Belle Harbor 

Situated in an area of four city blocks between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean from Beach 126th Street to Beach 141st Street, Belle Harbor possesses a rich history.  Begun in the first decade of the twentieth century, the neighborhood grew from a collection of small cottages to the present community of comfortable single-family homes.  Since the turn of the twenty-first century, Belle Harbor has experienced a number of tragedies, including the death of a number of residents during the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 that killed 260 persons on board as well as five Belle Harbor residents, and the storm surge, flooding, and fires that accompanied Superstorm Sandy.  In the following interviews, Mr. Jeffrey Gitter and Monsignor John J. Bracken, two lifelong residents of the community, tell their stories of life in Belle Harbor, their experiences of Hurricane Sandy, and the rebuilding of the community in the years since 2012.

Monsignor John J. Bracken describes the damage brought on by Hurricane Sandy and the rebuilding undertaken by residents of Belle Harbor, Queens.  Video courtesy of NET TV & DeSales Media Group.

The Birth of Belle Harbor as reported in The New York Times:

 

September 10, 1905: “Recent active buying at Rockaway gives added interest to the announcement of L. J. Phillips & Co. that they will offer next Saturday 247 lots at Belle Harbor, adjoining Rockaway Park.  The property, which has been restricted to private cottages, is between Jamaica Bay and the ocean on one of the most attractive parts of Rockaway Beach.”

February 11, 1906: “At Belle Harbor, west of Rockaway Park, and extending from the ocean through Jamaica Bay, the demand for plots is steadily increasing and the owners have found it necessary to lay out an additional hundred acres for building sites.  They have expended some $50,000 in the erection of two large dredging plants on the ocean beach.  Sand from the ocean bed is pumped through pipes to low places, where it is deposited to bring the ground up to grade. . . . There are about fifteen cottages and a large stable and garage in the course of erection.  The Long Island Railroad is extending its tracks through the property, and laborers are busy making extensive improvements.”

May 5, 1907: ‘Improvements at Belle Harbor are complete and include sewers, water, concrete sidewalks, gas and electricity.  Present transit facilities are excellent with more than sixty trains each day.”

July 5, 1907: “The Independence Day regatta of the Belle Harbor Yacht Club developed some interesting races yesterday on Jamaica Bay.  In the power boat race from the clubhouse to the Point and back, a distance of eight miles, C. Lang’s Alibub won out, while in the two sailing races the winners were E. Ware’s Mauvaureen and E. Lang’s Uno.”

April 24, 1910: “A building boom is in progress at Belle Harbor on the Rockaway coast.  More than twenty-five houses are in course of construction.”

August 19, 1910: “Campers on the ocean front between Belle Harbor and Rockaway Point are awaiting anxiously the hearing set for this morning in Magistrate Gilroy’s court at Far Rockaway.  On his decision rests the question whether they will be allowed to remain where they have pitched their tents or have to get out quickly.  They are alleged to be squatters trespassing on private property.”

December 21, 1910: “Delegates from seven taxpayers associations in the Rockaways met last night at the Masonic Temple at Far Rockaway and reported unanimously in favor of asking the Legislature to let them out of New York to form a city of their own. . . . ‘Taxation without improvement’ was the slogan of the meeting.  John T. Judge, a delegate from the Belle Harbor Property Owners’ Association, advised moderation in their action.  He said that the Rockaways ought to secede but should act with caution.”

September 22, 1912: “One of the most popular sections [of the Rockaway Coast] is Belle Harbor, where the permanent population has become so large during the last three years that Sunday and weekday services are being conducted in the Catholic and Episcopal Churches.”

July 18, 1915: “An improvement of vital importance to Belle Harbor and the adjacent territory will be the construction of a new road and automobile highway across Jamaica Bay to the ocean front. . . . When completed this boulevard, as it is designated, will shorten by about twelve miles the present roundabout trip to Manhattan by automobile . . .”

July 25, 1915: “In speaking yesterday of the approaching sale [of beachfront lots], Joseph P. Day, agent and auctioneer, said: ‘Belle Harbor needs only an extension of the Rockaway Coast Boardwalk to make the place into a miniature Atlantic City, which is really and precisely what the peninsula as a whole is growing into on an enlarged scale.”

Documenting the Damage: Belle Harbor, Queens

Flooding on Beach 133rd Street
Flooding on Beach 133rd Street

Flooding on Beach 133rd Street in Belle Harbor, Queens on the evening of 29 October 2012. Courtesy of Monsignor John J. Bracken.

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Flooding on Beach 133rd Street
Flooding on Beach 133rd Street

Flooding on Beach 133rd Street in Belle Harbor, Queens on the evening of 29 October 2012. Courtesy of Monsignor John J. Bracken.

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High Water Mark on Belle Harbor Home
High Water Mark on Belle Harbor Home

Mud indicates the height that flood waters reached in the Belle Harbor Neighborhood. This photograph was taken on 30 October 2012. Courtesy of Monsignor John J. Bracken.

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Fire Damage in Belle Harbor, Queens
Fire Damage in Belle Harbor, Queens

Along with the storm surge and flood damage, some homes in Belle Harbor, Queens were destroyed or damaged by fire. Courtesy of Emilee McGovern (emileemcgovern.com)

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Fire Damage in Belle Harbor, Queens
Fire Damage in Belle Harbor, Queens

While not as extensive as the fire damage experienced by residents of Breezy Point, Queens, some houses in Belle Harbor were burned down to their foundations. Courtesy of Emilee McGovern (emileemcgovern.com)

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Damage to Beachfront Houses
Damage to Beachfront Houses

Exposed to the pounding surge that characterized Superstorm Sandy when she came ashore, beachfront houses experienced significant damage throughout Belle Harbor. Courtesy of Monsignor John J. Bracken

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Damage to Beachfront Houses
Damage to Beachfront Houses

Exposed to the pounding surge that characterized Superstorm Sandy when she came ashore, beachfront houses experienced significant damage throughout Belle Harbor. Courtesy of Monsignor John J. Bracken

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Damage to Beachfront Houses
Damage to Beachfront Houses

Exposed to the pounding surge that characterized Superstorm Sandy when she came ashore, beachfront houses experienced significant damage throughout Belle Harbor. Courtesy of Monsignor John J. Bracken

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The Harbor Light Pub Lost
The Harbor Light Pub Lost

A longtime neighborhood institution, the Harbor Light Pub that served as an emrgency workers headquarters after the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 and whose owners lost a son in the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, burned to the ground during Hurricane Sandy. Courtesy of Emilee McGovern (emileemcgovern.com)

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Jeffrey Gitter is a 61-year-old production manager, assistant director, stage director, and crewmember for a variety of theatre and televised events, such as award shows, fashion shows, performances, and more.  He is a New York native, having grown up during the 50’s and 60’s in Rockaway Park, which is part of the neighborhood Belle Harbor, located in Queens.  He graduated in New York University.  Mr. Gitter is a resident of Belle Harbor, one of the many areas that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.  In the interview, Mr. Gitter said his house was destroyed during the storm, as his home was completely exposed to the ocean, with waves breaking on his home during the storm.  He said his house was “shredded” by the waves hitting his home, and that when he returned, the damage done by the water was very evident.  He then goes on to explain that lots of his belongings were either lost or destroyed during the storm along with his residence, and was even looted during the aftermath. 

Saint Francis de Sales Parish--A Tempered Anchor of Belle Harbor

A haven from the tempest of Hurricane Sandy, Saint Francis de Sales Parish has served the Catholic community of Belle Harbor, Queens since its establishment by Bishop Charles E. McDonnell of the Diocese of Brooklyn in 1906.  As the housing boom in the Rockaways gained momentum in the first decades of the twentieth century, the parish, under its pastor, Father Francis J. McMurray, erected a church in the summer of 1907 and opened a parochial school in the fall of 1913.  In the late afternoon of April 27, 1935, a four-alarm fire decimated the church building.  Like they would almost 77 years later, the parishioners came together in the face of tragedy to celebrate Mass the next day in the school auditorium.  On July 11, 1937, Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen of The Catholic University of America preached the sermon at the dedication Mass on the current Church of Saint Francis de Sales.

Joaquin A Reminder for Belle Harbor

Video courtesy of Currents News, NET TV & DeSales Media Group.

John Bracken is a Monsignor for the Catholic Church and a Queens native.  Monsignor Bracken attended elementary, middle and high school in Brooklyn and Queens.  After graduating high school, he went to a Catholic-based college, and, after graduating, completed his graduate work in Baltimore.  After college, he became a catholic priest in Brooklyn and Queens.  The Monsignor explains that after World War Two there was an expectation for young men to make a difference.  His father graduated from Notre Dame, and both his mother and her brother were college graduates.  On May 27th, 1967, at St. James Church, the Monsignor was one of the 27 people ordained.  The Church of St. James is in Belle Harbor, where the Monsignor lives to this day.  During Hurricane Sandy, the Monsignor was doing all he could to both stay safe and save as many of his possessions as he possibly could.  Monsignor Bracken, like most of Belle Harbor, was affected by Hurricane Sandy and his home, while not being totally destroyed during the storm, was still heavily damaged.