The Ramones sang about its world famous beach. The Vanderbilts, the Astors, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Washington Irving vacationed in resorts along its solitary shore. Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman grew up there—at 792 Cornaga Avenue. Far Rockaway, located at the eastern end of the Rockaway Peninsula and nestled against suburban Nassau County, is one of New York City's most overlooked scenic treasures with the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay washing the beaches on its opposite shores. Occupying nearly half of the narrow peninsula, Far Rockaway features miles of oceanfront boardwalk and includes the neighborhoods of Bayswater, Edgemere, and Arverne.
Long before Feynman and the resorts, the area was originally inhabited by a small tribe of Canarsie Indians who named the peninsula Reckowacky, which meant "the place of our own people", also interpreted as "our place of laughing waters." It wasn't until the mid-1600s that the Rockaways first came under European control when the entire peninsula, along with most of Long Island, was sold by a local tribe to the Dutch. The British soon took over and, following several ownership disputes, Richard Cornell, an iron magnate from Flushing, bought the Rockaways and became the area's first European settler when he moved with his family to Far Rockaway on land that would later become part of Central Avenue.
Cornell's descendents held onto the Rockaways until 1833 when they sold most of their land to a group of wealthy entrepreneurs who used the oceanfront property to build the Marine Pavilion, Far Rockaway's first reputable hotel. The Pavilion quickly gained popularity among New York City's elite who fled the City amid a cholera outbreak for the warmth and relative isolation of the seaside resort. Longfellow, Irving, colonial artist John Trumbull, and pioneer journalist George P. Morris were just a few of the notables who stayed there. The Pavilion burned down in 1864 but—as many other hotels and resorts popped up along its shore—the Rockaways continued to be a celebrated vacation spot.
To accommodate the growing appeal of the Rockaways—a railroad trestle was built over Jamaica Bay in 1880 connecting the peninsula to the Queens mainland. As a result, the next 20 years saw the development of several local communities including Far Rockaway, which became an incorporated village in1888 and Arverne-by-the-Sea which achieved the same status in 1895. It would take another three years, however, for the Rockaway communities to officially become part of Greater New York City.
The time of the Rockaways being a resort community for the city's rich and famous ceased in the early-to-mid 20th century as improvements in transportation made the peninsula more accessible to the general public. The construction of the Cross Bay Bridge (1925), Marine Parkway Bridge (1937), and the introduction of New York City subway service via the A line on the refurbished railroad trestle in 1956 all contributed to the Rockaways' transformation to an upstart working class community.
Today, the Rockaways retain a distinctive coastal beach town meets blue-collar neighborhood flavor with rows of white and pink bungalows in the shadows of mid-rise condominiums. It's a place where barefoot kids with sunburned faces and fishing rods across their shoulders buy tackle around the corner from a McDonald's restaurant—where it's not uncommon to find capsized skiffs on front lawns along streets with maritime names like: Foam Place, Gull Court, Swan Road, and Seagirt Boulevard. And when on a cool, late summer day you can taste the refreshing, tonic, salty-sea air and the low-flying gulls seem bigger than the JFK-bound planes above them—you can appreciate why the Rockaways were once known as the American Riviera.
Andrew Carnegie, the benevolent steel tycoon, once said: “no man can become rich without himself enriching others.” True to his word, St. Andrew—as he was called by Mark Twain—donated almost $60 million in his lifetime to help build over 2,500 libraries throughout the English-speaking world. Sixty-seven of these libraries were constructed in the City of New York alone—as it was Carnegie’s intent to establish a branch library system spanning all five boroughs. Being a Scottish immigrant from humble beginnings, it is not surprising that New York—the gateway for millions of new Americans in the early 20th century—was the recipient of his greatest largesse.
The first of the New York City Carnegie Libraries to open in the Borough of Queens was the Far Rockaway branch which was dedicated on August 18, 1904. Located prominently on the corner of a busy promenade and surrounded by a sprawling lawn—the simple yet handsome one-story brick building was raised on land deeded to the City for educational purposes by local philanthropist Benjamin Mott. The noble provision accorded by Mott may have proven far more fruitful than the generous Hempstead patriarch could have ever foreseen—and more enriching than even the wealthy industrialist could have imagined—as it is largely possible that the original Far Rockaway branch library held the great and singular distinction of cultivating the burgeoning academic talents of three Nobel Prize winners: Burton Richter, Richard Feynman, and Baruch Blumberg. Each of these scientific virtuosos graduated from nearby Far Rockaway High School between the years 1935 and 1948—making it very likely that at least one and perhaps all three members of this distinguished trio once studied in the library’s stately reading room beneath the painting of the tall, Melville-esque ship that adorned its far wall.
Tragically, the Rockaways lost a potential historical landmark when the building that housed the original Far Rockaway branch library was destroyed by fire in 1962. It wasn’t long, however, before local residents—and the future Nobel Laureates among them—had their library service restored as a replacement branch was quickly built and has stood on the same site since 1967.
Lighting the Way: The Centennial History of the Queens Borough Public Library 1896-1996 by Kroessler,
The Architecture of Literacy: The Carnegie Libraries of New York City by Mary B. Dierickx
Queens Library for Teens, located 1 block away at 2002 Cornaga Ave., Far Rockaway. The Library will serve youth from middle school through age 19. It boasts 32 computers, homework helpers, magazines for in-library use, and a wide range of programs. Current hours are 2:30 - 6 Monday - Friday. Please contact Queens Library for Teens at 718-471-2573.
Free and metered parking is available along Central Avenue and on surrounding streets, east of the library. A municipal parking field is located two blocks away at Beach 21st Street between Mott and Cornaga Avenues at the Far Rockaway Terminal of the A Train Subway Line. This facility provides 82 spaces including 4 handicap spaces and offers free 2 hour-limit parking.
to Far Rockaway/Mott Ave.(last stop). Turn right on Mott Ave. Walk 2 blocks to Central Ave. Library is diagonally across the street at Central & Mott. to Far Rockaway Station located on Nameoke Street and Redfern Avenue. Left on Nameoke Street. Right on Central Avenue. Proceed to Mott Avenue.
Belt Parkway to Exit 17, Cross Bay Blvd. Left after toll bridge onto Beach Channel Drive. Right onto Mott Ave. Left onto Central Ave. Or Van Wyck Expy (I 678) South to Nassau Expy (NY 878) East. Right on Central Ave.