Between A Rock and A Hard Place: New York’s Complicated, Cumbersome Surf Scene

Note: This piece was written between September 2010 and December 2012. It’s probably one of my favorite things that I’ve ever written, but it never found a home. If you enjoy reading it, please share.

The Rockstock & Barrels surf competition and music festival returns to the boardwalk at 90th Street in Rockaway, Queens on a sunny Saturday in June. The beach is full of Yankees caps and dyed black hair and intentionally disheveled-looking clothes. Their owners either ride pop-outs or no-expense-spared paragons of craftsmanship; nothing in between. They take to the waves in droves.

“It’s a circus out there on the weekends. It never used to be like this,” confides Rockaway-bred John Gutierrez as he watches hundreds of surfers jockey for chest-high waves.

“You really get everyone,” local Danny Jones says. “You get Wall Street guys that wanna rent soft tops on the weekends and you’ve got hipsters that come down with their freakin’ ripped wetsuits and their weird-shaped boards: ‘Yeah, I shaped it myself, bro.’ Old-timers, young kids…”

“Dailies.” That’s what Rock locals call visitors; interlopers who care little that this is actually someone’s home. At the end of their beach days, the sand is strewn with rubbish: Bottles, cans, you name it. You’ve never seen so much sea glass before.

Danny’s camera bag and lifeguard gear were pilfered from the beach and one of his friends was jumped somewhere in the “lower-numbered streets.” The area between Beach 32nd Street and Beach 84th Street is called Arverne-by-the-Sea. In the early 19th century, this neighborhood consisted mainly of charming (if “flimsy”) beach bungalows. When New York’s Commissioner of Public Works Robert Moses tore down inner-city housing in the mid-20th century, he re-classified Arverne’s summer rentals as year-round homes and moved the displaced residents into them. They were eventually shuffled into public housing projects, and didn’t fare well so far from their jobs. Until recently, most developers ignored Arverne, and what should be some of the most valuable land in the city is largely in tatters. Through much of Rockaway, abandoned beach-front high rises back up to low-income tenements, and many of the people who live in them–within 2,000 feet of the ocean–can’t swim.  

Rockaway“Are you sure there’s even surfing in that area?” asks the receptionist at the Queens Historical Society. She’s talking about Rockaway, which is a mere 12 miles from her, in the same borough as she is.

“Yeah,” is the response.

“You’re positive?” She persists.

“Yeah.”

From Beach 116th Street in Rockaway, Manhattan’s trademark skyline looks very far away. It is actually 18 miles away, but it takes five trains and more than 90 minutes to get between the Upper East Side and where I’m standing now.

In a lot of ways, this part of Rockaway feels like the suburbs, with its neat rows of houses on tree-lined streets, but it’s still within city limits. The aforementioned Danny Jones is a surfer, a photographer, and often, a surf photographer who lives in Rockaway.

He has lived here his entire life, though he now spends winters on the North Shore. “When I’m walking through an airport, I always have a giant surfboard bag or tons of shit with me,” he says. “People are like, ‘Oh, where are you from–California?’ I’m like, ‘Nope, New York City–born and raised.’

As he leaves a store on 116th Street, a homeless man asks Danny for his change. He hands it over and says, “You know I got you, brother.”

The 25-year-old has a Denis Leary-like accent and long, sun-bleached hair. He looks like he just woke up, but claims he’s an early riser. It’s after lunch. He is wearing a t-shirt from a Montauk surf shop, a pair of navy sweats, and flip-flops.

Danny says everyone who surfs at Rockaway swears to be a local. “Once they sign their lease on their fucking condo on the beach for the summer, or the year, they automatically assume they live here,” he says.

At Boarders surf shop on Beach 92nd Street, photos of homegrown surfers like Danny obscure an entire wall of the shop. Fluorescent lighting and linoleum floors. It feels like a place where you can get the stuff you need to get some waves, maybe a good story about the good old days–and not much more.

At 62, Boarders owner Steve Stathis still looks like he could kick your ass, but he probably wouldn’t. His accent is Queens. He grew up in Rockaway, too.

Steve began surfing at 13 years old. In June of 1967, the city’s Parks Department said surfers could only go out at certain beaches for three morning hours–on weekdays. The surfers felt they were being discriminated against, so 25 of them went to City Hall in their trunks, with their logs, and protested.

“People in Manhattan were looking at us like, ‘What the hell’s goin’ on here?’” Steve says. “We had no idea what was going on, but the protest worked. The city gave us a surfing beach on 110th and that was the first official surfing beach we had.”

Since he opened Boarders seven years ago, he estimates the number of surfers has doubled each year. Mathematically, this means that the majority of Rockaway’s surfers are neophytes.

Steve says that, as you may expect, the crowds are smaller in the winter. When the waves get good, even in the winter, the lineup does get crowded. “The problem [then] is, a bulk of the crowd has no idea what they’re doing,” he says.

In the winter, “it’s cold, the waves are usually bigger, the currents are stronger,” Steve continues. “You want to make sure you have people who know what they’re doing out there.”

In August of 2009, a couple of guys at the forefront of New York’s high-end hipsterdom movement opened a different kind of surf shop in the City. Saturdays Surf NYC shone a burning red mark on the heart of Manhattan’s upscale market, where nothing short of a boutique would suffice.

On Halloween, co-owner Morgan Collett is DJ-ing a party hosted by Saturdays and Kingswood restaurant in the West Village. A black bouncer in a black shirt stands in front of the blacked-out windows taking names. Wrong name, no admittance. “Morgan Collett” is the right name. Upstairs, downstairs, upstairs. The coterie undulates in time with ear-splitting electro pop beats. Mary-Kate Olsen is quietly obstructing the staircase. Or maybe it’s Ashley.

A couple of blocks downtown and to the East, Saturdays sits on cobblestone-paved Crosby Street, within 500 feet of Bloomingdales SoHo, Topshop, and the French Culinary Institute.  It doesn’t feel out of place.

A rack inside holds three alaias and 19 mostly retro short-boards. There’s one exquisite wooden board–a Malwitz Custom board, “handmade in Brooklyn NYC.”  No sticker on it, but the two flanking it are marked $650 and $800.

Nathan, a shop employee and West Oz import, explains that the Malwitz board costs $1,200. It’s hollow inside, and “isn’t really meant to be ridden,” he says. Later, Rick Malwitz tells me that it is, indeed, meant to be ridden.

The clientele at Saturdays are both diverse and peculiar for a surf shop. Take the guy who just walked in. He’s wearing violently red pants and a plaid blazer, a black scarf, and taupe rectangular glasses. He has a white guy ‘fro, and it happens to be receding. A couple of middle-aged women mill about. A black guy with long, graying dreadlocks buys a leash. They’re also buying small lattes for $4 a pop.

T-shirts with “SURF NYC” emblazoned across their chests are tagged at $35 and hung near 5/4/3 Matuse wetsuits. One shelf is stocked with “Clever Curls and Waves Texture Spray”–styling product from Tommy Guns salon in the Lower East Side.

One hundred years ago the Lower East Side was a neighborhood from which German and Irish immigrants dreamt of escape. In 2010, New York magazine named it the second most livable neighborhood in the city.

Rockaway, where the Saturdays crew and their clientele head to surf, is another section of New York cleft by complex socioeconomics. A wealthy seaside resort community in the 1800s, advances in transportation first increased Rockaway’s popularity as a holiday destination and then drastically diminished it as tourists and city dwellers discovered other nearby stretches of sea. Rockaway is part of Queens Community District 14, which is 37% white, and where an average of at least 20% of residents fall below the poverty line.

“The [2000] census data remorselessly makes and re-makes the same point: that there are two communities in New York, rich and poor, as separate from each other as though Robert Moses had ordered the erection of a Berlin Wall of stone, cement, and barbed wire,” writes Eric Homberger in The Historical Atlas of New York City. Homberger is talking specifically about the line between the Upper East Side and Harlem, but his statement holds true for the City as a whole.

It’s harsh, but that’s New York sometimes. Everyone’s neurotic, everyone’s in a rush, everyone thinks he’s just a little bit cooler than he’s letting on. People are honest–but that’s not always as comforting as it sounds. Subway trains break down. While you’re on them. Late for work. And the lights shut off. And some lady passes out. People, who are not always cops, roam the streets with firearms. New York is a city designed for the wealthy–both in terms of social expectations and financial obligations. On top of paying your rent, you simply must try that new Mexican-Japanese-French brunch place with the $25 Nutella tacos. You also must rinse the taste of stress away with $12 cocktails.

Of course, all of these things also make New York the most   _______ (insert positive descriptor here) city in the world. And surfers are nothing if not eager for a punishing, yet worthwhile, experience.

In the second half of November 2010, Eastern Surf Magazine breaks the news that the ASP is considering sticking a World Tour event in New York. The Tour schedule tentatively lists, with laughable vagueness, an “East Coast” event in early September.

“I think it’s awesome,” Collett says, “if they’re willing to have a good window, waiting for the swell.”

What about the crowds?

“I still think it’s pretty underground, to be honest,” he continues. “When we go surf and it’s good, it’s the same people who are out surfing. And in the wintertime, when it’s cold, there’s no one surfing, really, except the people who live out on Long Island and a few of the people in New York who are that into it, to go when it’s freezing.”

But the New York surf scene is trimming perilously close to “played out.” Isn’t it?

Collett points out that when surfers first discovered Indonesia’s striking lineups, there was nobody there. Now, it’s a thriving commercial center and it’s crowded. “But everyone still goes, because it’s perfect.”

In January of 2011, the “East Coast” Tour stop becomes the Quiksilver Pro New York in Long Beach. It will have the richest prize purse in the history of surfing: $1 million. Surfline’s 15-year study of western Long Island determined that September 4th through 15th is the region’s most consistent swell period. That exact window becomes the waiting period. Kelly Slater says he remembers surfing “some great waves on Long Island” when he was younger. Most of surf civilization remains incredulous.

In September, the Atlantic and the offshore Hudson Canyon reward the faithful. Surf celebrities mingle. The Times has reporters on site. Long Beach and Rockaway locals, for the most part, scheme to gain admittance to the parties thrown in their own backyards.

A year later, Surfing magazine hosts the fifth annual New York Surf Film Festival in Brooklyn. The East Coast is having a phenomenal run of swell. Hurricanes Isaac, Kirk, Leslie, Rafael. Sandy.

Just before the 2011 Quik Pro New York, the Tri-State area (and particularly western Long Island) copped a severe beating from Irene. But Sandy. She levels the place. The global surf community unites to clean up and rebuild places like Seaside Heights, N.J. and Rockaway.

SMASH NYC’s Tyler Breuer, who lives in Brooklyn and frequents Rockaway, says it looks like a “war zone,” but people have hope. They’re helping one another.

“Once you get near the surf break–like [from] 90th Street up to about 129th–it’s packed. I mean, there’s traffic. There are so many people helping, and all of the organizations are based out of there,” he says.

But he also says that the part of Rockaway that was already eroded–the part that has always needed the most support­–still isn’t getting it.

“There’s not a lot of setup,” Breuer says. “You’re not seeing National Guard down there. It’s where a lot of the projects are. There are some people there, but yesterday, I was driving through the eastern part [of Rockaway], by Long Beach, actually, and it was just deserted.”

“Well, there was a lot of looting over there, too, which was crazy,” he continues. “It’s tough, because I feel like the people in the projects are so… they already feel like they’re neglected. By the government. So, they’re already in this desperate, fight-or-flight situation, where you’re just like, ‘Well, every man for himself.’ And ‘These people aren’t going to be here for me, anyway, so fuck it.’ And that’s kind of understandable in some ways. I’m not justifying it, but I can see how someone’s mindset can lead to those decisions.”

To classify Hurricane Sandy as a disaster almost feels prosaic. Hurricane Sandy was–and is­–a nightmare. She exposed the very best, and worst, in people. And she has further uncovered what will almost certainly be recovered with rapid efficiency. The dirty, little secret of New York’s surf culture. It isn’t Arverne-by-the-Sea. It’s the seemingly unbridgeable divide between Arverne and its neighbors.

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