Often when you think of New York City, the first thoughts that form involve the massive, grandiose architecture, the grid system and urban density in one of its truest examples. But along the coastline of southern Queens County, the Rockaways, as the island is called, holds one of the city’s little known gems; The Rockaway Bungalows. Originally built in the early 20th-century, these small houses used to attract working class city residents with affordable beachfront real estate. Dubbed the “Hamptons” of New York City, the area was once a lively summer hotspot of neighborly encounters and porch hangouts. Since their decline (and even large scale demolition) particularly in the 1970s-1990s, the bungalows were considered a dangerous location to reside. Although the area has been largely dismissed, some urban dwellers and historic preservationists have sought to reclaim the vibrant atmosphere that the bungalows featured in their heyday.
The first bungalow was built in 1905, spurring rapid growth throughout the early 20th century. By 1933, the Rockaway Bungalows numbered approximately 7,000, and exemplified architecture of the working class, according to Columbia University professor Andrew Dolkart. Those who enjoyed their summer holidays in the bungalows reminisce about the porch gatherings, children running through the streets and endless walks along the shore. The neighborhoods of the bungalows were primarily inhabited by Jewish and Irish immigrant families. The bungalows afforded the working class opportunity to aptly enjoy summertime much like their affluent counterparts.
After World War II, the bungalows fell into decline, often falling victim to demolition in order to transform the one time seasonal destination into a year round compilation of mundane high-rise condos. As urban renewal hit the city of New York, low income families were often sent to the Rockaways and provided with un-winterized, poorly maintained bungalows as a form of housing. The area fell into a state of disrepair and few resources were directed at maintaining the once charming bungalows. Today, there are roughly 450 bungalows remaining compared to the thousands that once populated the island.
Because of the unique history of past summertime amusement that once lured city dwellers to the Rockaways, historic preservationists and local inhabitants have pushed for zoning regulations that prevent large massed buildings from moving into the area. The Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association was established in 1984, aiming to preserve the few remaining bungalows in Far Rockaway. In 2008, the Department of City Planning approved zoning changes that prevent out of context development within the area. In 2010, Jennifer Callahan released a documentary film extensively delving into the importance of preserving the bungalows, by highlighting their significance historically for the working class families of New York but also the architectural significance as the bungalow structure moved from the east to the west.
While measures have been taken to preserve the character of the neighborhood, preservationists are still pushing for landmark designation of the bungalows to prevent further demolition. The bungalows are a burgeoning topic for those interested in the preservation of New York City’s past, but also have the potential to flourish as more attention is drawn to their charming and niche existence in the big city.