Meet the bungalows of New York City's Rockaway.

New York City's Rockaway peninsula, a onetime resort cluster of oceanfront communities in the Borough of Queens, once contained over 7,000 bungalows, "the vacation architecture of the working class." Today, fewer than 500 remain, and the community shows serious scars from decades of disinvestment, decline and neglect.

With more Americans demonstrating a preference for smaller homes, a documentary film about bungalows is timely. In The Bungalows of Rockaway, filmmaker Jennifer Callahan presents their story, as told by New Yorkers who once lived in them, have worked to save them, and are now restoring the small, single-family homes, mostly built in the 1920s. Over several decades in the 20th century, most were razed by developers in order to make way for the "urban renewal" of mediocre larger buildings that city officials now concede have been incompatible with the community’s scale and character close to the beach. By the 1980s, most of the damage was done.

Clockwise from top left: A restored bungalow, courtesy of Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association; Bungalow flanked by out of scale urban renewal, courtesy of City of New York; Rockaway bungalows, courtesy of Ralph Selitzer/Flickr

Partially as a result of litigation, several years ago the city adopted a revised zoning code for the communities on the peninsula, designed to be more protective. From the city’s website:

Over the past century, the Rockaway Peninsula has evolved from a summertime destination to a series of unique and varied oceanfront communities. In the last several years, the neighborhoods of the Rockaways have witnessed a rapid increase in new development, buoyed by the success of the Arverne-by-the-Sea project and the desirability of living at or near the city’s oceanfront. Much of the development, however, has been out of context with the existing neighborhoods due to outdated zoning that is largely unchanged from 1961. As a result, the neighborhoods have been threatened by new developments which are inconsistent with the prevailing scale, density and built character.
The proposed [and now adopted] contextual rezoning changes aim to reinforce and protect the special character of the five Rockaway neighborhoods: Rockaway Park, Rockaway Beach, Somerville, Edgemere and Far Rockaway. The proposal would protect the low-scale of the peninsula’s distinctive housing stock, including nearly 200 of the Rockaway’s famed bungalows, as well as many blocks containing one-and two-family homes. The proposal would also provide for moderate retail and housing opportunities in select locations near transit and establish new regulations to address parking demand generated by new development.

Many of the bungalows have fallen into disrepair.  But there are now signs of revival, as artists and writers have begun to move in, “despite the area's reputation for crime and poverty,” according to a story by Nick Hirshon and posted on DNAinfo.com.

The plight of the bungalows, and the film about them, confront important issues regarding how to balance the old and new as a place evolves.  In this case those questions are presented in the troubling context of neighborhood decline. 

A diamond in the rough, by Cara Greenberg; A restored bungalow, by Cara Greenberg

Researching this story, I found several interesting articles. Cara Greenberg, a self-professed "collector of old houses" who has written extensively in books and periodicals about historic architecture and design, has some particularly interesting posts about the bungalows and the film. In addition, the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association, based in the community of Far Rockaway, is dedicated to the homes' restoration and preservation. Earlier this year, the New York Times published a terrific series of photos of the bungalows by Holly Andres.

I confess that I have not seen the entire film, but now I really want to. I loved the trailer, as I suspect many readers will as well:

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. A photo of a small small house in San Francisco's Noe Valley that sold for $1.8 million in 2014.
    Equity

    Why Cities Must Tackle Single-Family Zoning

    As cities wake up to their housing crises, the problems with single-family-home residential zoning will become too egregious to ignore.

  3. A photo of British Prime Minister Theresa May announcing her government's Brexit deal outside No. 10 Downing Street
    Equity

    The Bitterest Lesson of the Brexit Deal

    Amid resignations, it's clear the U.K. government massively misjudged how leaving the European Union would play out.

  4. Children play in a spray park in Rockville Town Square in suburban Rockville, Maryland.
    Life

    America Really Is a Nation of Suburbs

    New data shows that the majority of Americans describe their neighborhoods as suburban. Yet we still lack an official government definition of suburban areas.

  5. A man holding a toddler walks past open-house signs in front of condominiums for sale.
    Life

    Millennials Are More Likely to Buy Their First Homes in Cities

    New research finds that Millennials are 21 percent more likely to buy their first homes near city centers than Generation X.