Documenting the Rockaways in Photographs, Before and After Sandy
Photographer and surfer, Susannah Ray
NEW YORK — New York isn’t often thought of as a beach town, but the city’s southeastern edge is all coastline. Surfing aficionados can get on the subway train in Times Square with their surfboards, and be riding the waves off the Rockaways peninsula in Queens an hour or so later.
That was what first drew art photographer Susannah Ray there in 2004. She moved from Brooklyn to the Rockaways to have more time to surf, sharing a small, poorly heated wooden bungalow with 15 or so others.
“Sometimes we would spend winter nights out here just freezing, and go surf as soon as the sun came up, walking through snow, and paddling out,” Ray said.
She has lived ever since at Rockaway Beach, a working-class neighborhood that is also home to many New York firefighters and police officers. Now married to a fellow surfer, Ray lives with her husband and their two-year-old daughter in a small brick house a short walk from the ocean.
The surfing community in the Rockaways is almost as diverse in its racial, cultural and economic make-up as the rest of the city, she said. Ray says she hears Spanish, Portuguese and even Japanese among those paddling out.
“It’s become large enough at this point that there really is a niche for every kind of person, you know. Then there’s this huge hipster wave, which is a lot of young people from Brooklyn, Manhattan, maybe parts of Queens, who come down on the train for the day and surf. Then there’s sort of this middle ground, which is people like myself and my husband, some other surfing families on the block.”
Before and after
Some of Ray’s most striking photographs are of that community, including many who surf through the winter. The project, titled Right Coast, after surfers’ nickname for the East Coast, has dramatic images of wet-suited men and women hauling their boards under gray skies, through snow and even blizzards. Ray says that’s because most of the year, the waves in the Rockaways are small.
“So, when those good waves come, if you’re really dedicated and you want to be out year-round, you have to say, it’s snowing outside, it’s a 20 mile-per-hour northeast offshore wind, and I’m going to get my board and go surf,” she said.
Her quiet community was upended when Superstorm Sandy hit the Rockaways last October, wrecking some buildings, and flooding many others. Ray’s latest work, “What Are the Wild Waves Saying: Storm Stories from the Rockaways,” at Manhattan’s Bonni Benrubi gallery, documents the aftermath with portraits of residents and their ruined homes and possessions. A new sports car mired under sand and debris is the signature image.
“It’s kind of that dream cherry-red car, I think it’s a symbol of a little bit of luxury and fun, and it’s being completely crushed by the boardwalk,” Ray said.
The work is exhibited with an audio montage by radio producer Jen Poyant.“I saw the water running down the driveway. It started to come under the door, and I remember Clare going, oh my god, the water’s coming under the door,” a male speaker says. A female interviewee remembers: “And I wrap up in the blanket like this, and all I’m saying, ‘Lord, save me, save me Lord, don’t let my house go.”
One portrait is of an older man, Steiny Ludford. “He weathered the storm within his ground-floor apartment,” Ray said. “He became trapped inside as the water came in very quickly. He perched on a shelf for the duration of the flooding, until the waters began to recede.”
Now, Ray said, the future of her community no longer feels secure. Hurricane season is nearing, and no one can be sure that another storm like Sandy won’t hit again.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” she said. “I have many moments when I wonder why we redid the basement the way we did. I think if I were a scientist at Columbia University, it might be easier for me to say, ‘Okay, you people, you need to just pack up and go.’ But because my life is here, I live here, it’s hard to take that viewpoint. So I’m conflicted. I don’t know the answer.”
On the other hand, she said, the community is rebounding in some ways. Beach concessions are being rebuilt, and weekend beachgoers are back. And the mood of some residents has lifted.
After Sandy, Ray said, “It really felt like something had been permanently lost. What is kind of terrific is that now that it’s summer, I realize it hasn’t been lost completely. Hopefully, we will regain a lot of what the community, in the days after the storm, a lot of what we thought was gone forever.”