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TheStreet Open House

Rockaway's Wave Seeks to Rebuild a Neighborhood, and a Newspaper

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Six weeks after Hurricane Sandy tore through the Rockaways, pouring five feet of seawater into Kevin Boyle's home, the part-time adjunct professor and one-time bar owner found himself rebuilding not just his house of 20 years but the peninsula's 120-year-old weekly newspaper and the community that depends on it.

On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy, with winds topping 95 miles per hour and waves reaching 40 feet, roared through The Wave's offices on the first floor of a modest brick building on Rockaway Beach Boulevard about 400 feet from the Atlantic Ocean. Rooms were left thick with mud and sand. Desks and computers were hurtled to the floor and a sink torn from a wall.

In the months that followed, Boyle and publisher Susan Locke sought to revive The Wave, rounding up new computers, rebuilding its circulation base and creating a makeshift newsroom on a flood-proof floor above the old one. Since becoming editor in December, Boyle has been equal parts cheerleader, gadfly and scold for the sometimes-stumbling efforts of government agencies and business leaders to rebuild the Rockaways after the worst storm to ever hit New York's shoreline.

"We're an advocate, and I don't apologize for being an advocate," Boyle said in an interview in early October at the newspaper's cramped temporary office. "I don't like kicking a dog when it's down and the Rockaways right now are a dog, so I'm not about to kick it."

Before Sandy, The Wave was much like any typical community newspaper, reporting on local development, Church socials and high school sports. But when the hurricane hit, nearly everything on the narrow 11-mile peninsula changed, including its weekly paper.

Boyle edited The Wave for five years ending in 2000, departing when he said his writing "started to get stale." This time around has been different. The Wave post-Sandy has sought to help shape the Rockaways' recovery by reporting on sand replenishment and boardwalk rebuilding, the potential ramifications of rising flood insurance premiums and how government agencies are spending the millions of dollars earmarked for the area.

"The difference between then and now is night and day," says Boyle, his salt-and-pepper hair offset by the bright shorts and long sleeve t-shirt of a middle-aged beachcomber. "Back then, big news was a car crash. Now, it's life and death, if not death than certainly life changing stuff for so many people. It's exciting and it's confusing."

In those first few days after Sandy, homeowners and tenants struggled to get basic supplies, food and water. Much of the Rockaways' 5.5-mile long Depression-era boardwalk, the heart and soul of the community, had been ripped from its pylons. Mounds of sand seven feet high blocked driveways while entire houses were tugged from their foundations and wooden homes reduced to piles of sticks. Cars lay at crazy angles, many overturned. The Rockaways was in shambles, made worse by a lack of reliable information.

The Wave didn't publish for four weeks following the hurricane, the only time in its 120-year history the newspaper had been unable to produce a copy. Flooding on the boulevard kept Locke from entering its offices for three days, and when she did, Locke discovered that files containing the newspaper's subscription and accounts receivable had also been destroyed. Books of bound original newspapers dating back to its inception were damaged beyond repair. (Copies are kept on microfilm at Queens Public Library.)

"We had to start from scratch," said Locke, 66, who took over publishing chores in 2001 after the death of her husband Leon Locke, its colorful owner and publisher since 1975. "Everything was destroyed. There was just so much sand and mud. It was a mess. I couldn't even find my old desk."

The absence of The Wave - its Web site was also knocked offline -- exacerbated the panic, and for some, the desperation that went with losing a home, or worse. Rumors about crime and looting, which largely proved false, Boyle said, went unchecked. Homeowners were given conflicting instructions about whether to keep evidence of damage, or get rid of it.

When Boyle, 54, came by The Wave in early December to see how his former employer was faring, an anxious Locke hurriedly asked if he'd return. Given to bouts of impulsivity, Boyle accepted.

"There was a huge information vacuum in the short and long weeks after Sandy," recalled Boyle. "The Wave wasn't able to do its job, which tells you how devastated this place was. I just came by because I hadn't heard anything, and Susan Locke said 'can you come back?' I have itchy feet, I'm always looking for a change, and Rockaway is in store for about the most exciting time in its history, so I said 'O.K.'"

At Boyle's wall-side cubicle sits a line of 100-plus page reports from city, state and federal agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A college English major, Boyle takes grudging pride in monitoring these proposal and recommendations that are likely to reshape the peninsula, physically and otherwise, for generations.

The Wave is published every Friday and distributed to about 100 stores on the Rockaways and a few more just off the peninsula. Along with Boyle, assistant editor and reporter Dan Guarino carry much of the paper's editorial responsibilities augmented by a part-time reporter, Katie McFadden and a stringer, Miriam Rosenberg. Locke handles the publishing chores along with managing partner Sandy Bernstein and about 20 to 25 part-employees selling advertising, subscriptions and monitoring the newspaper's distribution.

The Wave's Web site is a bare bones production though Boyle says he's not under the same pressure as larger newspapers to create something slick to better capture page views. Most local advertisers, he said, aren't comfortable with the notion of buying an online banner ad. They want to feel the advertisement.

"We're mostly geared toward getting the print out," Boyle said. "Conventional wisdom says newspapers are dying, and no time sooner than for the Rockaways. Can we do more to get younger, sure, but we're still the institution out here. We do what The Post, The News and even The Times can't do, which is cover neighborhoods like ours to the extent we can."

Boyle grew up in Marine Park, Brooklyn, and recalls hanging out as a teenager in Jacob Riis Park, which lies on the western side of Rockaway next to Breezy Point. In the 2000s, when he owned a bar in Bay Ridge, The Brooklyn Dodger, now closed, Boyle was living with his wife and son in Sunset Park. The move to the Rockaways, he says, was prompted for parking, Bay Ridge and Sunset Park being particularly challenging for car owners without driveways. Boyle bought a home in Rockaway Park, one of many micro-neighborhood squeezed onto the peninsula.

"You kind of get stuck here once you move here," he said. "People are usually here to stay. It's part of the reason there are generations here. Firemen and cops, they love the job so they pass it on."

The Rockaways are unlike most any city neighborhood, anywhere. Its many distinct neighborhoods face the Atlantic, absorbing its cool summer breezes and harsh winter winds. It's a mostly working-class place, not much different than large tracks of Brooklyn or Queens, except for the presence of its long beach, a summer attraction for New Yorkers since the 1830s.

Rockaway Beach made the peninsula famous though for a younger generation, The Ramones song of the same name delivered a different sort of notoriety. The Rockaways extend westward from a boot of southern Queens and Suffolk County running perpendicular to south Brooklyn across Jamaica Bay from John F. Kennedy Airport. The peninsula is actually part of Queens, and with a population of 120,000 it's larger than Albany, the state capitol.

On its western end, the Rockaways are overwhelmingly populated by white, upper-and-middle income neighborhoods of Irish and Italians, orthodox Jews and secular Jews. The neighborhood of Neponsit, bordered by Jacob Riis Park on its west and Belle Harbor on its east, posts a median household income greater than $103,000, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Parking restrictions around the stately, suburban-sized houses make Neponsit's beaches, which don't have a boardwalk, difficult to access for non-residents.

Further west of Jacob Riis and Fort Tilden, lies the mostly working-class gated-community of Breezy Point, a place where residents pay directly for maintenance, security and other services in effort to keep city agencies at bay. The Rockaway's western enclaves include large numbers of police and fire employees. In a moment of bitter irony, 125 Breezy Point homes were burned to ashes by fires that broke out after many of its residents were summoned to work overtime to deal with Hurricane Sandy.

Far Rockaway on the peninsula's eastern side is a much different place. The communities of Arverne East and Edgemere cover census tracks with a median household income as low as $23,000. Weather-beaten high-rise apartments stand next to dilapidated, empty lots and boarded-up storefronts. Drugs remain a problem. The area has long been a dumping ground for unlucky public housing residents and poorly-financed government health facilities.

The rows of public housing towers were products of the "urban renewal" projects of the 1950s and 1960s when the untamable city planner Robert Moses bulldozed older bungalows neglected as homeowners moved to Long Island's beckoning suburbs. The high-rises ended up destroying rather than nurturing the growth of vibrant neighborhoods, exacerbating the Far Rockaway's physical isolation from the rest of the city.

Today, violent crime in the eastern 101st Precinct is twice as high as that of the 100th in the western half of the peninsula, according to data compiled by the New York City Police Department. This year through Oct. 6, the 101st counted two murders, 12 rapes, 105 robberies and 167 felony assaults. By comparison, the 100th precinct recorded one murder, three rapes, 44 robberies and 114 felony assaults. Life in Far Rockaway was already challenged before Sandy.

Boyle is mindful of the contrasting Rockaways but says he tends to focus on stories that cut across class and racial lines, such as rebuilding the boardwalk and securing the necessary funds to help homeowners and businesses recover from the storm. The Wave has higher subscriber numbers from its western neighborhoods, which is one reason Boyle admits to emphasizing issues that may resonate stronger with homeowners in the Rockaways western neighborhoods.

"If the crime is part of a trend, if it affects a lot of people, we'll write about it," Boyle said. "If it's an important story that involves a lot of people and there's a crime, I'm always going to emphasize the story that impacts more people. If anything during a couple of periods in The Wave they probably emphasized crime too much."

Milan Taylor, who grew up the eastern Rockaway neighborhood of Arverne appreciates that Boyle doesn't play up crime in the Far Rockaways. Three years ago, Taylor created the Rockaway Youth Task Force after transferring from Central Connecticut State University to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. He'd held positions in student government and realized upon his return that the Far Rockaways lacked a community group run by young people.

The Wave has increased its coverage of the Far Rockaways, Taylor says, though he's quick to add that there's a sense from his neighborhood that the triumphs, the good news, isn't recognized enough.

"It's not so much under-coverage," Taylor said. "The Wave's readership is predominantly from the western end, so he's going to cater to that audience. But then the opposite argument could be made that maybe the readership is more in the western end because their stories or issues get highlighted more. It's definitely a Catch-22."

Before Sandy, the Rockaways were enjoying a renaissance. Young people from the north Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick were discovering its wide and accessible beaches. Rockaway Taco had emerged as a mecca, joined by other eateries such as Rippers, featuring its grass-fed beef burgers.

Even real estate was selling well. Patti Smith, the darling of American rock, had purchased a house in the Rockaways as had Andrew Van Wyngarden from the indie band MGMT. Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA's PS1 in Long Island City was another newfound Rockaway resident. (Over the summer, PS1 erected a geoedesic dome near the ocean at Beach 94th Street which held exhibitions, film screenings and performances addressing the Rockaways in the wake of Sandy.)

A hearty community of year-round surfers had also emerged to share beachside rentals to store their gear and gather at the Rockaway Surf Club for music and drink. Rockaway had become cool again.

Many longtime Rockaway residents, Boyle says, were nonetheless skeptical of the Hipster influx. Young people with brightly-colored shoes have long alienated old schoolers, and this was no different.

"There was some ambivalence about the Hipsters when they first started showing up in large numbers though I was always in favor of an influx of energy and youth," Boyle said. "But the Hipsters, which is a gross generalization, more than did themselves proud and worthy when they helped after Sandy.

"They came here by bike, worked like dogs and left by bike in the dark. I saw it every day - the same people who came for Rockaway Taco and the concessions and looked cooler than that, worked like dogs for Rockaway. I can't forget that and I think more and more people appreciate that, too."

Conversely, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's initial decision, backed by former Mayor Ed Koch, to hold the New York City Marathon on the Sunday following the hurricane even as thousands of New Yorkers had yet to return to their homes and the Rockaways' streets were still thick with wreckage, was regarded as proof that the outer reaches of the outer boroughs aren't even an afterthought.

"We were outraged and ready to lay down in the streets of Brooklyn to stop the Marathon," Boyle recalls. "Civil disobedience would have occurred, I can assure you. That was maybe the grossest example of 'you don't think we're ignored by the rest of the city.'"

Boyle often writes two or three stories a week but it's his editorials that make the newspaper a must-read. Gritty and acerbic, he often chides government agencies and politicians for not doing what they said they'd do, or taking too long to do it. The New York City Parks Department has taken the brunt of Boyle's jabs though FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers have also been targets.

In March, Boyle published the first front-page editorial in the history of The Wave. The topic was the federal Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act that Congress passed overwhelmingly in 2012 and was signed by President Obama just prior to Sandy. The Act, which raises flood insurance premiums to more closely match rates charged in the private market, was designed to refund a program depleted by Hurricane Katrina.

Intended or not, Biggert-Waters could raise flood premiums to as much as $30,000 per year for some homeowners living in high-risk areas by eliminating subsidies that helped and even encouraged private developers to build on low-lying land. Boyle argues that the premiums may force thousands of homeowners to sell their homes, wiping out the Rockaways and an unusual way of life that merges living on the ocean with living in the country's largest city. FEMA estimates that 20% of its 5.5 million policyholders receive subsidies.

"We realize there's arguments to be made about living so close to the shore," Boyle said. "But we're talking about many coastal communities. And if you want to talk subsidies, let's remember that the subways are subsidized as are the highways. Anyone who reflexively says we shouldn't live out here should probably do some self-examination. Nobody is pure in this."

The front-page March editorial yelled "Read This!" in large bold lettering.

"Some people were angry with that editorial because they said I was scaring people," he said. "I debated doing it for a few weeks, but then decided this is really big, people have to know how serious this is. And FEMA saw it, and did come by to talk to me."

At The Wave, Susan Locke is making plans to move the newspaper back downstairs to its storefront office on Rockaway Beach Boulevard to be closer to readers and potential advertisers. The former office space has been cleaned up though the flood's watermark remains. A martial arts gymnasium currently occupies the space.

The newspaper's circulation, currently at about 8,000, has yet to recover from a pre-Hurricane level over 10,000. Subscriptions are growing as more people return to live in homes that may have lost a roof, or businesses forced to shut down because of flood damage, but it's a slow rebuild.

Advertising at The Wave has been picking up somewhat as construction companies come back to the Rockaways and more government aid and insurance money is released. A recent issue of the newspaper hit 92 pages, which wasn't a record but was the largest since Sandy.

As a publication that gets most of its revenue from its print product, Boyle know that The Wave's future is tenuous in the age of the mobile device. But when he finds a moment to stop worrying about flood insurance premiums and delays in boardwalk reconstruction, Boyle says he envisions a Rockaway that emerges from Sandy better than before, and a newspaper with a popular even hip Web site -- and a few more full-time reporters.

"It's an interesting time but it's also an overwhelming time," Boyle said. "I thought this was a step-back in my life. I told them I'd revisit this in six months, and here I am at 10 months. So maybe I need to revisit it."

--By Leon Lazaroff in New York

>Contact by Email.

>News stories and columns by Leon Lazaroff.

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