Sleepy Arverne is attracting entrepreneurs from its neighbor to the west, Rockaway Beach. As gentrification there continues, the community adjusts to the spotlight.
You will smell it before you see it. Goody’s, a 30-year-old West Indian restaurant known for its oxtail and jerk chicken, brims with locals, many of Caribbean descent with discerning palates. It is a staple for residents of Arverne, Queens, a tight-knit but often overlooked neighborhood located between Rockaway Beach and Far Rockaway.
On a Saturday afternoon in April, teenagers in Champion sweats and their younger siblings in face paint lined up at the counter, in addition to a few middle-aged men on their way home from work, and a tall woman with long blond braids who asked for her container of fried fish to be left open. That way it wouldn’t be soggy after her 20-minute commute, she explained to the employees in T-shirts that said, “Goody’s, It’s All Good.”
Most patrons take their food to go, but some prefer to linger in a screened-in side porch, depending on the evening breeze. Other customers will take their meals around the corner to the Rockaway Brewing Company on Beach 72nd Street, a three year-old bar in a garage-like structure lined with surfboards and vinyl records. On the busiest summer weekends, Goody’s had to hire a “food runner” to deliver orders to the bar.
The unofficial business agreement between Rockaway Brewing and Goody’s represents how the lines that have divided a peninsula long defined by race and socioeconomic standing have started to blur. Other entrepreneurs have noticed, and have set up shop in Arverne, too. What remains to be seen is whether this working-class neighborhood, which is over 60 percent black and about 20 percent Latino, will continue to embrace and be embraced by the new business interests steadily moving into the area.
“We don’t see people’s color, just the color of their money,” said Gary Robinson, who owns Goody’s along with his wife, Joan Robinson. They also own and rent out several apartments in Arverne.
Perhaps the biggest mover and shaker in the neighborhood has been the waterfront development project called Arverne by the Sea, which ushered in picket-fenced townhouses in 2010; a Stop & Shop grocery store and a YMCA followed in 2011. The community’s most recent phase, luxury apartments over shops and cafes called the Tides, broke ground this past fall. The first of eight buildings is now at 98 percent occupancy.
“Arverne by the Sea did it right,” said Nicole Russell, who grew up on Beach 64th Street when the neighborhood offered almost no food options for her and her family. “They not only built up our land, but they brought something for the community too, like food and jobs,” she continued. “But we need more.”
More is on its way. And much of it is connected to the new Tides complex, including second locations for two well-known Rockaway Beach businesses.
“Arverne needs something to eat,” said Claudette Flatow of Cuisine by Claudette, a health-conscious cafe on bustling Beach 116th Street that will also open a new restaurant on the ground floor of the Tides at the end of this month.
Ms. Flatow, an Israeli and French transplant, first came to the peninsula in 1994. “Nothing was here,” she said of Rockaway Beach when she opened her restaurant there in 2012. “I took a big risk,” she continued, “but the neighborhood took me in like I’m a part of Rockaway, and I know the same thing will happen in Arverne.”
Locals Surf School, another Rockaway Beach fixture that started out in 2011 storing boards in the back of an old silver van, has also opened a cafe and a 100-locker surfboard storage business at the Tides.
“We had the beach all to ourselves,” said Mike Reinhardt, a co-owner of Locals Surf School, about Arverne, just a few years ago. “We knew it was only a matter of time that people would wake up and realize it’s easier to get to this beach by subway than any other beach in Rockaway.”(The A train to Far Rockaway runs directly to Beach 67th Street in Arverne, unlike the Rockaway Beach stops, which require a transfer at Broad Channel.)
Several longtime business owners in Arverne welcome the renewed interest in their neighborhood. “We’ve been a food desert for so long,” said Ms. Russell, who has been making 150 pizzas a week and selling them out of her home since 2014. She calls her business Last Dragon Pizza, and like Goody’s, it also provides takeout for Rockaway Brewing customers during the off-season.
“Making pizza restored my faith in people, because Rockaway is very territorial,” said Ms. Russell. “For a long time, if you lived in Rockaway Beach, you didn’t come down to Arverne — my customers would be like, ‘Where is that?’”
Emmanuel Loncke, 34, who runs Smoothie Haven on Beach Channel Drive next door to his father’s church, Arverne Pilgrim Church, feels similarly to Ms. Russell. “Growing up, people almost forgot we were here,” he said. “But now we’re seeing a lot of growth, commercial property is almost already gone, and I think we have the grounds to produce a small but mighty town.”
Ms. Russell and other residents do have concerns about the rapid development.
Much of the peninsula, she explained, has a history of being overlooked by the city in terms of resources, despite the needs of residents, who range from homeowners still rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy to those living in nearby public housing like Edgemere and Hammel Houses. In addition, the vacant land, especially by the bay, has been used as a de facto dumping ground for years.
“We’re working-class people who clean up after ourselves,” Ms. Russell said, so new residents and those with commercial interests in the area “need to respect the community and the investment we’ve made.”
Ozzie Edwards, 47, who is a member of Community Board 14, said that he is ready for even more growth. “Sure, these establishments are bringing more people and awareness to the neighborhood,” he said. “The coffee shop, the wine bar, these are small luxuries that no doubt benefit all people, but what about more jobs? Can there be another Stop & Shop or big box store that could offer real stability? Like, for example, and I’m just throwing this out there, but if only Amazon came to Rockaway, that would open up thousands of jobs for residents.”
Despite the increased economic activity near Arverne by the Sea, the low-lying streets along the bay are still littered with trash and spotted with sinkholes, and telephone wires dangle over sidewalks ominously. “It’s just a shame the bay front isn’t developed,” said Mike Kololyan, Mr. Reinhardt’s partner at Locals Surf School. Mr. Reinhardt said: “You go to San Diego, even Boston, and both the ocean and the bay have amazing promenades — it makes no sense. If this was Brooklyn or Manhattan, it would have been developed a long time ago.”
But there’s at least one Rockaway-based pioneer banking on the bay. David Selig, 54, a co-owner of the now-defunct Rockaway Taco, the original hipster outpost that opened 11 years ago and is credited with bringing a food scene to the peninsula, has opened Edgemere Market, a farm stand connected to a farm he partly owns on Beach 45th Street in the neighborhood of Edgemere, just east of Arverne.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, as Mr. Selig stood outside a garage full of local produce — Kyoto carrots, watermelon radishes, Wagyu beef and loaves of homemade sourdough — he said that he saw great investment potential in the area, which is why he said he “outbid God for it,” recalling his bidding war over the property with a church. “Food starts the dialogue,” Mr. Selig said, referring to the slower and more subtle signs of development on his side of town.
But change is slowly coming.
The yogis are there: On Beach 68th Street and Thursby Avenue, just down the street from El Capitan, a deli and grocery with what are said to be the best empanadas in town, is the Rockaway Summer House. Housed in a building once owned by Harry Belafonte, it is a retreat center, run by monks who live there, which offers free meditation and yoga.
And the artists are there, too: At Edgemere Market, you can peer through a locked door to catch a glimpse of the workshop of the German blacksmith Norbert Kimmel. Large and rare metal machines sit alongside detailed chandeliers and bovine structures that, when placed in the open air, operate like wind-chimes.
“There are all these undiscovered talents popping up in Arverne,” Mr. Loncke, the Smoothie Haven owner, said. “Like it’s the little lost New York.”