It’s the hottest day of the year so far—a freak 98 degrees in early June—and a holiday to boot: Brooklyn-Queens Day, a next-to-meaningless date the city’s schools celebrate by emptying out. The perfect storm, you could say, of a beach day. Rockaway Beach, the largest urban sand strip in America, is paved with lolling bodies. Coconut husks and VitaminWater bottles pile up in and around trash cans. Hip-hop bass hangs in the scorching air.
One block from the ocean, the scene is a little different. Across the street from an abandoned Victorian with an overgrown driveway, in a taco shack with hand-painted signs, the Dead Boys’ “What Love Is” bangs on the boom box. A Chloë Sevigny look-alike in a torn Joy Division shirt works the front, slinging fish, tofu, and chorizo tacos; Jarritos sodas; and fresh watermelon juice. Two customers at the counter are arguing whether “steampunk can be called a lifestyle.” A recycled-oil-powered truck emblazoned with the words THIS TRUCK EATS ITS VEGGIES idles by.
Yes, Williamsburg has landed in the Rockaways. Quietly under way for a few years, the cultural trickle from the well-trod Brooklyn turf to this funky appendage of Queens has become a full-on invasion this summer. A few weeks ago, hipster institutions Roberta’s, the Meat Hook, Caracas, Vinegar Hill House, Babycakes, and even the haughty Blue Bottle Coffee opened operations on the beach. The customer base was already there, waiting: an assortment of artists, surfers, skaters, and musicians that has been gravitating to the neighborhood lately, mixing in with the city and airport workers.
The culinary and ideological epicenter of the new scene is right here, in a warren of uninsulated shacks on the corner of Beach 96th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard housing Rockaway Taco, DiCosmo’s Italian Ices, and Veggie Island. And a mastermind of the movement, red-haired and scrawny, is flipping tilapia fillets in the back. Andrew Field, Rockaway Taco’s 28-year-old co-owner, is a classic surfer-Zen entrepreneur. Born in upstate Ghent, in Columbia County, he got his first kitchen job at 15 and has been bouncing around the world ever since, surfing and cooking. He settled in Rockaway Beach four years ago, having fallen in love with the place. He was a part of a core group of a hundred or so surfers romantically, defiantly devoted to the beach; the original spot for the craze is ten blocks away, near a jetty where Beach 86th Street dead-ends into the ocean. Some surf it year-round. Chris Parachini, the owner of Bushwick favorite Roberta’s, has been doing it for years: “The neighborhood is just real and awesome,” he says. “There’s nowhere else like it. In winter, you feel like you’re on the edge of the fucking planet, man.”
Strangeness and homeliness were a big part of Rockaway’s appeal. “No surf shops or smoothie bars here,” wrote surfer David J. Lee admiringly in a New York Times essay a few years back. “No hippies on cruiser bikes. Just a smattering of clapboard houses and bungalows overshadowed by housing projects.” Now, of course, the shops are moving in, and the cruiser bikes have arrived in force. The challenge is to bring them here without turning the place into Venice Beach. “Hopefully, we’ll be a little cooler than that,” Field says, laughing.
The neighborhood is becoming a kind of nexus of foodie culture, social do-goodery, and guerrilla entrepreneurship. The rents are low enough, and Manhattan is far away enough, that any pressure seems to be off: You can try something, close up, change the concept, try again. The shacks are just that—everything is temporary by design. Last summer, Field and two friends opened a surf shop next to Rockaway Taco called Rock Co-Op. The friends then drifted back to “their other lives,” Field says—one is a photographer, the other runs Epstein’s Bar on the Lower East Side—and the shop closed. Twenty feet away in the other direction, Veggie Island offers neighborhood outreach and kids’ cooking classes. They raised funds for the project on Kickstarter, getting an impressive $15,115 with only 203 backers.
Earlier this year, Field and his business partner, David Selig, of the Rice restaurant mini-chain, won a bid offered by the Parks Department to take over the beach’s concession booths—three concrete structures along the boardwalk near the corners of Beach 86th, Beach 96th, and Beach 106th streets. Field and Selig invited their friends, filling the booths with such unlikely fare as Babycakes’ vegan doughnuts and Blue Bottle’s single-estate coffee. Everyone’s happily jammed together—each of the three buildings houses three to four booths—and largely incestuous. “Most of us are surfers,” says Field. “Gato and Maribel from Caracas Arepas both surf. The guys from Rippers, too.” Field’s brother used to cook at Roberta’s. “I know Chris,” he adds, “but I haven’t surfed with him yet.”
Some of the places tweaked their act to better suit the beach ambience. Rippers, which is Parachini’s collaboration with the owners of the Meat Hook, doesn’t serve pizza (“I’m sick of pizza for a while,” says Parachini, “we’re all sick of pizza”) and pumps out burgers and fries instead. And surfboard wax. Blue Bottle, on the other hand, stoically offers $4 iced coffees and $2.75 espressos to the trunks-and-bikinis crowd. Some are thrown by the price tag, but, as the many-tattooed girl at the handles of its La Marzocco machine attests, “once they try it, we don’t have any complaints. They know we’re going to be more than, like, bodega coffee.”
Still, this doesn’t feel like gentrification, at least not yet. There are no grumblings from the Rockaways’ older, blue-collar inhabitants. “I would love to take a picture of every single person who comes out here and make a collage out of it,” says Field. “It would be A to Z, man. We feed all the FDNY, all the NYPD, all the DSNY, all the EMTs.” Come October or so, the hipster wave will quietly roll back until next May, leaving behind the core group of Rockaway romantics. This time, however, the group will be larger. Almost everyone Field invited has ended up buying or renting a year-round home blocks from Rockaway Taco.