Tonight we went to Anthology Film Archives to see "The Bungalows of Rockaway," about 25 minutes of a documentary-in-progress about the place where we spent every idyllic summer until we were 16 and Robert Moses destroyed it.
Of course, judging by the standing-room only audience in the large theater for the film screening and panel discussion, many people in New York still remember the bungalows of Rockaway as fondly as we do and are just as passionate about that lost world, the last of which badly needs to be preserved.
Thanks to filmmaker Jennifer Callahan and her co-producer Elizabeth Logan Harris; neighborhood activists and bungalow advocates like Richard George at the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association; groundbreaking urban history scholars like Caroline C. Pasion; and the sponsor of tonight's event, the Historic Districts Council, the citywide advocate for historic districts and for neighborhoods that merit preservation, more people will know and care about the bungalow culture of Rockaway that flourished for 100 years.
Here's a good summary of "The Bungalows of Rockaway" from promotional material:
Jennifer Callahan and Elizabeth Logan Harris estimate that 7,000 bungalows covered the Rockaway peninsula during its heyday as a summer resort for working-class families.
They believe fewer than 400 remain.
For their documentary about Rockaway bungalows, the pair has more than 40 hours of footage including interviews with former vacationers such as AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. They’ve been collecting archival material, maps and rare footage such as the Marx brothers frolicking at a row of bungalows they owned in the 1920s before they moved to Hollywood.
As we got our seats before the film, there was a continuous slide show of old WPA pictures taken of the Rockaway bungalows in 1939 and 1940. Just about that time, both sets of our grandparents decided to get out of hot Brooklyn for the summer and rent bungalows in Edgemere and Arverne along with their siblings, parents, aunts and uncles.
Our mom and dad met there as young teenagers during World War II, and we remember our summers spent in Lincoln Court, with our parents or maternal grandparents. Lincoln Court was one of five bungalow courts on the beach block between Beach 56th Street and Beach 56th Place in a series of blocks of bungalows stretching a hundred blocks across the Rockaway peninsula.
Within a few blocks we had tons of extended family members. Our paternal grandparents had a street bungalow; our step-great-grandmother and two great-aunts (sisters of our mother's father and mother) and our uncle's mother-in-law and their families were just one court north of us. We had relatives of all four of our grandparents living around us, along with their in-laws, and it seems that all our friends were either related to each other or to us. Everyone knew us.
And though we lived in Brooklyn most of the year, for the summers the Rockaway bungalow colonies were our home, filled with the childhood friends we most treasured. Rockaway was the place we lived outdoors, on each other's porches, on the beach and boardwalk, waiting for the Bungalow Bar ice cream truck or the raspy howl "Candy Man here! Candy Man here!" or going to the avenue to eat in kosher delis or pizzerias or to buy "dry ice" or the first issue of Justice League of America or sip malteds or get the Spaldeens we spent hours playing with at boxball, Chinese handball, punchball, roofball and hit-the-penny.
We were kids so we didn't know that this bungalow culture was in decline and would suddenly end. Back in Arizona, we have lots of Kodachrome pics of us and even old herky-jerky movies of us performing in a show that was broadcast on some long-defunct Brooklyn radio station and in a boxing ring with gloves as big as our head fighting our friend Brucie (the old movie even has a "commercial" with the two of us four-year-olds with shaving cream on our faces, smilingly promoting Barbasol). And lots of pics of our parents and their friends from the 1940s too.
Too many boring old-man memories come back to us after seeing "The Bungalows of Rockaway" - like the fireworks every Wednesday night and sleeping on our uncle's Coast Guard hammock on the porch under a yellow light to scare away bugs and sneaking to the boardwalk late at night in the middle of a June weekend with our scientific genius friend Mitchell and our aunt's sister Arlene when we were all 12 and trying to see the Vostok 6 satellite with the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. Stop us now or we'll go on for days...
So here's Marissa Brostoff, writing in the Jewish Daily Forward about the film-in-progress we saw tonight:
One of the first images in Jennifer Callahan’s documentary “The Bungalows of Rockaway” is a close-up of a woman’s wrinkled face wearing an expression of amazement and delight. The face belongs to Maxine Marx, daughter of Chico, and we see that she is watching a black-and-white film reel of a family carousing on the beach. “Is that Daddy?” she exclaims. “Oh, he was so cute.”
Chico and Groucho Marx had seaside bungalows in Far Rockaway, a neighborhood on Queens’s Rockaway Peninsula, as did legions of families who lived for the summer days when they could escape the cramped streets of New York City for the beach. As Callahan explains in her film, Jewish, Irish and black families who couldn’t afford The Rockaways’ tonier hotels first set up camp in tent cities along the shore, which in the 1910s and ’20s gave way to thousands of small but functional bungalows.
After seeing what Callahan has done so far - she and her co-producer Harris said they are almost done, with many hours of interviews already filmed - we're sure "The Bungalows of Rockaway" will be a great feature-length documentary, perfect for Channel 13 and something we'd like to own on DVD. It's got a lot more history than anything we knew about in our little section of a pretty vast bungalow culture.
The panel discussion moderated by the well-known design and architecture writer Eve Kahn with Callahan, Harris, George and Pasion was fascinating, and the audience - many of whom are, like us, Rockaway people, and a few who are lucky enough to live in one of the few hundred remaining bungalows - examples of "vernacular architecture" that will hopefully be preserved through the efforts of the people and groups involved tonight.
For forty years, the summer world we knew on our beachfront blocks in Arverne was reduced to a state of foul nature, turned into nothing but weeds, sand and garbage for miles around. Although both sets of grandparents and other relatives had remained in Rockaway in the new oceanfront highrises in what had been Irishtown in the Seaside area and our first apartment on our own was a studio on the boardwalk for which we paid $240 a month, we never forgot how wonderful those bungalows were.
An hour-long walking tour, "Beauty of the Bungalows," led by Richard George, will take place at noon on Saturday, October 4. You can get information or RSVP by emailing FarRockawayBBPA@aol.com.
The nice woman who handed us a leaflet on our way out told us she lived near Richard, around Beach 25th Street, and we asked if she remembered the Beach 25th Street drugstore owned by our Grandpa Herb's brother, Uncle Jack Sarrett, and she said, "Of course, everyone knew Mr. Sarrett." We last saw Uncle Jack in Peninsula Hospital in 1981, just before he died. He lived in Rockaway for most of his life, and like us, he loved it.
If you are a New Yorker and have never been to the Rockaways, get out there and see this most beautiful part of the city. Our life there was wonderful.