Surfing Remade in the Rockaways
The Rockaways’ surf scene comes to reflect the area’s diversity and its history.
By Michael Adno for The New York Times (Available online here)
Three years after Hurricane Sandy lashed the Rockaways, the boardwalk marched down the beach in broken segments as the public housing built under Robert Moses was hemmed in by condos. Out in the surf, not much changed as the bathymetry returned to normal, but the predominantly white, male crowd of surfers had.
Part of that shift happened when Louis Harris, 46, founded the East Coast chapter of the Black Surfing Association in 2016.
Mr. Harris bought his first surf board after moving to the Rockaways in 2006. After getting his bearings in remote beaches, he joined the crowd at Beach 90th Street. “That’s when I saw B.J.,” Mr. Harris said.
Brian James — “B.J.” — the only other black man in the water, paddled over to Mr. Harris and asked if he wanted to hang out afterward. “‘If you’re going to be a surfer, you have to take it seriously,’” Mr. Harris recalled him saying. “‘You’re a black guy. Everybody’s eyes are on you.’”
From then on, Mr. James taught him how to navigate the world of surfing. Mr. Harris later offered free surf lessons to any children who would show up, many from the neighborhood where more than 66 percent of its population identify as nonwhite, according to the office of the New York State Comptroller, and the median income is the second lowest in Queens. He built a community around the idea that children in the Rockaways should be engaged — and that surfing alongside skate lessons, cooking workshops, and snowboard trips was an inextricable part of that.
Surfers like Mr. Harris are carving out a space for themselves in the Rockaways, and are challenging the notion that surfing belongs to white men.
In 2014, 14-year old Marcell Dockery set a mattress on fire in his Coney Island apartment building. The blaze killed one responding officer, critically injuring another. When asked why, Dockery cited boredom. The response haunted Mr. Harris. That same year, Mr. Harris read about Tony Corley in The Surfer’s Journal, who founded the Black Surfing Association in 1975 in California. Corley’s departure point was assembling some sense of belonging as he felt like the sole black surfer in central California.
And then in 2015, Corley’s story coupled with Dockery’s moved Mr. Harris to the point where he proposed creating an East Coast Chapter. Mr. Corley agreed. Unquestionably, that good will began for Harris with B.J.’s mentorship.
“I thank him for that,” he said. “He took the time.”
In his memoir, “The Nautical Negro,” Mr. James detailed his experience in Rockaway 20 years ago. “The complexion of the lineup was beginning to change, and some people didn’t like it,” he wrote. “Being one of the first black surfers to crack the lineup in a place like Rockaway was no picnic.”