On Growing Up in the
Whitest Part of New York City
by Edwin Johnston
March 16, 2001
Exclusive to BBBR
There's a census map of page A18 of the March 16, 2001 issue of the New York Times that breaks down the populations of all the New York City boroughs by race. Surprisingly, I found on that map that Breezy Point has the largest percentage of whites (98%) of the entire city. This also happens to be a place where I grew up.
Breezy Point is a tiny little community (1990 Census pop. 3,700, compared to the total city population of 8 million) at the westernmost tip of a very slim peninsula that extends out into the Atlantic Ocean from Queens, just south of Brooklyn and Coney Island. In fact, it's more of a large sandbar than anything else. Its official designation is termed a private cooperative. There's only one road through the place and the police force is a private auxiliary, not city cops. The community is basically composed of houses, with a few shops, restaurants, bars and a church. The houses are located on "walks", not streets, which are their official mailing address designations; little paths of concrete that connect one house to another. Residents' trash is left on the back sides of their houses in sand alley ways, to be removed by teams on dump trucks with sand bearing tires. On the south side of the peninsula is the Atlantic Ocean. It's just a relatively short walk to the bay on the north side. A small dock juts out on the bay side where people often fish from. A ferryboat used to pick up passengers there several times a day to take people over to Brooklyn.
The original essence of Breezy Point was conceived as a summer haven for a segment of the Brooklyn working class. The people who set up bungalows there were almost exclusively members of New York City's police and fire departments. The ethnic makeup of this group was overwhelmingly Irish. This may account for Breezy Point's other superlative designation, as the place with the highest per capita consumption of Budweiser beer. Now, my family is not specifically Irish, but many of them were (and continue to be) New York City cops and firemen. My mother's father was ethnically German and a New York City cop. His granddad probably settled in the German immigrant area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My mother once told me the story of how her father had their Breezy Point bungalow floated on a barge across Jamaica Bay from Canarsie. This they then maintained as a summer residence while they kept a year round brownstone in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn.
My own parents met each other when they were teenagers at Riis Park, which is a few miles east of Breezy Point, near the Marine Parkway Bridge that connects Brooklyn to the peninsula. Once they were married and began raising a family, they too had a summer bungalow in Rockaway Point, another cooperative right next to Breezy Point. (Not to be confused with Far Rockaway and Rockaway Beach, which is much farther east on the peninsula with a far different history and ethnic make-up.) Our bungalow was a duplex, with my father's parents and his youngest sister living next door. My mother's brother and his growing family had a place nearby. Each of them also had residences in the Flatbush and East Flatbush sections of Brooklyn. Both of my younger brothers were baptized at St. Thomas More church in Rockaway Point. Many years later my maternal grandmother's funeral service was held there.
I have nothing but fond memories of the summers I spent in Rockaway and Breezy Points. It offered everything a kid could want. I learned to swim in the bay at a very young age, taught by a lifeguard. A neighbor's dad taught me how to dive off the wooden jetties. On the ocean side, I picked up body surfing. I had my own fishing rod and we often ate flounder caught off the Rockaway Point dock. At the little retail complex there was a shop called Kotter's, which featured glass covered cases full of penny candy, which they'd put in a little brown paper bag for the kids to take home. On the ocean side was the Sugar Bowl, where you could buy swirly soft ice cream cones and hot dogs. It was a child's paradise. For summertime birthday parties the rest of the extended family would come out and we'd hold great all-day and all-night bashes; beaching during the day and setting up strings of Chinese lanterns for enjoying the cool outdoor weather in the evening. On the Fourth of July we'd all assemble on the bay side and watch the fireworks displays across the bay in New York City. From that vantage point, you could see both the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty. At the end of each summer, there would be a grand parade of all the residents, called Mardi Gras, with specific families and groups outfitted in costumes and displays following some kooky theme.
My own family gave up our bungalow as the 1960's came to a close. "White flight" was occurring in our area of Brooklyn and we would soon move to the suburbs of Long Island. My mother's father had died and her brother helped to winterize and expand the Breezy Point bungalow for year round living. The suburbs on the south shore of Long island had much to offer young people. It was only a short train ride or hitch-hike to Long Beach or the family would pack a picnic basket for a trip to Jones Beach or Point Lookout further out on the Island. We still often visited my mother's mother in Breezy Point. My two younger brothers would each spend two weeks separately there every summer, staying with my grandmother and their cousins who lived upstairs. This was a tradition that began while my grandfather was still alive. As I got older and into my teens, I would make my own trips to Breezy Point; first on 15 mile bike rides with my Long Island friends and years later using my dad's car, where I'd take my pals out for a day and night full of drinking and carousing at the beach.
I never knew Breezy Point to be a particularly racist place, although I recall a comment once from a family member that went something like this: "You don't often see a black person riding through Breezy Point, but if you do, they're riding by very fast!" My early years in Brooklyn were similar. I attended Catholic grammar school, where from the first through eighth grades there was only one African-American enrolled. The same pattern was duplicated when we moved to Long Island. There was only one African-American family enrolled in our combination junior/senior high school of over 1,500 students. It's difficult to recognize what racism entails when all those around you are the same types. What really shook up Breezy Point was not racism, per se, but ethnic difference. Beginning in the late 1970's and accelerating during the 1980's and 1990's, was an influx of ethnic Italians. These Italians also had lots of money and built much larger homes than the longtime residents could afford. So these days there is a conflict between the "native" inhabitants, the more working class-based, overwhelmingly Irish residents and the middle class Italians who are becoming a dominant force there. It's a bitter struggle that I really don't know enough about to comment on, mostly because I have spent the past two decades living 1,500 miles away from the area.
The last time I visited Breezy Point was in late 1996. I probably hadn't been there for a decade or more. My brother and I drove in to visit my uncle, now the sole resident of my grandparents' home. He wasn't at home, but we looked in through the glass door to see the recent improvements he had made. The place is a virtual palace compared to the original one story bungalow from the earlier part of the century that it used to be. We walked across the road to Kennedy's bar and grille, where we were sure that we would find him. There he was, at the back end of the bar, facing the bay. He was happy to see me. We both told each other how good each of us looked. My uncle pointed to the barges out on the bay that were adding sand in an attempt to stem the rapid beach erosion that has been going on. He told me that he had sold his nice boat because it was too expensive to maintain, yet he kept his small sailboat that he had named after his oldest daughter. After a while, we left our uncle and his fellow retired cops to their midday beers at Kennedy's. We crossed back over the road to visit the daughter of one of my mother's cousins, a girl I grew up with and who had lived next door to my mother's grandfather in Breezy Point. She now lives year round in a little one story bungalow just down the walk from my uncle's place. She was recently divorced with a couple of young children whom I played with while we chatted. Due to her circumstances she had fallen on some hard times. Her ex-husband and his father lived a few houses down and fought with her a lot. After I left there I decided to stop at the ATM at the little retail complex in Rockaway Point and then made my way back to her house offering her a little gift of some cash to purchase some new toys for the kids on my behalf.
Racism was never a problem in my family. In the 1970's my father and some of his co-workers bought the business he had worked at for years as a union typesetter in Manhattan. His three partners represented the diversity in New York City at the time; Sam was Jewish, Joe was African-American and Manny was Puerto Rican. Living in ethnically segregated areas does not imply racism, merely insularity. Perhaps the people who summered in Breezy point wanted to have a safe insular place for their children to play during the summer compared to the lack of resources and facilities for Brooklyn kids at the time. Perhaps my own father sought a place to escape to in the suburbs for himself and his family in contrast to the gritty reality he witnessed in the city every day. But each of these places, Breezy, Rockaway and the Long Island suburbs had something to offer children in their development that those with enough money could purchase. In my mind it was less an escape and more of an investment in the children's future. Is it better to learn from the school of hard knocks on the city streets, or from a natural environment of exploration and exercise? Do you get a better education in an ethnically diverse environment of crumbling schools and infrastructure, or from a narrower, class-based and higher tax-supported system? I'm quite sure that my parents were preparing me for the real world. In college I eventually entered a program with a world studies core curriculum. These days in my activist life, I pride myself in being able to work closely with both African-American and Latino civil rights leaders, Arabs and Jews, Asians and others of all political stripes, ages and economic levels. Had I been brought up differently, coming into conflict with other ethnic groups as a younger person, no doubt I would have developed prejudices against them, which would have been very difficult to remove as I got older. I also recognize the societal privileges that have been bestowed on my for what they are, and feel a strong sense of personal responsibility to use what I have been given for everyone's benefit.
So, the New York Times, naming Breezy Point as the whitest place in New York City may be misleading to many people. It doesn't necessarily classify it as a place of racial hatred. The biggest hotspots of racial discord are those segregated areas of New York City that border on other ethnically and racially segregated areas like Crowne Heights and Bensonhurst. Breezy Point's nearest neighbors of a different race are a good ten miles away. On that New York Times map, and in nearly every other large American city, all neighborhoods are essentially segregated by race, ethnicity, class and other distinctions, differing mostly by degree and not scale. This is the larger problem, not the fact that some people of mostly Irish ancestry still have a near exclusive hold (which is tenuous at this point, at best) over a tiny slice of property that very few have ever heard of. I don't mean for this little essay to seem like an apology for racial segregation, which it isn't. I'm simply reminiscing about a place that many members of my family have called home for a long time and just happens to be in the news at this time. It is my hope that you will walk away from this essay with a different attitude from what you may get from the news, from the perspective of someone who actually lived there.
As a funny and ironic final note, let me end with this: Some years ago an ocean freighter full of illegal Chinese immigrants ran aground on the ocean side of the peninsula near Riis Park beach. Someone on the Larry King Show the following night was speculating that it may have been an intentional beaching to avoid the harbor authorities. I called in to the show to claim that was a preposterous proposal, saying that any non-whites in that area would stick out like a sore thumb immediately. I was hung up on by the show.
A Short History of Breezy Point
A Photo of a Typical Breezy Point Walk
Map of Breezy Point/Rockaway Point Area, Featuring Kennedy's Landmark
[DIVA NOTE: Having never lived in a segregated community as a child, and never as an adult until moving to Orange County, California four years ago, I cannot really argue the relative merits of differing childhood experiences. However, I would suggest that an interesting, highly recommended, and very different perspective on this issue can be found at: