills

 

I’ve never met Thomas Brookins, an army brat who once lived in the Philippines; he’s not from Rockaway but he does live there now. Although the film debuted at the third annual New York Surf Film Festival in Tribeca, I heard about Shadows of the Same Sun at Luke Hanlet’s All Island Surf Shop in Long Beach, N.Y. Brookins began filming around 2007, long after the fall of the B.38th Street break and the crew’s migration to Long Beach. Gen X, tattooed and fearless by all accounts, Brookins has been surfing most of his life. Like Schemmerling, he was astonished to learn people surfed in the outer boroughs of New York City. The edgy landscape appealed to him. For Brookins, making Shadows of the Same Sun, was “A lesson in respect.” Of the locals, he says, “It’s clear they represent a Rockaway pride in the water. Any wave, they’ll charge it.” Describing the elders, he says, “They’re humble, but they’re tough cookies. That’s something embedded in New Yorkers.”

Enchanted by what he’s found, Brookins also credits some of Rockaway’s recent influx of surfing residents for “Giving Rockaway back its voice,” helping to change the area “from one of the worst in all of New York City to an amazing community again.” Oft maligned by the old school who resent any intrusion into their waters, these Rockaway newcomers are “busy fixing up houses, planting trees, getting involved with local government to try and get this Peninsula looking like a beach town again rather than the thugs, slumlords and prostitutes breaking into my car and trashing the community.” Narrated with an upbeat tempo by Will Hallett, Shadows of the Same Sun begins in Manhattan, amidst the crowded streets and concrete canyons. The footage captures the perpetual buzz of human vitality; the hip-hop music and style underscore the unlikely urban character of the Rockaway surf experience. Perplexed, several tourists recoil from the camera when told there’s surf in New York City, “No way!” Brookins aims to put the Beast Coast back on the map.

Like Schemmerling, Brookins worked day jobs, selling off prized possessions to subsidize the film. And like Schemmerling, his discovery of Rockaway was an accidental jackpot made possible by the grace of serendipity. Brookins explains, “I came to Rockaway after my wife wanted to go to graduate school here in New York City. We had no money and often disagreed about moving to NY because as a surfer, I wanted to go out west. We lived in Jamaica, Queens in a terrible apartment. One day my wife was singing the song from the Ramones (she’s always been a huge fan) ‘Rockaway Beach.’ So that’s when it hit me that we’re on an ocean.” The Ramones said Rockaway Beach was “not far, not hard to reach” but they hitchhiked there. Public transportation to Rockaway is one of its eternal damnations. To get to water, Mr. and Mrs. Brookins took several buses and trains, travelling half the day before landing at the boardwalk on Beach 116th Street. “When I saw that there were chest high, glassy waves, I lost it. I never thought I’d see surf again and there it was.” Brookins knew he had reached the Promised Land, but he had no money – just a credit card. A stranger directed him to Boarders Surf Shop on Beach 92 Street where he picked up a body board and ran right into ocean. “I was blown away!!”

Brookins’s stoke – his exuberant delight at Rockaway’s maritime generosity is conveyed throughout the film. He asks how there can be this amazing surf in New York City and wonders why nobody seems to know (or care) about it? This discovery proved life altering. “It was religious. Every free moment I had was spent on the beach. I started saving a few bucks and got a cheap winter wetsuit so I could surf year round. I met a few guys to surf with.” Eventually, Brookins was invited into a group called the Sand Fleas. They met in a bungalow behind a friends’ house. “Sort of surf club, it became kind of a party, surf, crash pad, and it has been for years now. I was in there for maybe three years. My wife and I had so many friends in Rockaway we decided to get an apartment.”

Now residents for six years, as new parents, the Brookinses are active in local organizations, immersing themselves in groups like the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance (http://www.rwalliance.org), and protesting plans for offshore Liquid Natural Gas drilling in New York and New Jersey waterways (www.cleanoceanaction.org). Ocean activism is a way of life for surfers locally and globally – as water-people organize themselves into an ecologically conscious, spiritually motivated social movement. From Coney Island to Montauk, New York has over one hundred miles of ocean beach with three local chapters of the international Surfrider Foundation dedicated to protecting it (www.surfrider.org). Three generations of Surfrider members in New York City, Central, and Eastern Long Island organize regular beach clean-ups, campaigning against plastic bottles, junk food wrappers and cigarette butts, as none of these are biodegradable. The battle cry, “Respect the Beach!”

The area technically zoned as Rockaway Beach includes Holland and Hammels. The acclaimed Rockaway Taco (www.rockawaytaco.com) on Beach 95th Street draws dedicated international surf tourists and foodies to the area. As part of a fresh influx of surfing families, Brookins says he’s watched Rockaway Beach grow “From a seedy, almost forgotten oceanfront by tenements to a rejuvenated playground for surfers in claustrophobic New York.” Brookins was humbled by the stories he heard every day at the beach, in the water, the traditions of surfing passed down to generations rising. He decided to just “Shut the fuck up and listen,” vowing to get the stories documented before more urban planning paved it over. A new dad, he’s raising a family there too now, helping to revitalize the area. “Only a few people actually take advantage of the good community here,” says Brookins. Regarding Rockaway’s numerous day-trippers, “People think there’s nothing going on except the waves, but that’s not true. Generations of surfers have paved the way for all of us to enjoy it too.” Brookins was drawn to the area by the surf but stayed for the community, “Families, barbeques, older surfers cracking jokes and sharing stories of the old days. The network is amazing here. If someone needs something, everyone pitches in.” And, he adds, “We do have some amazing Guinness here in Rockaway. Some of the bars pride themselves on their pours.”

“The older guys are getting up there, many have passed away. The area has filled with new people, buildings are going up and many surfers are moving in. Many of the new people just don’t think to ask.” The Rockaway peninsula is loaded with surfing legends, stories, swells and breaks. As with any subculture, everyone will swear they were the first, the original gangstas of surf. The rest will be dismissed as “newbs” or “wannabes.” Breezy Point and Belle Harbor involve two totally different casts of characters, as do Rockaway Beach, Arverne, Edgemere, and Far Rockaway. Each area has a story all its own. In fact, if there were ten thousand documentaries made about surfing in the Rockaways, there would still be bickering over historical accuracy, authenticity and legitimacy. But Brookins has a more universal agenda, “As a surfer, I feel like this place has a major roll in surfing history. It’s New York City. It literally has something for everyone. People should know about the surfers from the 1950’s and up. It should be revered. I really think its necessary to pass these stories down. It only helps the community grow healthy. Respect it, and it will give back in its own healthy way.”

Shadows of the Same Sun offers us a detailed history of surfing technology and how it evolved. A group of surf elders are seated around a kitchen table, including Dennis McClean, born in 1937, a Korean War veteran and possibly Rockaway’s first sponsored surfer. The men describe how they implemented wetsuits from old diving gear, fashioning surfboards from discarded ironing boards or plywood. Standing in his shop on B.92 Street, Boarders Surf proprietor Steve Stathis describes one of the first surfboards – “Ten foot, six inches, forty pound Hobie, four inches thick, with a four inch redwood stringer.” In the early days, surfing in Rockaway was illegal. Hostile police regularly ticketed wave rebels who retaliated by staying in the ocean as long as they could, just to piss of the cops who had to wait around for hours just to snag them. In 1967, there’s a photo of Stathis and his surf buddies congregating around a local bar sporting blue satin jackets, club colors he says made him feel cool.

But the Rockaway Beach Surfing Club had more serious concerns than looking sharp. Rockaway had no designated surf beaches, no voice, and no power. “The Park’s Department just blew us off.” They got support when John Gunderson, then co-publisher of Atlantic Surfing stepped in and helped organize a surfing protest in Manhattan. Picketing City Hall dressed in their satin club jackets, Stathis notes they made unlikely protesters, given the times. But thanks to the Surf Club’s efforts, the City officially designated Beach 110 Street as a surfing beach. After 9-11, Stathis founded the Gray Beards, an organization dedicated to community service and civic pride (http://www.graybeards.com). In Rockaway, where so many young surfers grew up to be lifeguards, then cops and firefighters, these are long-standing traditions.

John McAmee started surfing at eleven, he’s now fifty-five and still in the water. McAmee got his first board in 1963, a nine foot, six inch Hobie. Surfers wax their boards to avoid slipping. This wax is rubbed on the top surface or “deck” of a surfboard to allow traction and grip. So intimate was the relationship between surfer, wave and board, one of the most popular brands was labeled “Sex Wax.” But in the early days you couldn’t just buy a bar of wax in a surf store. You had to make it yourself. “Before wax, we used paraffin. We melted it down on the stove, then dripped it on our boards.” Unlike today, there were no surfboards on the beach, “We couldn’t afford them.” People shared whatever they had, or made their own. “Man made the board, but God made the waves,” he says, with gratitude and humility.

“Surfing was a way of life, people don’t understand that, it’s not like basketball or baseball, I played all those sports,” says Retired Firefighter Buddy Sammis, “Surfing shits on all those sports.” Back then, surfers were like bikers – bad boys, wild and a little dangerous. Sammis describes his surf buddies as “Big guys, two hundred pounds, over six feet tall.” For fun, as the girls swam by in the water, the surfers snatched them by the bathing suit, pulling off their bottoms. Turf wars among locals were rough trade. If you usually surfed on Beach 91, and tried to surf at Beach 94, just a few blocks away, you were viewed as a stranger. “If you misbehaved, it was “Out!!” You were banished.

Sammis once ran with a crew of about fifteen hardcore guys, now, he says, more than half are gone, “Most of them are dead.” By 1973, the beaches got so crowded locals had “Surfing Association” stickers made. Sammis explains, “If you weren’t a member, you were asked to leave.” Before surfing, Rockaway had street gangs, tame by today’s standards, mainly focused on drinking and fighting. “We weren’t peace and love groovy, we’d give you a good beat-down for sure.” The Rockaway legacy of street fighting migrated to the ocean, surviving long after the gangs had disappeared. Both Sammis and Denny Farrell –B.T.’s friend and co-founder of Full Moon Surf – appear in both documentaries, Tank appears in a group photo at Boarders Surf Shop. Otherwise, there’s surprisingly little overlap in the casting. Now hanging in Rincon, Puerto Rico, his hair all long and surfed out, retired firefighter Dennis Farrell claims, “Surfing saves peoples’ lives. If they didn’t have surfing…who knows where they would have ended up. And I’m one of them.” This is theme echoed in both documentaries, across generations. For the old school, the glory days of Rockaway were over. Rockaway had turned into a place you just wanted to get out of. “Rockaway was a nice place, I guess it changed.”

Shadows of the Same Sun proves that Rockaway is changing again. In the last segment Brookins captures the spirit of renewal in an area urban surfers now call NS3, “The Not So Secret Spot.” The boardwalks are alive with a buzzing, blooming corncopia of humanity. ‘Tween girls are surfing and black people stand together at the water’s edge, enjoying the waves. We meet a few younger surfers, a passionate generation of newcomers who now call Rockaway Beach their home. You can see the light in Giuseppe Glammona’s eyes as the drummer testifies, “Surfing and skateboarding saved my life.” The new settlers are raising young families, often holding down blue-collar jobs, working as cops and firefighters. Unlike Southern California, where everyone is all duded up, or the predatory hipsterville currently devouring Montauk, most of Rockaway’s newer residents look likenormal people. As in any beach town, locals don’t appreciate more people crowding the waves, but they do appreciate their new neighbors – people who bought property, fixed it up and cared for it, “when nobody else wanted it.”

In this transitional stage, from the old to the new, from the Rockaway of Our Hawaii’s fallen B.38th Street break to the new spirited communities rising, the peninsula faces challenges, but none are insurmountable. Young surfing families who hope to raise their kids in Rockapulco can be disillusioned by local politics, weird laws, run down schools, parking problems, and a general lack of aesthetics beyond the beach. But crappy public transportation may still be the biggest deal-breaker. As Brookins notes, “Some have moved here and then left due to the subway being so uncomfortable and inconvenient. Who wants to commute an hour and a half just to get off a train and wait at Broad Channel for a shuttle train in the sub zero temps of New York City, let alone the summer?” Yet Brookins remains committed and optimistic, “The more people who move here, the more this will change because of demand.” In recent years residents have fought off developers and politicians in the City’s never-ending quest to fuck things up. Once defeated by cynicism, racism, greed and indifference, in this new century, Rockaway is everyperson’s paradise.

The parting shot of Shadows of the Same Sun captures a few little girls skipping in the evening sun, silhouetted across the boardwalk. With no formal training as a filmmaker, Brookins had just completed shooting surfing footage for an earlier project, Etched In Sections, when he had a revelation. Brookins claims he owes the whole movie – and a new life direction to that moment. “Here we were sharing the same space but with completely different reasons…it’s what started me thinking about who surfed before us, and looking at all the construction made me really wonder if anyone cared about it all.” Documenting the little black and brown girls laughing on the boardwalk, he wonders, “Where will they end up, will the beach help them be more then what the projects will give them?”

“When I shot those girls, it just hit me. I’ve been surfing this beach for many years, and within that time I learned about the people here, good-hearted, strong people. They have a genuine surfing history passed down through the generations. I was shooting something that, if it was in California or Hawaii, people would just embrace as the norm. But in New York City, reactions are usually like, ‘What? No, not here.’ Yet there are so many surfers in all five boroughs, and up and down this coast…it’s embraced in every beach town from Florida to the Canadian border.”

Shadows of the Same Sun is a heartfelt tribute to the old school, “to all those Rockaway surfers who came before.” The closing narration offers a powerful generational statement that honors a century of surfing, “The people who have laid this path for us, are too many to name, they did so with passion and sacrifice.” The narrator concludes, “So the next time you paddle out, think of the people who surfed before you, look for them appreciate them, respect all they’ve done for you. We’re all intertwined into surfing’s global history because we are all shadows of the same sun.”

The belief that surfing unites people, that it saves lives, creates and sustains community is a constant thread in both films. Lord Neptune (the ocean) extends an open invitation to all of Rockaway’s residents, to everyone under the sun. Sometimes it takes a stranger, an outsider to show you who you are and where you came from, to cherish you with dignity and respect, instead of shunning you with shame and remorse. That’s the gift Schemmerling and Brookins brought to Rockaway. Each documentary locates the strength and beauty of a place history, economy and society had thrown away. Both unearthed signs of life, new, old, eternal, and with it courage, hope and renewal – a full blown Rockaway resurrection.

Dedicated to the beloved memory of Theresa Catherine Gentile (1954-2010)

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