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Summer vacations

June 11, 2011

As mentioned in the introduction, this blog is about more than just pretty clothes, nice cars, and the stuffy insulation that affects upper-class people everywhere. We are of the opinion that what Richard Brookhiser called the Way of the Wasp has more to recommend it than attractive and consumerist “lifestyle” choices. Rather, one may consider its values a template for a total life, and a template that can be scaled either up or down, making it a way of life both for those with lots of money and for those with less.

One cornerstone of the lives of our people is the summer and its attendant escape from the city, a season passed every year in the same place for whole lifetimes. For those of us in New York and in New England, the favored summer colonies are found in Long Island and the various islands that dot the coast all the way to Maine. Some people head for the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain, some make for Litchfield County or the Berkshires. One of this writer’s good childhood friends summered with the Canadians at Lake Muskoka (the family’s island is actually in Lake Rousseau, but whatever), eleven hours from West End Avenue.

That our people should seem to have a monopoly on these sorts of summer vacations seems exclusionary and invidious. It is unfair seeming that we should seem to be the only ones enjoying this part of the good life. We may and we may not, but if we do, it was not always so.

There is a documentary film, independently produced in 2009, entitled The Bungalows of Rockaway, about the working-class summer community that was created in the first half of the 20th century in Rockaway Beach, at the far end of the LIRR’s old Rockaway Branch in Queens. The film’s website tells the story thus:

The Bungalows of Rockaway takes a modest subject — the small, affordable bungalows that once covered the Rockaway peninsula — and reveals the larger themes of this singular story: working class leisure, public access to the ocean, community identity, and architectural preservation. The film invites viewers to see New York City in a different light – not just a metropolis of skyscrapers and brownstones, but a coastal place tied more closely to rhythms of the shoreline.

A popular summer resort, a rival to Coney Island, once existed along the Rockaway shore, replete with wide beaches, a long boardwalk and honky-tonk amusements. The first bungalow went up in Rockaway in 1905; by 1933 over 7000 covered the peninsula. For decades, the bungalows were affordable summer rentals for working-class vacationers, largely Jewish and Irish immigrant families. Today fewer than 450 bungalows remain.

Narrated by Academy-Award-winning Estelle Parsons, the film tracks the lifeline of the Rockaway bungalows. Sparkling, funny, and sometimes moving interviews with former bungalow residents bring the bungalow heyday to life; a trove of archival stills and unseen footage from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, such as that of the Marx Brothers and their families frolicking on Rockaway beaches, show viewers what a delightful and treasured summer experience Rockaway was for thousands of immigrant families.

The film also traces the roots of the “bungalow” as a form of vernacular architecture to colonial Bengal (current-day Bangladesh) and its journey to the United States where, in the words of Columbia University professor Andrew Dolkart, the bungalow came “to epitomize the architecture of the working class.”

The disappearance of Rockaway’s bungalows, as the film documents, can be linked to the enormous changes that the peninsula—and the city as a whole—underwent following World War II. In the 1950s and 60s, as Robert Moses implemented urban renewal policies throughout the city, Rockaway went from being a small-scale seasonal destination to a year-round community with high-rise condos and housing projects. Low-income citizens, relocated to make way for urban renewal in Manhattan, were often sent to live in Rockaway, many of them to poorly maintained, un-winterized bungalows. Many bungalow blocks were eventually designated slums—though some deserved the name and others did not—and most were subsequently demolished.

These bungalows were of a piece not only with Coney Island, but also with Jones Beach, Robert Moses State Park, and the other great sites of public leisure that were created before World War II for the benefit of New York’s wider public. In 2011, it should concern us not just that these sorts of public amenities offering fairly simple pleasures––sun, sand, and waves––have taken a back seat to cruise ships and the rest of the tourism machine, which cost the middle class (and lower) a much higher proportion of their income than a day or two sitting on the shore. We should be concerned as well with the erasure of the sort of community represented by setups like the Rockaway bungalows. These modest houses together formed a place where whole families could (and did) gather, year after year and at modest expense, near both the beach and a returning group of summer neighbors. It is not good enough that Disney cruises pack together members of the same economic group, because there are two important differences: the trip is priced per head, and the community is fleeting. This blog believes that long relationships, nurtured over decades provide much greater depth and reward than do the sort of fleeting encounters offered over shared tastes in mass culture and medical ailments that can be had in a week in a floating hotel at sea. Moreover, those same long relationships–with both neighbors and place–foster the sort of stewardship and sense of common obligation that are so essential to a democratic society.

In 2011, working-class people do not get summer communities, places where bus drivers and waitresses and mechanics can rent inexpensively and gather large groups of extended families and friends together near the shore. In 2011, working-class people get the short end of American economic life: high interest rates, high medical bills that are the end result of cheap food, and the only vacations they seem to take are those where the emphasis is not on relaxation, but on consumption. Modern mass tourism is in direct opposition to the way of life represented as much on Mount Desert Island as in those Rockaway bungalows: how much is/was there to do, really, in those cottage communities besides sitting, swimming, and laughing?

Nantucket. Head of the Harbor to the left, ocean to the right.

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