Aside from the cute and benign—an Elvis impersonator, kids dressed as characters from Up and Willy Wonka—marchers mock the Octomom and Michael Jackson’s doctor (a bag of prescription bottles hang from his neck, handcuffs dangle from his wrist). One family wears oversized mock-ups of Green Cards for phony immigrants like “Pierre Beret” and for others from Russia, China and Mexico that are in more questionable taste. One man tows a crudely constructed “Love Shack,” sporting a list of politicians mired in sex and corruption scandals—all conspicuously Democrats, even though the G.O.P. seems to lead the league in those infractions. Jim McGreevey, according to the handscrawl on the model house’s roof, likes to make deals in the “backroom."
Kids in camos shoot toy machine guns, in keeping with the neighborhood’s military sympathies. Many residents are obviously veterans. One house along the parade route is slathered in USMC insignia and jingoistic banners: “Peace through strength.” A towel hanging to dry in one yard, printed with the American flag, reminds passersby that “Freedom isn’t free.” Down the road, one woman adorns her home using Halloween decorations, including a cardboard tombstone to mock (prematurely) the failure of President Obama’s healthcare overhaul.
Despite the deeply conservative sensibility, the 40th anniversary of Woodstock looms large over the parade, too. One magic-markered piece of oak tag reads, “Legalize It,” printed across a hand-drawn-and-colored pot leaf. But the hippie sympathy seems more rooted in Q104 nostalgia, a yearning for youth rather than an embrace of hallucinogen-fueled mud wrestling. I suddenly realize why I feel so out of place; it isn’t the antithetical political sympathies (I’m from Bay Ridge)—it’s that I’m the only childless twentysomething in a party full of middle-aged parents, grandparents and kids of all ages.
Rockaway Point Boulevard is the long road that leads west from Riis Park, at the end of the Marine Parkway Bridge, into Breezy Point, a private, beachfront neighborhood at the end of the Rockaway peninsula; technically, it’s a part of Queens. The road has a sidewalk on its south side—or, what looks like the vestiges of a sidewalk, like a path that led once to a long-since-abandoned mining town. Most of it is cracked and overgrown with weeds. At times, it disappears altogether, replaced by tall grass, bushes and brush; pedestrians must walk the wrong way on a bike lane in the street, called a State Highway on some maps. At other times, the branches of overgrown, stumpy trees block passage as thoroughly as a fence. Sometimes the pavement turns into sand.
After traversing this obstacle course for roughly a mile and a half, and enduring at least five serious bug bites, I emerge at a checkpoint, as though I had wandered out of the desert and arrived at the gates of the Green Zone. A billboard flanks the tollbooth-style guard shacks: God Bless America. God Bless New York. God Bless Breezy Point.
You can walk right past; it’s only for cars. I do so and, just past the gate, Irish fiddle music, from a boombox, echoes out from the first street I pass.
Labor Day Weekend was Mardi Gras in Breezy Point—the 51st Annual Mardi Gras, according to ubiquitous banners posted in bungalow windows—even though real Mardi Gras is on the opposite end of the calendar. From what I could gather, it’s sort of a joke: that, for this beach community, autumn is like Lent. It means giving up something you love.
In all likelihood, you were not invited to join this Mardis Gras party. In fact, you’re not invited to Breezy Point in general. And not only have you not been invited to visit, every effort has been made to keep you out. You can’t drive in; sure, you could slip past the initial security gate—it has a lane for thru traffic—but you’d have nowhere to leave your car. Parking requires a parking pass. If there isn’t one in your windshield, the private Breezy Point security force (the NYPD does not patrol the area unless invited) will tow your car. This is not an empty threat; you can find out the hard way.
The only way in is to walk, down that hazardous road, the sun beating down on your head. (The Q35 lets you out at the edge of a highway.) Auto-less natives are known to hitchhike down this strip. There’s also the Blue Goose, Breezy’s bus-style minivan, like the vehicles that drive senior citizens to doctor’s appointments, which makes infrequent shuttle trips. The drivers leer suspiciously at strangers; you need to look and sound like you know where you’re going.
That goes for being in the neighborhood, too. Residents are known to report suspicious-looking people to security—people who look like outsiders, like mystified visitors.
If you’re not white, forget it—there’s no sneaking in for you. As of 2000, Breezy Point was 98 percent white—the whitest area in New York City. (More recent estimates have that number closer to 93 percent.) The neighborhood has earned the nickname “The Irish Riviera”, although locals concede the name has lost its accuracy. “'It's Irish, Italian, German,” a retired cop told the Times in 2001.
Almost 20 years ago, Al Sharpton called Breezy Point an “apartheid village” that “no black can live in.” By my count, one black person, a woman, marched in this year’s Mardi Gras parade. A part-time resident who grew up summering in Breezy tells me he remembers only one black family ever living there. In 2003, a 41-year-old woman was arrested and initially charged with a hate crime when she reportedly told a 12-year-old Hispanic girl and the girl’s mother that “niggers” and “spics” should stay in Orchard Beach; she also shoved a wagon into the girl. (The woman’s story differs significantly.)
Locals were perplexed by the story, and I can see why: not because of the racism—which, frankly, is unsurprising—but because of the meanness. The vibe in Breezy Point is anything but unfriendly. Everyone says hello to each other in the streets—older drunks with sun-dried skin like jerky strips, moms pushing strollers or Radio Fliers, they all smile easily. “It’s like the South,” I’m told. If they had a problem with people of color roaming the streets, I imagine they’d furtively call security. Residents don’t seem like the wagon-shoving type.
While Breezy Point is private—it was once described as “a Park Avenue apartment building peeled open and dropped on the beach”—it isn’t wealthy. The median income is under $60,000. A firefighter described the neighborhood in 2003: “It's just a bunch of cops and firemen trying to mind their own business.” Houses are sold through networks of friends and neighbors. Fifty percent down payments are required.
Once there, the protectivism goes from reprehensible to apprehensible: Breezy Point is gorgeous, a sun-soaked Eden. Make it off the main road, and you stumble into a labyrinthine grid of “streets” that are more like pedestrian paths—all sidewalks, just wide enough for amblers; outside of its main drag, the Point is free of cars. (Trash is left in sandy back alleys, where garbage trucks with sand-bearing tires pick it up.) These “walks”—which are organized alphabetically—are dotted with bungalows densely but not uncomfortably built; it is illegal to build new houses, but many redid their homes in the 90s to rival houses in neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, as well as parts of Staten Island. Others are charmingly shanty.
Walk a few blocks north from the main road and you hit Breezy’s bay side; from here you can see Coney Island, as well as Brighton and Manhattan beaches. (And they can see you!) But walk south and you hit the Atlantic Ocean. In large part, Breezy Point works so hard to keep out strangers because they have a private beach—possibly the nicest in New York City, litter-free and, by Coney Island standards, nearly people-free.
Breezy Point feels like that imaginary, idealized America that family-values Republicans are always touting: a wholesome, church-going community without crime, full of two-parent, heterosexual households bearing innocent, tow-headed children. A bunch of Irish hiding behind fences at the end of New York City come together every summer to make that right-wing fantasy a reality. An American flag hangs from nearly every house.
At night, I visit the beach, where roughly 15 teenagers surround a bonfire, keeping it alive with pages from a newspaper. Behind them, low-flying firecrackers sizzle into the sky before popping. The kids giggle and conspire like characters from a movie about California youth. Within minutes, though, cars from Breezy’s private security firm arrive from two separate directions; as the officers close in, the kids scatter, screaming as they bolt into the nearby dunes. One car half-heartedly gives chase.
After a quick inspection of the ashes, the private police leave. Moments later, the kids return, their dark silhouettes visible against the dim light of the two-story beachfront houses in the distance. A couple climbs a lifeguard chair and canoodles oceanside. I make my way off the sand. At the head of the beach, a hand-painted signpost points north and reads, “New York City, 12 miles.” Despite the fact that I am standing in New York City.