I grew up in Belle Harbor, on the western part of that fragile leg of New York City’s coastland called the Rockaways, and witnessed many spectacular storms there as a boy. In September 1960, when I was six years old, Hurricane Donna inundated the streets from Jamaica Bay to the Atlantic, the entire width of the peninsula, a distance of no more than a quarter of a mile. “Bay and ocean joined,” declared our rabbi when the flooded synagogue reopened. It was the opposite of Moses’ feat of parting the Red Sea. The storm tide crested at eleven feet and during the days that followed my brothers and I floated ecstatically through the neighborhood on ruined wooden furniture that we turned into rafts.
Weeks of no school and muted adult distress followed. We fended for ourselves and waited for the water to recede. I don’t recall much official assistance beyond the exhausted sanitation workers, day after day, loading their trucks to the hilt until, by mid-November, the debris was cleared away and the only visible signs of what had happened were cracked beachfront houses and ripped jetties.
You felt close to the heavens in Rockaway (and to Idlewild Airport, as JFK was called in those days; the sight of tilting, low-flying planes was constant) and far from the rest of New York. It possessed an exposed, end-of-the-earth quality. Much of the peninsula had the abandoned aura of a rundown resort. Day-trippers from across the bay in Brooklyn, with their thrilling beach blanket intimacies and beer can picnics, traipsed in for two months a year and then abruptly departed.
The Rockaways were strictly segregated in those days, and in the most essential ways they remain so today. At the far western end of the peninsula was Breezy Point, a five-hundred-acre co-op, second only to the neighborhood of Squantum, Massachusetts, in its concentration of Irish-Americans. Then as now, it was mainly a summer community for New York firemen and police. In June 2001, The New York Times dubbed Breezy “the whitest neighborhood in the city.” When I was a boy, there was a guard in a wooden booth at the entrance to prevent outsiders from intruding. If he didn’t know you by sight, you had to explain your business, and if you had none you were sent away. Jews were restricted, a fact that we accepted as the way life was, and should be.
A mile or two to the east was Belle Harbor, twenty or so blocks of Jewish professionals and small-business owners. Our neighbor ran a dry cleaning store in Flatbush, another made jewelry boxes in a loft in SoHo. My father commuted to his scrap metal yard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Like the Irish, we huddled protectively among ourselves. At St. Francis de…
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