Six weeks after Hurricane Sandy, the city remains starkly divided.
In much of Manhattan, it seems like nothing happened. In substantial portions of Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens, however, much of the damage waits to be repaired, stores wait to be reopened, and people wait to return home.
This storm has made clear the vulnerability of the city as a whole, and especially its coastal areas.
New York is a very dense, highly developed place, with so many distinct areas and environments that it is hard to think of a single feature that defines the entire city. Yet its waterfront and coastal neighborhoods have long given it a distinct flavor.
For most of the nineteenth century, Queens was a collection of sleepy towns and villages, a place for city-dwellers to take the air and enjoy open space. Spurred by the growth of Manhattan and the development of a stagecoach route in the early 1830s, the Rockaways became a popular place to vacation; in 1833, the first resort on the Rockaways, the Marine Pavilion, was completed. It is credited with introducing ocean bathing to New York City, and became a fashionable place for well-to-do New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike to visit. During the great cholera epidemic of 1832, many wealthy New Yorkers fled to the Marine Pavilion, then still under construction.
During the 1830s, one of the prominent people to visit the Marine Pavilion was the poet General George P. Morris. He was a major literary figure at the time, although he has become fairly obscure since.He was a poet, songwriter, and newspaperman; one of the periodicals he started has evolved into the still-operational Town and Country. He also was one first to publish Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”
Morris was most famous for his song “Woodman, Spare That Tree!” which is now considered an early example of environmental consciousness. He showed that same passion for the beauty of nature during his visit to the Marine Pavilion, where he wrote this poem, with a meter said to be inspired by the sound of the waves crashing into the shore:
ODE TO ROCKAWAY
On old Long island’s seagirt shore
Many an hour I’ve whiled away,
List’ning to the breakers roar
That wash the beach at Rockaway;
Transfixed I’ve stood while nature’s Lyre
In one harmonious concert broke
And, catching its Promethean fire,
My inmost soul to rapture woke.
Oh, how delightful ’tis to stroll
Where murmuring winds and waters meet.
Marking the billows as they roll
And break resistless at your feet;
To watch young Iris, as she dips
Her mantle in the sparkling dew,
And, chas’d by Sol, away she trips
O’er the horizon’s quiv’ring blue.
To hear the startling night winds sigh,
As dreamy twilight lulls to sleep;
While the pale moon reflects from high
Her image in the mighty deep;
Majestic scene where Nature dwells,
Profound in everlasting love,
While her unmeasured music swells,
The vaulted firmament above.
The Marine Pavilion and the man who immortalized it both met their end in the same year. In June of 1864, the marine Pavilion was destroyed by fire. A few weeks later, George P. Morris died at the age of 61.
The destruction of the Marine Pavilion marked the end of an era in Rockaway’s history, but the extension of the Long Island Railroad to the Rockaways in the 1880s reinvigorated it as a place of recreation and resorts.
Over the years, Rockaway has transitioned into more of a residential community, and has been regularly beset by natural disasters, although none have been as severe as the recent destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy. However, Morris’ poem attests to the timeless attraction of the Rockaways and the importance of its natural features in the life of the city.
Katie Uva is a PhD candidate in History at the CUNY Graduate Center and the History Lesson columnist for the Queens Beat.