Beach Bungalows: Summer in the City

A Film Captures Rockaway’s Past

By Marissa Brostoff

Published August 27, 2008, issue of September 05, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

One of the first images in Jennifer Callahan’s documentary “The Bungalows of Rockaway” is a close-up of a woman’s wrinkled face wearing an expression of amazement and delight. The face belongs to Maxine Marx, daughter of Chico, and we see that she is watching a black-and-white film reel of a family carousing on the beach. “Is that Daddy?” she exclaims. “Oh, he was so cute.”

SUNNY DAYS: A new documentary examines the history of the bungalow communities in The Rockaways, a section of Queens, N.Y.  From top: a group of friends at the beach in 1942; a 1939-1940 New York City Tax Department photo; a recent shot of a neighborhood bungalow.
SUNNY DAYS: A new documentary examines the history of the bungalow communities in The Rockaways, a section of Queens, N.Y. From top: a group of friends at the beach in 1942; a 1939-1940 New York City Tax Department photo; a recent shot of a neighborhood bungalow.

Chico and Groucho Marx had seaside bungalows in Far Rockaway, a neighborhood on Queens’s Rockaway Peninsula, as did legions of families who lived for the summer days when they could escape the cramped streets of New York City for the beach. As Callahan explains in her film, Jewish, Irish and black families who couldn’t afford The Rockaways’ tonier hotels first set up camp in tent cities along the shore, which in the 1910s and ’20s gave way to thousands of small but functional bungalows.

Excerpts from Callahan’s film, which is still a work in progress, will screen in Manhattan on September 9 at the Anthology Film Archives, as part of an evening devoted to The Rockaways.

“They captured my imagination, and they stayed there,” Callahan said of the beach homes, which she first saw in archival photographs while working on an oral history project. “I just did not expect to see bungalows in New York City. I think of New York City architecture as skyscrapers or tenements or brownstones. They made this visual impact that I couldn’t shake.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the specificity of her subject, Callahan did not have a personal connection to the bungalow colonies before she saw the pictures — although she later discovered that her mother had spent a summer in a Rockaway bungalow in her youth.

In her research, Callahan found that the town of Far Rockaway had been a summer home for such luminaries as Sid Caesar, Arthur Miller (who referred to it in his memoir as “Siberia”), Lionel Trilling, Judy Garland and former New York City mayor Abe Beame. Composer Richard Rodgers was born in the neighboring upscale town of Arverne.

In the middle of the night in the mid-1930s, Callahan said, Billie Holliday “would get in the car with her friends and drive out to Far Rockaway and sit out on the beach and look at the stars. She didn’t swim, but she just liked looking at the water.”

In the 1950s, the bungalow communities began to drop off. The neighborhoods declined further when the New York City government began sending poor city dwellers, whose homes were being destroyed in the course of urban planning projects, to live in the flimsy, un-winterized bungalows during the off-season.
“It was supposed to be temporary,” Callahan said. “But then they got stuck out there.”

As the documentary tells it, that act of unsatisfactory city planning led to the depressed state of the town today. Housing projects loom over the fewer than 500 bungalows that remain. But those bungalows have once again become the province of immigrants. Cuban, Indian and Bangladeshi families now summer at them, Callahan said, alongside a block that remains stubbornly Irish.

“Everyone says the same thing” of The Rockaways, said Callahan, who hopes to finish a rough cut of the film and start shopping it around to festivals and public television stations within a few weeks. “‘I love the water. I love the birds on the shore. The air smells different.’”

Marissa Brostoff is a staff writer at the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.