BY SHANE MILLER
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy decimated the Rockaway Peninsula. It was the strongest and most destructive storm of that year’s Atlantic hurricane season, and it didn’t spare the southernmost point of Queens. But if the storm had any silver lining, the ensuing recovery efforts brought the beachfront communities of the borough to the attention of the rest of Queens and New York City.
“Hurricane Sandy was the first renaissance,” Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato told This Is Queensborough during a walk along the Rockaway Beach Boardwalk. “People came in to help us and discovered us. They never knew it was here, and it’s been growing ever since.
“Before Sandy, the Rockaways weren’t thriving, we were surviving,” the lifelong Rockaway resident added. “Now we’re thriving.”
And if there was any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic for the peninsula, it was when the weather turned warmer and people were looking to be outside but still socially distanced, the beach was the perfect spot.
“During the pandemic, what people discovered was Rockaway,” Pheffer Amato said. “It was our second renaissance. People were comfortable outside on the boardwalk and the beaches were packed. The beach always brings comfort.”
That said, the restrictions on indoor dining and other COVID-era precautions hit Rockaway small business hard, many of which rely on the influx of visitors the summer season brings to the peninsula to improve their bottom line. But with the city moving toward a full reopening, indoor dining restrictions and curfews being lifted, and Memorial Day later this month marking the unofficial start of summer, there is hope among Rockaway small business owners.
“Everyone feel good and they’re hopeful that we are getting back to normal,” Pheffer Amato said. “Our restaurant business is growing, and the past year was so challenging and difficult, but the mood is changing. I think we are going to have a great summer.”
But it’s not just the beaches, bustling boardwalk, and shops and restaurants attracting visitors from all over the city, the Rockaways is nurturing a thriving arts community.
“There is so much culture developing,” said Pheffer Amato. “There has always been an art and music community here, but the one thing that has absolutely happened is there is an underground art and music scene.”
The assemblywoman said the art scene attracts nonprofits and other organizations that want to tap into and cultivate that creativity. As an example, two years after Sandy, the Museum of Modern Art began curating events, performances and installations in the Rockaways.
“Again, locals always did it, but more people are paying attention, so more funding is coming,” Pheffer Amato added.
Recently, the Queens Chamber of Commerce facilitated grants of $20,000 to five small businesses in the Rockaways, as well as one on Broad Channel. The Chamber was one of several organizations tasked with distributing money from a $17.5 million fund made possible by new Mets owner Steve Cohen. The Chamber has also been instrumental in jumpstarting the Rockaway Business Alliance.
“It will hopefully develop into a real conduit for the businesses in the Rockaway,” Pheffer Amato said of the alliance. “I think the Chamber really gets us, and that’s always been a struggle for people in the Rockaways. Everyone doesn’t get us.”
While there has been an influx of new residents as people discover the joys of peninsula life, Pheffer Amato said the Rockaways is still a community of locals that remembers the years they were largely forgotten and overlooked by the rest of New York City.
“In Queens, when we would get help it stopped at the bridge,” she said, referring to the span that connects the Rockaways to the rest of the borough. “There is a lack of belief in government or any organized effort. People think, ‘Oh what do they want now?’ Just dues and nothing for it.”
She said the Chamber understands that challenge, as well as managing the expectations of what a business group can accomplish. Pheffer Amato said small business owner are beginning to understand that an organization like the Chamber doesn’t exist necessarily to promote individual businesses.
“Some of the negativity that happened out here with chambers back in the day was just not fully managing expectations about what any business alliance will do for you,” she said. “They’re not out there promoting your small business, they are promoting the concept of small business and opening doors.
“It’s not like years ago where a bunch of men just sat around a room and talked about whatever,” the assemblywoman said. “We want to teach businesses that there is going to be help.”
Pheffer Amato herself is married to a small business owner. Her husband and his brother work in a family-owned pizzeria that has history in the Rockaways dating back over 40 years. Like every other restaurant owner, her husband is trying to navigate the world of online ordering, a new experience for him.
She says a group like the Chamber could host information sessions for restaurant owners to teach them how to set up, manage, and profit from an online ordering system.
“It’s really about networking, resources, and block building,” Pheffer Amato said. “If I have an issue with a volunteer fire department, I can call the Chamber and ask if they have a member bank that works with nonprofits.”
Watching the surfers catch waves at the city’s only legal surfing beach, Pheffer Amato reflected on all of the changes that have occurred in the Rockaways since Sandy nearly destroyed it. With all the amenities the boardwalk has to offer, residents need only walk out their front door and head to the beach in the evening to get a bite to eat, have a drink (the assemblywoman has high praise for the frozen wine!), and catch an impromptu street performance.
“It’s changed for me, and I’ve lived here my whole life, it has a vibe” she said. “It’s a new experience in my hometown.”