Far Rockaway Bungalows Offer Welcome Escape for Beach-Starved City Dwellers

By Nick Hirshon on January 30, 2012 11:44am 

Newcomers to Far Rockaway are restoring bungalows like these on Beach 25th Street, revitalizing the crime-ridden neighborhood.
Newcomers to Far Rockaway are restoring bungalows like these on Beach 25th Street, revitalizing the crime-ridden neighborhood.
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Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association

FAR ROCKAWAY — A beachside bungalow that cost approximately $160,000 and was less than an hour from Manhattan sounded too good to be true for actress Barbara Schlachet and her husband Liam.

But the couple quickly fell in love with an outpost of quaint beachfront units on the southern edge of Queens that have been in place for almost a century, and have recently been snapped up by a wave of artists and writers despite the area's reputation for crime and poverty.

"It's a community that, yeah, it's rough in some ways, but you also have neighbors who have your back," said Schlachet, who lives most of the year in the West Village when she and her husband are not staying at their bungalow part time since buying it last year.

Schlachet spent her childhood vacations in Rockaway bungalows in the 1950s, and once she introduced her husband to the area, she said, "He fell in love."

The couple said they were charmed by the the neighborhood's quaint look, its proximity to the ocean and the 45-minute subway ride to Manhattan. They said it was the perfect solution to not having to maintain a large estate or be far from the city if Schlachet had a last-minute audition.

The neighborhood is drawing a wave of residents from trendy Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods like the East Village, Cobble Hill and Park Slope who seek a getaway in the bungalows.

With an engaged community transforming the abandoned bungalows — joining some equally involved year-round residents — the future seems bright for a swath of the city where wandering after dark is inadvisable, but the lure of a historic set of homes remains strong.

"It's amazing to think you're in New York City and you have a beach community by the ocean," said bungalow owner Stephanie Samoy, president of the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association, which has joined forces with the Historic Districts Council in a year-long effort to raise awareness of the community and plot the next steps to shield it from development.

The groups are promoting the bungalows as cheap alternatives to swanky summer homes in the Hamptons. Creative types also enjoy the fixer-upper appeal of the bungalows, which are mostly intact but warrant fresh coats of paint and new mouldings.

"It's a throwback to the early 20th century," Samoy added.

Samoy's association wants to save about 100 bungalows built largely in the early 1920s on Beach 24th, 25th and 26th streets, between Seagirt Boulevard and the boardwalk. Decades ago, they were summer homes for working-class New Yorkers, from electricians to train conductors, said documentarian Jennifer Callahan, who made the 2010 film "The Bungalows of Rockaway."

But as crime increased in the Rockaways, the crowds that once rushed there every summer stopped coming. By the time artist Richard George bought his first bungalow in 1981, many homes were abandoned.

"Rockaway at the time was the most depressed and deteriorated area ever," said George, 59.

But like many of those responsible for the bungalows' transformation, George looked past the area's decline and held onto early memories of spending summers in the bungalows in the 1960s and 1970s.

He bought one and restored and rented it. A few years later in 1984, he and his parents bought two bungalows on the same plot. He now owns several bungalows, one for his residence and another he uses as an art studio.

Samoy represents another element of bungalow restorers who love the ocean. Her father was a Navy officer, so she grew up on military bases surrounded by water. When she first visited a Far Rockaway bungalow for a Tae Kwon Do class in 2003, she became enamored. She lives most of the year in Manhattan, but snatched up a bungalow in 2007 to spend her summers and weekends.

"It felt right," she said. "It felt very old fashioned and very different from the high rises that surround it."

Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council said the mix of newcomers and longtime devotees in the bungalows are helping save "this entirely fascinating chapter of New York City history."

Callahan, who interviewed many past and current bungalow residents for her movie, said her project has led her to consider a bungalow purchase.

"I have all this bungalow envy now," she said with a laugh. "If you have a sense of history, it's very exciting."

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