There is, among a particular cohort of New York City transplants, a belief that we hold dear. It is entirely based on our collective upbringing in a coastal city, small town, or neighborhood not named Manhattan, Brooklyn, or whatever other boroughs make up this fair metropolis. This belief: New York City-area beaches are not real beaches.
Weeks ago, as the promise of summer drew near, I shared this sentiment with coworkers, many of whom disagreed. “Coney Island is the quintessential beach of the American working class,” one coworker replied. “Accessible and open to immigrants and working people for generations.”
But this is exactly what makes Coney Island, like so many of its sister beaches, terrible; it is overrun with germ-infested kids, panhandlers with ill intent, street performers with little talent, and pot-bellied New Yorkers with mango skin the texture of leather who caution, “It didn’t always used to to be this way. It wasn’t always this bad.”
Do not believe them. It has always been this way.
Ok, sure: Coney Island, Fort Tilden, Rockaway, Orchard, Jones, and Jacob Riis are all beaches in that they contain sand and border an ocean or large body of water. Yet beyond these qualifications, I wouldn’t call these oases of bacteria much of anything.
According to the most recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, New York’s overall beachwater quality ranks 20th out of 30 states. Despite a small improvement from 2013, 20 out of 30 (or 67 percent) is still a failing grade. And yet these beaches remain open and free to the public.
The Welcome to New York brochure should read: From our wonderful rides and world-famous beach, visit beautiful Coney Island. The water is contaminated but don’t worry; that’s just part of the gritty New York experience. You’ll love it!
Here is something else to consider: Last July, Alex Williams, writing for the New York Times, christened Fort Tilden everything but a beach. The writer labeled the Queens waterfront “remote, graffiti-scarred and a bit industrial; in short, it’s Bushwick by the sea.” This was meant to be a compliment. It is not.
“Part of the charm is its ruins,” Williams continued, perhaps unaware of the irony contained in the sentences he’d just written, “hollowed-out military buildings and machine shops from its Army days. Fort Tilden is beautiful in the complicated way that Detroit is. It’s a ‘Mad Max’ aesthetic that feels like home to the average L train denizen.” Maybe I’m old fashioned, but labeling a beach “Bushwick by the sea” with a “Mad Max aesthetic” doesn’t make me want to visit.
All of which brings me to my main point: an authentic beach experience offers more than visual (half-naked bodies) or emotional (surfing) sensation—even if “charming” ruins is your thing. Real beaches provide escape, whether by illusion (Miami) or access (the Seychelles). Here in New York City, our proximity to the city denies us this pleasure.
It does not matter which New York City-area beach you journey to, whether alone or with a group, because the reality of what awaits upon your return—work, school, kids!—never fully dislodges from memory. Maybe this dread is triggered by the sight of the city’s skyline, buildings which, no matter the distance, always seem to tower somewhere in the horizon, or the realization that you are only a subway ride away from the real world: emails, chores, and a pile of bills. These thoughts, which gnaw at your sun-soaked joy, are not so easily suppressed. You see the illusion for what it is: a false, man-made paradise.
This is not true of beaches beyond the reach of de Blasio’s walled megacity. From the crystal blue waters and pillowy sands of Del Mar or Coronado in San Diego to the vibrant colors of Ipanema in Brazil, a real beach allows for complete immersion with your surroundings. These places, and those similar to it, grant beach-goers true escape: they unburden the mind, and free it of daily anxieties. This euphoric state of being, which is impossible to achieve at a New York City-area beach, is brought on by the feeling of true detachment. A lot of it, too, has to do with the fact that these beaches, unlike in New York City, are subject to ideal weather conditions year round. They were always meant to, and will always, be beaches. Whereas in 30 years, Rockaway and Fort Tilden will be blanketed in 50-story residential condominiums that offer “beach amenities,” which is code word for an in-door gym, a tanning booth, and a rooftop pool.
The other truth is, I’m spoiled. I grew up in Los Angeles—regularly went to Santa Monica, Venice, and Dockweiler—and have been fortunate enough to visit Condado and Ocean Park Beaches (Puerto Rico), Pigeon Beach (Antigua and Barbuda), Labadi Beach (Ghana), and the many beaches that dot Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, and Mazatlán in Mexico.
What can I say? I just know a real, quality beach when I visit one.
[Image via Getty]