Rockaway Beach, NY – Edgar Gómez wanted to be part of the rebirth of Rockaway Beach.
While many residents began sifting through the wreckage left behind after Hurricane Sandy devastated this sandy strip of land straddling New York City’s southeastern border with the Atlantic Ocean, Gómez didn’t see all gloom and doom.
He was one of the few entrepreneurs who saw a perceived opportunity to join in the neighborhood’s revitalization and actually expand his restaurant business.
From the wreckage of a former Hispanic food joint, Gomez decided to open his newest restaurant — El Pasatiempo — by clearing out the debris caused when about six feet of water rushed in during the night Sandy made landfall.
With a dark wood interior, spacious seating, flat screen TVs and a fully-stocked bar, the Guatemalan restaurateur hoped his restaurant would become a gathering place not only for Rockaways’ tiny but growing Latino community, but also for visitors and longtime locals alike.
So many people have left, just down the street there are over 100 houses that are just gone...It’s been very difficult; I hope to keep the business open.
- Edgar Gómez, owner of El Pasatiempo Restaurant
Along with so many other Rockaway business owners, Gomez hoped for a strong comeback one year after the devastating storm devastated the region.
Instead, he’s struggling just to keep his business afloat.
Like much of the town, a once-bustling beach resort, his restaurant now sits largely empty most days. Even during the summer months, which usually draw large crowds of surfers and beachgoers, his cavernous restaurant was mostly desolate.
His predicament is common across the Rockaway peninsula: Many spots are once again open for business, but business is not coming in.
With winter drawing near, Gómez, who dropped about $90,000 of his own funds — $50,000 more than anticipated — into the establishment, he said he hopes his business makes it to next Memorial Day.
“So many people have left, just down the street there are over 100 houses that are just gone,” Gómez said. “It’s been very difficult. I hope to keep the business open.”
Gómez’s situation is disconcerting. But even he admits that it is a far cry from those longtime Rockaway business owners who lost both their homes and their livelihood during the hurricane’s onslaught.
Some venues, like the uber-hip Rockaway Taco and the pizza parlor/bar Playland, saw steady traffic over the summer months. But most Rockaway businesses struggled to make it through the normally bustling hot weather rush.
By Labor Day, the New York City Parks Department statistics estimated that only about 3.2 million people had visited the 6.2-mile strip of sand over the summer months — down from an estimated 7.7 million the year before.
And now, with the summer visiting season over, many business owners are wondering if their businesses will survive the long, cold winter.
Taking Care Of Business
Signs that all is still not right in the Rockaways a year after Superstorm Sandy are still glaringly apparent.
Rubbish is piled up under the elevated train tracks. The already down-on-its-luck Surfside Manor senior home looks even more decrepit. And giant sandbags put in place by the Army Corps of Engineers after the storm guard the beach in place of its iconic boardwalk.
For decades, the Rockaways was a popular summer resort once heralded by the New York Times as having “some of the greatest beaches of the world.” It has long attracted vacationers from Brooklyn and Manhattan, while the consistent and powerful waves bring in city surfers hungry for a local spot.
But since last October, when the storm turned the neighborhood into a disaster site, fewer and fewer local visitors have hopped here via subway, or made the drive across Cross Bay Veteran’s Memorial Bridge, to the peninsula.
“My business has been down a lot from last year. I got some help getting my store opened up by June, but I’m months behind of where I want to be right now,” said Steve Stathis, co-owner of Boarders Surf Shop.
Getting Back To Business
Despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s mandatory evacuation order and the 80-mile-an-hour winds of Hurricane Sandy bearing down on him, Rockaway Beach salon owner Gustavo Mendizabal decided to wait out the storm in his apartment with his two dogs.
An ardent believer in the Mayan calendar, which predicted a catastrophic change in the world later in December, Mendizabal saw Sandy as the first rumbling of a greater cosmic event — so he thought: Why not get a front seat for the show?
On a more practical level, Mendizabal added, he wanted to make sure the hair salon he owned weathered Sandy. As the storm made landfall, he heard power generators blowing, water rushing through the streets and the horrifying sound of thousands of pounds of wood and steel being ripped apart as the churning Atlantic handily had its way with the Rockaways’ boardwalk and the homes and business in its path.
In the eerily quiet morning that followed the storm, Mendizabal emerged from his home to find businesses and homes he had known for the last 35 years completely gutted as debris, mud and raw sewage littered his path.
“I thought I had already died when I walked outside,” he said. “It was just total devastation.”
Adding to his own problems, a burst sewage pipe kept him away from his salon for a week before the brackish, stinking water was finally piped out of the area.
Named after his daughter, Kimberly’s was his fourth salon on the Rockaways — he opened his first one when he was just 19. And when he showed up he found everything he had worked for sitting under a thick layer of mud and sewage. His styling chairs were mangled messes of metal, thousands of dollars of hair products scattered in disarray and his windows turned into shattered glass blanketing the floor.
“Everything was wiped out,” Mendizabal said. “Totally gone.”
One year later, Mendizabal is slowly getting his business back on its feet. After being forced out by his landlord to make room for a trendy new wine bar, the hair stylist moved into a new locale a few blocks away. He named it Cuts Color Curl.
A short man in a fedora and thick-rimmed glasses who moved from Guatemala to the U.S. when he was 11, Mendizabal’s gregarious disposition lays in stark contrast to the reality he and other business owners in the Rockaways face one year after Sandy hit.
On a cloudy afternoon in mid-October, Mendizabal clipped the hair of one lone customer while busily gabbing about the thousands of dollars of collectible books he lost in the storm.
The aid he received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from local charitable organizations — the city has earmarked $1.77 billion in federal aid to help in the recovery of the over 750 local businesses damaged in the storm — helped him open his new salon.
But it hasn’t helped bring back local customers who left the Rockaways after losing their homes and livelihoods in Hurricane Sandy’s wake.
Slow business and gradual recovery aside, longtime Rockaway business owners like Mendizabal are still hoping for a rebound. The Rockaways has survived from other major problems — ubiquitous poverty, isolation from the rest of the city, lingering damage from previous storms — only to come back, he said.
“The only good thing about this storm is that it brought the community together,” Mendizabal said. “It’s going to take some time, but the Rockaways is going to once again be the best beach in New York.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.