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.