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Recalling simpler time in idyllic neighborhood

Between the LInes /

By Peter McDermott

In a 1998 Newsday article about a Queens neighborhood, a local said: "We’re not Utopia, but we’re the closest thing to it."

He and several others talked up its finer points: “95 percent graduate high school and go on to college, and some of them the best schools in the country,” the man said.

"This is the kind of place where people sit down together for Sunday dinner. Breezy Point is a village within the city," he added.

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It was a different world three years before 9/11 (the neighborhood lost 29 people in that catastrophe) and before Hurricane Irene of 2011 and the tornadoes of this September and the calamitous Hurricane Sandy, which hit on Oct. 29. That last event precipitated a fire that destroyed more than 100 homes in the neighborhood.

If, though, in some ways 1998 seems like yesterday to you and me, consider that a first-time voter who just made the age requirement to vote in this month’s general election was then a 4-year-old.

Only 10 percent of American households had access to the Internet at that time. Most people still didn't have cell phones in the dying days of the 20th century (in contrast to Ireland where everybody seemed to have one). Freelancers pitched Newsday by U.S. Mail or fax and then followed up with a phone call. I wrote about 20 features in those years for a page that was called “Queens Neighborhoods.” The Breezy Point piece cited above was among them, but the only one for which they called me. Calvin Lawrence (a great editor who has since moved to, another sign of the times) said he had read that, according to 1990 census projections, Breezy Point’s zip code had the highest proportion of people claiming Irish ancestry in the country - 63 percent.

Lawrence, who is African American, knew nothing about the place, which is off the beaten track even by Queens standards, but he was curious and so sent an Irish guy to find out about it. There were actually very few Irish-born people living there, I recall; the neighborhood, however, defined tight-knit Irish American.

It had been long associated with what one woman described as the “civil service middle-class," employees in the police and fire departments and the utilities. "But the children of the people who founded the cooperative in the 1960s are professionals," she said for the piece reprinted in the Irish Echo later in the year.

At least half of all homes flew both the Stars and Stripes and the Irish national flag. A small group of enthusiasts meeting in someone’s house developed an annual arts festival that featured "music, soliloquies, poetry and recitation," including readings from Yeats and Joyce. Most civic groups had an annual Irish night; the biggest was organized by the 2,800-home Breezy Point cooperative itself.

I heard about its fascinating history, which it shared to an extent with other parts of Rockaway. It began with vacationing Manhattan residents pitching tents at first and then in subsequent years building cottages or bungalows. One man told me that his grandparents built the ninth summer home in Breezy Point back in the 1920s. He remembered barefoot summers in the neighborhood in the 1960s, but in early middle age was living there year-round with his wife and three young children.

Let’s be clear about one thing, however: the near Utopia did not flip over to the other extreme on Oct. 29. Dystopia, at least according to movies and novels, suggests a war of all against all. Instead, we’ve seen people in the city, many of them Irish or Irish American, step up to help their neighbors.

City Harvest executive director Jilly Stephens traveled to Rockaway with a truckload of food supplies last week and reported that the “scope of the storm’s impact is staggering,” but she spoke generally of New Yorkers’ “resilience, spirit and camaraderie” in response to Sandy.

She added: “People’s lives have been turned upside down and their homes turned inside out, and yet they continue to find ways to take care of themselves and others.”