A Salute to The Bungalows of Oceanus Court and The Beach 91st St. Community Garden

The O’Toole family on the porch facing the court with the next generation of kids (early 90's)

Photo courtesy of Tim Hill.

Previously published in

I met Kerry and Jeanne of the O’toole family and Patty Shea last summer as they were walking down my block, all smiles. Turns out, at one time, it was their block too. We had a thriving community back in the day on 91st St.” Jeanne tells me. I was excited to meet these new friends, learning of their lives lived from the 60’s through the mid 90’s, on the same street that I now call home – some 20 years later.

Kerry and Jeanne and their lifelong friend Patty belonged to two of the many families that summered in the 16 bungalows that once occupied the land that is now The Beach 91st St. Community Garden.

Rockaway bungalows were affordable summer retreats for the working class, built mostly in the 1920’s. There are no city records that date back that far, but according to Sanborn fire insurance maps, our bungalow colony – called Oceanus Court – was present in the year 1912, meaning that it was built before that time. The colonies on 91st St. were owned (around the 1960’s) by Abraham Enten, who rented them to folks, mostly from the Bronx, which is where the O’toole’s and Shea’s had their main residences.

EXTRA Beach 91st St. formally Oceanus Ave. Note the 16 bungalows are present - Sandborn Map 1912

The bungalows were originally identical – cedar lap siding, painted white with green trim. There were 8 homes on each side of the approximately 50×150 lot. Allegedly, the ones in the front and back were a bit bigger.  The homes were grouped and attached in fours, separated by alleyways, all with small porches. In the center was a community courtyard where families would host birthday parties and the 30 some “kids of the court” would play freeze-tag and other games like hide-and-seek.

Inside, there were three bedrooms, a small kitchen and an indoor shower. No heat. The quarters were so tight, Kerry explained, that her and Patty would knock on the wall and talk to each other back and forth. “It was definitely community living.” Kerry recounts. While the interior living quarters were compact, the vast openness of the beach and fresh breeze felt like a world away from the crowds and congestion of the inner city. “Rockaway was a magical place growing up. As a Bronx kid living in an apartment during the school year, the opportunity for independence and the luxury of walking to the beach and playing baseball on the green [a patch of grass on 91st St. before the boardwalk – 70-80’s], created lasting memories for me.” Jeanne reflects.

“Every morning the bakery truck would come to the court. You could buy fresh bread and cupcakes. All the kids would follow the truck yelling ‘Dugan, Dugan the baker!’ When his sales were finished, the kids would pile in his truck and he would give us a ride to the corner. This was in the late 60’s.” Kerry remembers.

As teenagers, the girls ventured off 91st Street spending time at Pinky’s which had skee-ball – 50 cent specials on weeknights! Of course, they also went to Playland and across the street was Borgiano’s. “They had the best greasy hamburgers and raw clams.” Kerry tells me. Fireworks on the boardwalk happened every Wednesday and the teens would watch the display from the lifeguard chairs. “All three of us got our first jobs at the concession on  86th St., this was 1974, I was 14! Patty was a few years older, she’d ask my mother if she could take me out. My mother loved Patty and didn’t know we were headed to Connolly’s for drinks. (Some things never change!) We even snuck out a few times by climbing through the bedroom window onto the one story roof into my friend Patty’s bungalow.” Jeanne remembers!

“At some point the residents of the colony started buying their individual bungalows but they were always apparently one unit for city tax purposes. The last few were sold to the ‘renters’ in 1979 after Mrs. Enten passed away.” Jeanne explains. As Jeanne, Kerry and Patty entered adulthood, the bungalows became generational. “My sister Mary Jo has four kids that spent many happy summers in Rockaway until my dad sold the bungalow in 1995. The kids cried when it happened and asked, ‘Where will we go on vacation?’”

I tried to piece the story together after the O’toole’s sold in 1995. There was a fire destroying at least two bungalows some time after 1996 and I learned from Beach 91st St. lifers that the properties were deemed derelict sometime around 2000. In 2009 the Department of Housing Preservation and Development stepped in. The once-prospering bungalows were demolished  leaving just another empty lot in Rockaway.

Subsequently, a fence was put up by the city and the property accumulated litter, becoming an eyesore. Come the spring, it seemed almost like magic – beautiful, towering sunflowers appeared along the property gate. This was the beginning of the rebirth of 134 Beach 91st St.

Rockaway has always been a “do-it-yourself” type of place and that’s exactly the attitude the community took when Tim Hill, then a resident of 91st St. and Founder of The Beach 91st Street Community Garden, asked for support from his friends and neighbors to transform the overgrown property into an urban garden. The vision wasn’t just to build a producing plot of land. The residents wanted the space to act as a community center, a place for art to be displayed, a sanctuary for children to learn and play, and for natives, long-term residents, and newcomers to connect. In a way, not much different than the way it had been used in the past, when Jeanne, Kerry and Patty spent hot summer days and cool summer nights in the court.

Over a cup of coffee last week, Tim Hill shared with me the history of the garden and how it came to fruition. “Much to our surprise, we didn’t’ get arrested and other residents started to notice the clean-up and gardening efforts we undertook.”

The positive feedback from the neighborhood, gave the rebel gardeners the incentive to continue.

“We began researching the property to ensure our vision of a community garden would be allowable, possible and sustainable. We canvassed the neighborhood, coordinated with the proper city agencies and finding no obstacles, gained support to move forward. Our first project day was in early Oct. 2010 where more than 40 community members came out and cleaned up the property. The NYC Dept. of Sanitation made a special trip for us, to cart away the debris.

Meanwhile, the group started the administrative work, contacting Community Board 14 and  Green Thumb NYC for guidance as they moved forward to legitimize the space. By-laws for the garden were put in place to instill a democratic, communal process that would insure sustainability.

The bungalows still held significant meaning to members of the community and Tim Hill knew as much. To fuse the past to the present, the gardeners met with architects Walter and Jen Meyer, and with local residents input, designed the garden to pay homage to the Oceanus Ct. Bungalows of yesteryear. The layout of the garden beds closely mimics the architectural layout of bungalow structures, including the essential courtyard. “It was very important to me that we captured a feeling of pedestrian movement through the garden, as people coming to visit one anothers bungalows – ie. garden plots; and congregate in the courtyard for a sense of community,” Tim explained.

On Dec 24, 2010, 8 local residents and Jim Bulloch’s of Bulloch’s Belle Harbor, transported more than 12 tons of untreated timbers for the garden beds. These reclaimed beams were donated by the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation. In early March 2011 with the help of Joe Longo and the use of his Bobcat, the construction began. By mid April the garden beds were built. 34 cubic yards of organic top soil arrived on May 6th and over 60 residents and volunteers were ready to shovel.

The community was eager to help with the topsoil delivery (May 2011)

The Beach 91st Street Community Garden submitted and was awarded a grant from The Citizens Committee for New York City in conjunction with The New Yorkers for Better Neighborhoods. These funds were used to finish the infrastructure of the garden. And in the summer of 2011 the first growing season began. Without the grass-roots attitude of the Rockaway community, donations from residents, volunteers giving their time and local governmental support, the garden would have never been possible.

The physical change since Jeanne, Kerry and Patty lived on Beach 91st St. is drastic, but I’ve learned through this exploration that the community spirit is the same as it was 60 years ago – welcoming, vibrant, ambitious and in true Rockaway form, maverick.  The court of the past and the new courtyard of today’s garden remains a place for children to play and for neighbors to cultivate lasting friendships. This is a testament to the long-standing, tight-knit neighborhood we all call home. It’s my hope that The Beach 91st Street Garden will stand for generations, like the Oceanus Court bungalows before it.

tagged in garden, gardening, rockaway