When Hurricane Sandy hit the New York region last month, some of the most heart-wrenching images to surface were those of the mangled boardwalks that had characterized beautiful beachfront communities like Coney Island for the past century. Discussions about rebuilding these waterfront pathways in the New York and New Jersey area are picking up, and, as predicted, the big questions are all about new materials. After the storm passed and sanitation workers began to clear wood-strewn streets, it became clear that polymer-based and concrete sections of the boardwalks had held up better to the elements than their wooden counterparts. Now, in light of that observation, Mayor Bloomberg has decided that going forward, New York will rebuild with these new plastic and concrete boardwalk materials. It seems that the days of the wooden boardwalk are over in NYC.
Although most nature lovers may agree that walking barefoot on wood beats doing so on concrete, the new materials to be used are actually more environmentally-friendly in many ways. The main reason for this is that boardwalks of the past were made from ipe, amazon forest wood, that results in the destruction of natural habitats as well as emissions produced traveling from one hemisphere of the world to another. It’s also generally understood that if storms like Sandy continue to plunder east coast communities, building with traditional boardwalk materials isn’t a sustainable solution. Still, it’s easy to sympathize with long-time residents who have attachments to the aesthetic of traditional boardwalks. These walkways were not only avenues for beach visitors, but important spaces of socializing for local residents. As one Rockaway teenager put it, “They better rebuild the boardwalk by next summer! That’s the only place we have to hang out around here.” She also pointed out that the new concrete sections of the boardwalk in the Rockaways typically draw less of a crowd than the wooden parts.
Local beach residents are hoping that their beloved boardwalks are rebuilt as soon as possible, for nostalgic reasons as well as economic. The traditional wooden boardwalks play the important fiscal role of drawing visiting summer tourists to their shores, and for many seaside communities, boardwalks have served as crucial elements of their local economies. The Rockaways only recently began to see new boardwalk eateries pop up along the waterfront, but these small businesses had been doing well and many residents saw them as important actors in a new Rockaway renaissance.
Whether the new concrete and plastic boardwalks will be embraced equally, or whether communities will protest the change, we will have to wait to see.