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Rockaway Beach becomes 'Hipster Hamptons'

La Fruteria is one of the many new

La Fruteria is one of the many new shops along the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach between Beach 86th Street and Beach 95th Street. (July 28, 2012) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

"Rock Rock Rockaway Beach/We can hitch a ride/To Rockaway Beach," sang the Ramones.

The punk band's 1977 paean notwithstanding, the stretch of Queens oceanfront was in decline then, and remained so in the three decades that followed.

But in the past few summers, Rockaway Beach has rapidly emerged as a hot destination for the young and hip. Some even call it, tongue-in-cheek, the "Hipster Hamptons."

On a recent sunny Saturday, the A train was crowded with young people sporting tattoos, beards and Wayfarer sunglasses. Beachgoers carried surfboards and totebags from popular Williamsburg, Brooklyn, restaurants. Bathing suits peeked out from under vintage sundresses and cutoff jean shorts.

Last year, a concession area on the boardwalk at Beach 97th Street reopened with trendy new food stands from Brooklyn and Manhattan, drawing young people looking for a fix of artisanal coffee, lobster rolls, smoothies and various international delicacies.

A bar sells cocktails and beer to patrons who sit on picnic benches in an adjacent covered area and watch indie bands perform.

Whether it's because of the unusually hot weather, word of mouth or both, seasoned veterans of Rockaway Beach and those who arrived in recent years say this summer is busier than last.

"It's just snowballing out here," said Mattias Garcia Simmons, 26, a cook at the popular Rockaway Taco outpost on the boardwalk.

"More people know about it now," said Sean Newell, 42, a cook at Rippers on the boardwalk at Beach 86th Street, a snack bar that opened last year and hosts bands.

The food vendors helped Rockaway Beach become a hipster hangout, locals say. Rockaway Taco was one of the pioneer food destinations for the Williamsburg crowd when it opened in 2008. Last year, the taco stand added its boardwalk location, a block from the original stand at Beach 96th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard.

"The food vendors on the boardwalk have been an amazing success. There have been nothing but rave reviews from residents," said Jonathan Gaska, 51, the district manager for Community Board 14.

Gaska said the "so-called hipster invasion," which started when surfing became legal on the beach in 2009, and really took off during the past two summers with expanded foodie options, has been good for local businesses and residents.

"The merchants appreciate the business and the increased property values," he said. "They spend money out here and they are good neighbors."

And it is only getting more popular. "It seems much busier out here this year," said Elisa Dorn, who works at Veggie Island, a health food store next to the original Rockaway Taco on Rockaway Boulevard and has been surfing for four years.

As an alternative to the subway, a shuttle bus started this year between Union and Meeker avenues in Williamsburg and Rockaway Beach. The "Rockabus" -- a fleet of former school buses that run regularly on weekends -- costs $10 one-way or $18 round-trip.

The 7-square-mile beach neighborhood has a long history as a summer escape for city residents. In the first half of the 20th century, it was a popular destination for working-class New Yorkers. Many rented unheated bungalows, explained Jack Eichenbaum, the Queens borough historian.

But by the 1950s and 1960s, expanded car ownership, improved highways and affordable jet travel made it easier to leave the city for summer vacations.

Bungalow vacancies grew and eventually, except for a remaining three-block stretch in nearby Arverne, they were sold to the city and torn down. Some of the land became public housing and some remained empty.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, there were attempts to revitalize the area, but none took hold until the early 2000s, when "developers caught the wave of the housing boom," said Gaska.

Arverne by the Sea, a development of luxury two-family houses overlooking the new surfing beach at Beach 67th Street, has sold over 1,000 units since 2004. They are priced from $559,000 to $800,000. "It's a good mix of retirees, younger families and surfers," said Gerard Romski, 53, the project executive.

Surfer interest soared after the sport became legal. There are two beach areas designated for surfing, board rentals and surf shops that offer lessons.

"It's so different here than it used to be," said Matt Allen, 27, who grew up in Rockaway Beach and manages Boarders, a bike and surfboard shop on the boardwalk. "The beach used to be deserted, with just a few surfers."

Now, said Allen, the surfboards, which rent for $35 for four hours or $50 a day, are often all gone by the afternoon.

Rockaway Beach's renewed appeal extends beyond the young Williamsburg crowd.

"It's my vacation home, but it's not a schlep like the Berkshires or the Hamptons," said Michelle Arnold, a retired school psychologist from TriBeCa. "You would never know that you are in New York," Arnold said. "Except for a hipster enclave, it's still the best kept secret in the city."

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