Rockaway, or the Rockaways? They’re both right.

 

cropped-cropped-20140829-110138-39698396.jpg

I’ve lived here for most of my 45 years, and spent much of my professional life dealing with editorial conundrums and questions of usage, as well as reading communications scholarship on language and meaning. So, you know, I probably think about these things more than most people. But recent chatter in the twitterverse has made me obsessed with this question.

In all my years as a Rockaway Beach local, a journalism student and eventually a book editor, and armchair student of local legend and lore, I’ve never come across any universally consistent rules for the name of our fair peninsula. Pour over writing old and new you’ll come across “The Rockaways,” “The Far Rockaways,” “Rockaway, NY,” “Driving out of Rockaway,” and so on. All the text evidence I’ve seen—and I’ve searched through published books and newspaper archives going back a century—indicates that there is simply no precise or exclusive name for our little corner of New York City.

In their study of the peninsula, Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York (Columbia University Press, 2003), Historians Lawrence Kaplan and Carol P. Kaplan explain the terminology thusly:

Rockaway, New York, located in the southern part of New York City’s borough of Queens, is a slender peninsula, the westernmost of the barrier beaches that reach from the eastern tip of Long Island to New York’s harbor. It is also known as Rockaway Beach, or simply the Rockaways, a name derived from a Native American word meaning “sand place.” Outsiders sometime refer to the whole peninsula as Far Rockaway, but this is the name of only the largest and most built-up of the smaller communities that compose the Rockaways.

So, really, there’s no right or wrong answer. While people like to think language has hard and fast rules, the rules often bend to accommodate different contexts and convey specific meaning. So a writer must choose the language that most clearly conveys his or her intended meaning, and the editor must ensure that the usage is consistent within a published document. It’s all about ensuring clarity and consistency.

My Rockaway Style sheet. In publishing, copyeditors usually rely on a standard guide (such as The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style) to determine how to treat specific terms, and publishers also create their own rules (“house style”) that sets guidelines for the books they publish. Copyeditors and authors fill in the blanks left in these style guides on a per-project bases, generating “style sheets” for specific books or projects. With that in mind, and lifetime of Rockaway chatter ringing in my head, here are the guidelines I would put in place were I editing a book on Rockaway Beach/Rockaway/The Rockaways right-this-minute.

  • Rockaway. “Rockaway” is a shorthand/generic term for “The Rockaway peninsula” is used to refer to any place, person, or thing related to that geographic location (I’m biking out to Rockaway; I’m wearing my Rockaway tuxedo).Informally, it’s an appropriate term for any or all places on the peninsula, or as a modifier that relates people, places, ideas, etc. to the Rockaway peninsula (I’m a Rockaway local; it’s a Rockaway thing; he has a thick Rockaway accent).
    However, the word “Rockaway” lacks the specificity that is needed for more formal and informative communication. It should be avoided when possible, in favor of specific neighborhood names (Rockaway Beach, Rockaway Park, Far Rockaway, Arverne-by-the-Sea, etc.), or used in conjunction with those names so that locations under discussion are very clear.
  • Rockaway Beach. “Rockaway Beach” has two very specific denotative meanings: It refers to the neighborhood (my neighborhood!) located roughly between Arverne and Rockaway Park (basically the 11693 zip code, minus Broad Channel), and also to the New York City public beach that runs along the peninsula. So, you don’t live in Rockaway Beach unless you live in the Beach 70s/80s/90s, but if you are sitting on the sand anywhere east of Riis Park, you are on (or at) Rockaway Beach.
  • The Rockaways. While “Rockaway” is a geographic term, “The Rockaways” is a political term that refers to all the neighborhoods on the peninsula. It should be used only when discussing all the neighborhoods on the peninsula collectively.* So, if you’re talking about flooding, or insurance, or economic development that affect us all? Use “the Rockaways.” If you’re talking about one neighborhood or the other, use the name of the specific neighborhood.

The Case for “The Rockaways.” Even though I say “Rockaway” all the time, I prefer “the Rockaways” in certain specific circumstances because the term acknowledges something very important: That this collection of neighborhoods is geographically distinct and physically isolated from the rest of New York City, and that despite the socioeconomic and ethic/racial differences that seem to divide the peninsula, these neighborhoods have many shared concerns brought about by that geographic isolation. So, I think that there are specific instances when “The Rockaways” is absolutely appropriate, for example:

  • Congressman Gregory Meeks represents all the neighborhoods in on the peninsula, so he should make use the collective term when addressing the concerns of his Rockaway constituents (People in the Rockaways have the longest commutes in the city).
  • A business opening up in one neighborhood but hoping to attract customers from across the entire peninsula might wish to indicate that by using term the Rockaways in its name or promotional materials (Serving the Rockaways for more than 50 years).
  • A sign on the Cross Bay Bridge welcomes visitors not only to Rockaway Beach, the neighborhood it spills into, but also to all the other neighborhoods on the peninsula that it eventually leads to; in that context, we are in fact welcoming people to the Rockaways (though arguably we could still say “Rockaway Beach” to welcome them to the beach).

I think all our local newspapers should (and generally do) take care when using all of these terms, distinguishing between events occurring in specific neighborhoods (Far Rockaway athlete wins scholarship; new restaurant opens in Rockaway Beach) and issues that affect all neighborhoods (Flood recovery continues in the Rockaways). Again, I think it’s fine to use the generic “Rockaway” as long as the specific neighborhood is clarified somewhere in the story (New coffee bar coming to Rockaway’s restaurant row,” with a mention of Rockaway Beach specifically within the story).

 So there’s my take, from a book editor who is not really a copyeditor but still has read and reviewed a lot of copyediting.

SURVEY:

Personally, I always say, and always have said, “Rockaway Beach,” mostly because I love my spot here in the creamy delicious center of the Rockaways. And also: Because Ramones.

But I’m not going to end this with the Ramones. I’m going to end it with local legend Gerald Bair’s Rockaway anthem, which you should totally buy right now if you don’t already have it. 

 

 * There is a separate discussion to be had about whether the term “The Rockaways” includes Broad Channel. I’m really not sure. BC readers, chime in!

Advertisements

Rockaway Beach Reads: Jill Eisenstadt’s 1987 novel “From Rockaway”

A few months back, I stumbled upon a review of Justin Hocking’s The Great Floodgates of the Wonder World  in The New York Times Book Review. It’s a memoir by a Colorado skater and writer who moved to New York City and I guess wound up discovering himself by surfing in Rockaway. That, on the heels of Rockaway, Tara Ison’s 2013 novel about an artist who retreats to the peninsula in 2001 in search of inspiration for her work.**

    

 

It is striking that both of these writers cast Rockaway as a destination, a place where one chooses to go, indeed, chooses to be, to stay. For most of my life, this was a place you talked about escaping from, but never really did. Yet here it is, presented as an artist’s escape, a young hipster’s salvation. I suppose that shift is a microcosm of the changes that have affected all of New York City over the past few decades, but somehow, Rockaway’s geographic isolation seemed to both separate us from the lowest lows of the 1970s and 80s while at the same time magnifying them. I grew up watching all my friends’ famillies leave Rockaway to head toward greener pastures “out on the Island,” believing that a quiet suburban life would protect their children from the drugs and violence and blight that was creeping over Rockaway and the rest of the city at the time. I wonder how that worked out.

Anyway, all this literary chatter about escaping “to Rockaway” reminded me of what I suppose must be the definitive Rockaway novel: Jill Eisensadt’s 1987 From Rockaway

 

Jill Eisenstadt, From Rockaway. Knopf 1987

Eisenstadt was affiliated with what was at the time hyped as the “literary brat pack,” a group of young writers out of Bennington College in the late 1980s (more celebrated–and prolific–members of that posse include Donna Tartt, Tama Janowitz, and Brett Easton Ellis). The novel  got a fair bit of buzz when it was published, with mentions in The New York Times, Glamour, and elsewhere.  I had read it back when it came out, and while I was fuzzy on the details, I remember thinking it captured a lot of what I felt about this place at that time, perhaps mainly due to the fact that  I, like the book’s four protagonists, had just graduated from high school. I wasn’t social enough to know if the details were right, but I do remember really connecting to that  dead-end-on the-edge-of-the-big-city vibe:  yes, people want to escape this place, but as the old  timers say, once you’ve got that sand in your shoes, it’s very hard to do. I decided to revisit From Rockaway, and see how it well it holds up.

First, the back cover copy, from the publisher:

“In Jill Eisenstadt’s savvy, heartfelt novel we enter the world of working-class kids in Rockaway, New York, a beach community where beer cans and cigarette butts stud the sand instead of seashells. Peg, Alex, Chowderhead, and Timmy play, drink, and dream together. Their circle breaks apart when Alex gets a scholarship to a “rich kids’ school” in New England. Soon the rituals described in her anthropology text seem less bizarre than the games in the dorms around her. It is back in Rockaway, reunited with the old gang for the summer, that the explosive depth of feeling in kids with no options beyond the local deli and the lifeguard stands shows Alex what it means to face adulthood.”

One sign of changing times, I guess, is that my ten-year-old was deeply offended by the description of our beaches (“This book LIES!!!”). But I remember avoiding the filthy beaches when I was her age. I had to have a little heart-to-heart with her (“Sweetie, let me tell you about the 1980s….”).

I’m about midway through now, and the one thing that’s striking me about it is how much it feels like a period piece: the local and pop culture reference are so of that moment, of that time and place, that they almost feel like nostalgic renderings written by a sentimental author trying to hang on to memories from her youth. Little details (the slogan on a Clearasil container, references to the Slice of Life pizzeria, the rumors that Frank Sinatra had bought up all the empty lots in anticipation of legalized gambling) had me spinning back to 1986 like it was yesterday. Moreover, that feeling that you’d never get out of Rockaway (remember when we called it Rotaway?) is tangible. At one point, a character refers to a map of New York:

“Rockaway, just a tiny strip that hangs off Queens as if it isn’t sure whether it wants to break away and become an island of its own or hang on tighter, desperate not to be abandoned.”

Yup. That about sums it up.

It’s definitely a local story, and it’s a work of fiction: There’s truth in the spirit and in many of the details, but of course the author has exercised some artistic license as well.  I was tickled by some of the copyediting errors that made it through (you have to be from here to know that it’s “St. Francis on Beach 129th Street” and not “St. Francis on the Beach, 129th Street”).  I can’t speak to the lifeguard culture that Eisenstadt describes in the book, other than to venture a guess that the “Death Keg” party she describes might be a literary invention: To my recollection drownings while guards are actually on duty seem too rare to have developed a real ritual around them (and in any event, I just can’t imagine local Irish boys getting quite so theatrical).

Anyway, there’s much to be said about From Rockaway, and how it reflects a Rockaway that once was and and is no more, but at the same time reflects the Rockaway that will always be. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on it, both dyed-in-the-wool locals and new arrivals. It’s out of print, but I was able to score a used copy on Amazon for a couple of dollars (Note to Random House: Rockaway is having its moment. You might want to reprint).

 **I confess I haven’t read either of these novels yet. Too many books, too little time. If anyone has, I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Who doesn’t want to go to Irishtown?

I’ve been a fan of the Bowery Boys podcast ever since I first stumbled across their charming investigation into Rockaway Beach back in 2012. Having grown up here, and listened to every old timer’s take on what happened, how, and why, it was refreshing to listen to two outsiders’ impressions of our little peninsula and its unique history. They do their homework, combing through books and newspaper archives, and they talk about the place with the unabashed enthusiasm of people discovering it for the first time (there are people in this city who’ve never heard of Irishtown!). After that podcast, I was hooked, and so was my son. We always download an episode or two when we’re heading out for a car trip, and learn a little something about NYC history, legend, and lore along the way.  Check out their blog for primary sources, photos, and more.

For RBNY locals, the Rockaway Beach (episode 140)  and the Robert Moses (100) episodes are  must-listens. The latter, in particular, left me pondering whether what Rockaway need now is a  Moses-esque dictator to reign in the bureaucracy and get the boardwalk replaced already. Moses’ legacy is complex, to say the least: he built a lot of stuff, and destroyed a lot in the process. But going into our second summer without a boardwalk, it’s worth considering that maybe getting something built that doesn’t quite please everyone is better than getting nothing built at all.