Review: “Bungalows of Rockaway” at Tenement Talks

Posted on: June 2nd, 2011 at 10:03 am by

The following writeup was penned by our newest contributor here at Bowery Boogie, Lori Greenberg.

Bungalows, the low-rise cousins of tenements, were the topic of a screening at the Tenement Museum last Thursday night as part of its successful Tenement Talks series.

The Bungalows of Rockaway, a wonderful documentary, was directed, produced and written by Jennifer Callahan, and co-produced and co-written by Elizabeth Logan Harris. It chronicles the rise and fall and possible rise again of beachfront bungalow homes in an area that few New Yorkers now know about.

At the turn of the last century, when the first skyscrapers were rising in Manhattan, bungalows were also being constructed on the beach, just a short train ride away. The residents of the Lower East Side (i.e., bus drivers, tailors, domestic workers, pushcart peddlers), lived on modest incomes. Yet, they were able to escape the heat and crowds of the city in the summers by renting or buying bungalows in the Rockaways. Hard to imagine that “working stiffs” — as they were referred to in the doc — would be able to afford a beach house now.

These working stiffs were Irish, Jewish and African-American, who, because they tended to recreate their city blocks (where families stuck together, and nobody ventured more than a block or two away from home), settled into separate neighborhoods in the Rockaways.

By 1933, there were over 7,000 bungalows in the Rockaways. Fewer than 400 remain now. The bulk of them were destroyed by Robert Moses’ Urban Renewal plan in the 1960’s, which emphasized pushing low-income families out of the city and into even more cramped housing in that area.

The film then focuses on the various people which have formed groups to preserve access to the waterfront, to clean up the public park areas, and to try to landmark some of the remaining bungalows.

The audience was filled to capacity with many people who had spent their summers at Rockaway Beach. During the Q & A, one woman told a story of working at a knishery on the Boardwalk and remembered that on Sundays you could get seven knishes for one dollar.

Bob Connelly, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and spent his summers as a child in the Rockaways, was interviewed in the film and appeared at the museum last night for a Q & A with the filmmakers. He described the icemen who made deliveries to their summer home as “various guys who were always named Joe.” He also spoke about how their mattresses always had sand in them from the many kids in the family tracking everything in from the beach. The bungalows were tiny and uninsulated (originally intended for only seasonal use), filled with large families who spent almost all of their time outside, but, as Connelly said, “It was perfect.”

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