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!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • 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.