Summer Getaways in the City

 

With the unofficial start of summer just around the corner, I'm sure plenty of people are beginning to plan their summer vacations. Some might travel to far off locations, while others may be planning a staycation. Despite the heat and humidity, I enjoy summers in the city because it empties out, as people head out of town to neighboring states with beaches and miles of shoreline and boardwalks. 

Vintage picture of summer vacationers in Coney Island.

However, did you know it wasn't too long ago that the folks of Manhattan and north Brooklyn fled the city for cooler, fresh air and the spaciousness of a weekend or summer getaways within the city proper? They just didn’t have to travel as far to visit the shores of Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and the Far Rockaways. 

Map of Coney Island, 1879. Note the buildings tended to be built close to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and clustered around the train station.

Back in the 1800s, Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the other outer boroughs, were separate cities, not yet unified as one (that would happen later, in 1898). Manhattan's economy was booming and its population growing. Living conditions were typically dense and compact, which allowed disease to spread easily. Residents looked for places of refuge, so they could escape and enjoy cleaner air and less density. 

Famed landscape designers Frederik Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux designed a nearly five-mile boulevard leading from Prospect Park to Coney Island. Ocean Parkway was designed and completed by 1880, basing the street design on another grand boulevard in Paris, France. It allowed for a quick and direct connection between the residents of north Brooklyn and beyond to the sand and surf of Coney Island. The wide roadways, tree-covered side streets, and bike paths (the nation’s oldest) were a great way to leave hectic city life behind, at least for a few hours or days. Eventually, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRTC) subway (the predecessor of the B, D, and Q lines) was extended to south Brooklyn from the city proper, and with it, the working class was allowed to enjoy the change in scenery as well. 

Ocean Parkway, the nation’s first bike path. Rider’s, walkers, and drivers were now connected from Prospect Park down to Coney Island.

Not too far from Coney Island lies the Rockaways, another barrier island similar to Coney Island. By definition, these are temporary, shifting islands formed by ocean currents and act as a line of defense against storms. That did not stop the many people who turned a narrow spit of sand into colonies of summer homes. Summer bungalows are exactly what they sound like —homes whose key feature is proximity to the ocean and sand, not to mention the close-knit community that forms. They’re typically small, one story high, with a slab on grade foundation. They were not intended for withstanding strong wind, heavy rainstorms, or even the harsh northeast winters. Most bungalows were low to no frills and not fully winterized. Homeowners decided for themselves if they wanted to become year-round residents.

Rockaway summer bungalow colonies were typically low in scale, slab on grade foundation, and typically meant for use in the summer only.

Rockaway summer bungalow colonies were typically low in scale, slab on grade foundation, and typically meant for use in the summer only.

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In its heyday, the Far Rockaways were home to almost 7,000 bungalows (remove the apostrophe after bungalows), far outpacing other bungalow colonies in nearby Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach. If built today, these bungalows would not meet current building code — the lot sizes are usually too small for sufficient light and air, nor would it meet fire code due to the density of these homes. They certainly fall below the newly established flood plains, which residents were painfully reminded of during Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy.

Rebuilt bungalows, after damage from Hurricane Sandy.

Rebuilt bungalows, after damage from Hurricane Sandy.

Summer bungalows often lead to a deep sense of community.

Summer bungalows often lead to a deep sense of community.

The barrier islands extend from Coney Island on the west, to Brighton Beach, the Rockaways, and east into Long Island

Generations of New Yorkers have always been getting away from the city for a bit of fresh air, sand, and surf. Where will you be getting away to this summer?

Will Wong

Will Wong