In New York City’s Rockaway Beach, a fragile entrepreneurial rebirth led largely by women is overcoming the odds — not just surviving but thriving after devastating storm destruction. Why?
Photographs by Beth Perkins
Three years ago this week, Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters ruined Claudette Flatow’s specialty-food shop in Rockaway Beach, consuming a basement full of merchandise and gushing into its ground-floor storefront and kitchen.
An immigrant from Morocco via France and Israel, Flatow opened Cuisine by Claudette just 7 months before the storm on Beach 116th Street, where she whipped fresh ingredients into inventive, hearty eats. She lost $50,000 worth of merchandise, many thousands more in equipment and brand new shop flooring.
“Everything was old. I redid everything,” she says. “You have a beautiful new baby and then Sandy. Boom!”
Flatow received only $270 in insurance money and was ineligible for a government-backed disaster loan because she had not been in business the requisite two years. So she invested $50,000 in repairs and reopened. Why? “I have two young men in my house. If I give up, I am not teaching them anything,” she says. “You need to fight to the end, and that is what I’m doing.”
Flatow is part of a growing group of committed women entrepreneurs playing a central role in Rockaway’s post-storm revitalization. The scruffy surf town, improbably located in New York City’s borough of Queens, sits a subway ride away from Manhattan’s concrete jungle. Even before Sandy hit, small businesses were driving its rebirth, pioneered by restaurateurs serving tasty morsels to summer surfers frequenting the metropolis’ only officially designated surf beaches. The notable food and cool vibe helped attract beachgoers and Brooklyn hipsters alike.
Sandy’s tidal surge, bloated by full-moon high tides, could have drowned this fragile reawakening. But three years later, the blooms are bigger, stronger and brighter than ever. New businesses are opening up at a quickening pace, often with women in the lead. The reasons are as complex as the people and the place. But Rockaway Beach illustrates the vital role that women-owned businesses can play in recovery after a disaster.
A number of forces are propelling the peninsula’s women business owners forward, but no force is stronger than its tight-knit community and its shared sense of purpose — especially after surviving disaster together.
Why do they persevere? “It’s not because it’s easy. It’s because people want to be here,” says Sarah Trogdon, owner of Goldies Natural Beauty, who has been making soaps and body products from her Rockaway home since 2010. “I like staying at the beach. I like giving my friends my products. I like doing something good for my community.”
This is no surprise to Jennifer Dinger, an assistant professor at Suffolk University in Boston, whose research shows community identity is a key driver of entrepreneurial activity after a disaster — one that often overrides financial considerations and, she suspects, is especially strong among women. Dinger argues disaster-recovery policies, which typically focus on financial aid and incentives, should also zero in on local and business groups.
Rockaway Beach is an unusual mix of small town and big city. In the center of a peninsula that juts out of Long Island, it’s a diverse and gritty place at the fault line between multi-generational Irish and fairly well-off communities to the west and poorer black, Latino and Jewish communities to the east. People know their neighbors and run into friends at backyard barbecues and local watering holes, on the boardwalk and in the surf.
For New York City, it’s still relatively affordable, perhaps because of its urban grit and desolation in winter. But change is afoot; there is a slow but unmistakable inflow of Manhattan-commuting professionals, artsy bohemians and ex-Brooklyn cool kids. Some are upgrading decaying houses and opening businesses, while born-and-bred residents worry about creeping gentrification.
Entrepreneurs Who Rise Together
Rockaway Beach’s community feeling extends to its entrepreneurs. As both female and male pioneers found success, their friends and neighbors have been inspired and encouraged to open businesses too.
While there are no reliable numbers, an informal tally suggests a majority of the neighborhood’s new business owners are female. This isn’t entirely surprising. Many of the new enterprises are in industries where women excel: food, fashion and fitness. And women in the U.S. are starting businesses at a faster-than-average rate. (However, only 30 percent of America’s small businesses are women-owned, while 17 percent are owned equally by women and men.)
For instance, a “restaurant row” that has sprung up on the Beach 90s stretch of Rockaway Beach Boulevard has a high number of female figures: Uma’s chef Uma Karl, Sayra’s Wine Bar’s Rashida Jackson and Chicks To Go’s sister-owners Leyla and Ximena Yrala.
And before that, Maribel Araujo opened a boardwalk outpost of Caracas Arepa Bar, her popular restaurant with locations in the East Village and Williamsburg. Indeed, she played a key role in the 2011 remaking of the boardwalk concessions that kicked off the area’s foodie moment. “We’re not the only kids on the block anymore, but that feels good,” she says.
Now retail businesses are moving in too. Erin Silvers opened Zingara Vintage in early June. “I just knew it was the right time,” she says. The strip could become an “avenue with delicious food and wonderful places to shop.” Abra Boero had the same idea; she opened an upscale boutique, Off Season, a week later.
Meanwhile, further uptown, Giovanna Maselli, founder of Rockaway Summer magazine, ran a summer pop-up shop at nearby Riis Park Bazaar. And Tara McKiernan and Beth Waytowich opened End of the A boutique cafe in September, expanding on the truck they launched in May 2012.
“After the storm, I really thought everyone was going to clear out and nobody would move here, but it’s really been the opposite,” McKieran says. “I don’t really see [the new retailers] as a competition. If anything, I say let’s work together.”
Fitness businesses with women principals have also blossomed, led by Sarah and Chris Romulo, a former boxer and a professional Muay Thai champion, respectively, who own Crom Physical Culture. The couple’s first gym, a hole-in-the-wall on the boulevard (now home to Uma’s), drowned in six feet of Sandy floodwater two years into a 5-year lease, destroying a $40,000 investment.
“The hurricane was horrible, because we lost our home and gym,” says Sarah Romulo, the primary manager of the business. “But at the same time, it was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
There was a community outpouring, and Crom reopened in a space twice the size of the old gym. This spring, it expanded again into a new 5,000-square-foot space. “We kind of took a leap of faith, and when we did that we doubled our membership,” she says.
Fitness and watersports-related business following in Crom’s footsteps include Lena Roca’s Yoga on the Rocks, born 6 weeks before the storm and also recently expanded, and couple Amy and Andrew Dima’s A-Team Paddleboard. Davina Grincevicius’s Lava Girl Surf puts on a popular annual women’s surf film festival.
A Clean Slate
Research shows that after a catastrophe a 3-to-4-year boom often follows, as residents and businesses invest to rebuild. But most peter out, and economic activity settles in at a level about 10% below what it was before the disaster. Full recovery generally takes about a decade.
But three years after Sandy, entrepreneurs say the boom is just getting started.
Nearly all of the entrepreneurs interviewed for this story say they dug deep to fund repairs or start up, and received little outside help. Indeed, post-storm financial aid was fairly scarce. The U.S. Small Business Administration underwrote only 373 disaster loans worth $57.5 million for businesses affected by Hurricane Sandy in all of Queens — a borough that had 45,157 small businesses in 2012. (Statistics for Rockaway alone are not available.) Most of Rockaway’s new-wave entrepreneurs were ineligible because they had not been in business long enough.
Disastrous events can actually encourage new businesses, according to research by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany. The trauma can empower small, nimble newcomers who see opportunity while it reduces competition from wounded existing businesses. However, natural disasters can be discouraging, if the destruction slows business activity, stymies startup plans and increases newcomers’ fears of failure. The latter factor can be greater for women, who already struggle with such fears more than men do, according to the researchers.
Beyond a tight community, women entrepreneurs say Rockaway is benefiting from an important asset — a wide beach that’s accessible by the subway’s A train — as well as considerable post-storm attention.
“People rallied behind us in a way that would have been tough for us to create,” says Lena Roca, owner of Yoga on the Rocks. The hard-hit area was telegenic — there were crushed cars, blocks upon blocks of flooded houses and giant pieces of boardwalk lying in the street. Volunteers poured in. “It put us on the map,” she says.
And a New Attitude
For decades, Rockaway was a middle-class summer destination. But that changed after the city built bridges to the mainland and, later, cleared modest bungalows to make way for lower-income housing. An economic slump, rise in crime and other socioeconomic ills followed — and the city’s beachgoers went elsewhere.
Though painful, “the storm washed out a lot of the negative connotations of Rockaway” and created a new sense of possibility, says Jackson, a Rockaway native who opened Sayra’s Wine Bar with her brother-in-law, Patrick Flibotte, in the spring following Sandy. “It kind of refocused New Yorkers on the area’s beauty and potential.”
There was no where to go but up, leaving less reason to fear failure. Indeed, staying often required building something new.
Naturally, women aren’t the only ones who see Rockaway’s crumbly streets as a blank canvas. Rockaway’s foodie explosion was ignited by Manhattan restaurateur and surfer David Selig, who opened Rockaway Taco in 2008 and, with his then-partner Andrew Field, spearheaded the reinvention of the boardwalk concessions. Selig, who continues to invest in Rockaway, isn’t surprised at the number of women business owners.
“This is the land of opportunity for me, as it is for everyone else,” he says. “It’s a place where you can be courageous.”
Indeed, women entrepreneurs are chasing dreams. Take Roca, a half-Cuban, half-Jewish surfer, who has built a pay-what-you-wish yoga studio with “diversity on the mat.” Meanwhile, Boero, a former Manhattan fashion executive and new designer, is using her boutique as a low-cost showroom as she works to tap a global market.
Rockaway is an “inspired locale that, for some reason, is still accessible to creative artistic types, who are really priced out of the rest of the city,” Boero says.
Will it Last?
Of course, another storm could undo what has been done, but Rockaway’s entrepreneurs talk about staying and building stronger as the only option.
“We think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime storm. But if something like that should happen again, would we walk away from our home, from our business? No,” says McKiernan of End of the A.
The risks, they say, are worth the rewards of life in a community that is both city and sea and seems full of potential. “It’s a really special place,” says Anita Ruderman, owner of Hot Yoga Rockaway Beach, which she opened in 2010 on Beach 116th Street. “The view, the smell, to be 45 minutes from the city, it’s really incredible.”
That potential is now being stoked by a fortified new boardwalk edged by planted dunes. This summer, the Parks Department opened a first 2.2-mile gleaming stretch connecting the concessions that helped draw 7.7 million beachgoers this summer, up from 4.4 million last summer and close to 2012’s 7.8 million peak. Area entrepreneurs are banking on the full 4.7-miles of planned boardwalk, expected in 2017, to provide an engine of growth for years to come.
“People don’t just come for the boardwalk. They don’t just come for the ocean. They need food. They need entertainment,” says Joan Robinson, who with her husband Gary has owned Goody’s BBQ since 1989. “They need places to stay,” she adds. “If I had a nice big wallet, I’d open up a nice big bed and breakfast… Maybe I will.”
Posted: October 29, 2015