After Sandy, Rockaways St. Patrick’s Day Parade Signals Neighborhood’s Resiliency

Families at the Queen's County St. Patrick's Day Parade at Rockaway Beach, March 2, 2013. Image: Mark Lennihan, AP

By Adam Farley, Editorial Assistant
March 4, 2013

There was a brief moment back in November, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when John Brennan questioned whether he should still hold the 38th annual Queens County St. Patrick’s Day Parade at Rockaway Beach. But Brennan, a Limerick-born 30-year Rockaway resident and Vice-President of the parade committee, told Irish Central it didn’t take long before the committee simply said, “yeah we should.”

“And under President of the committee Mike Benn’s leadership, he rallied us and we got everyone down here and what a fantastic turnout and we knew there would be. Rockaway is a fantastic community, a resilient and friendly community, and we can see that spirit here today. It’s the spring time now and it’s a new time for Rockaway and today was the rebirth and return of our neighborhood.”

The parade, which happened on Saturday, March 2rd so as not to compete with Manhattan’s 5th Avenue megaparade, proceeded as planned at a typically Irish pace (behind schedule). But this is what sets the Rockaways’ parade apart from the more formal affair a train ride away. President Mike Benn had to be torn away from shaking hands, saying hellos, and mingling with the crowd with calls from a megaphone: “Mike, the parade’s starting. Mike, the parade’s starting. Mike!”— as much as the parade had designated marchers and observers, the two intertwined the entire route.

The Rockaway Peninsula in southern Queens is home to numerous Irish-American neighborhoods, most notably Breezy Point and Belle Harbor, also the site of the November, 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

This year’s parade was an obvious chance to show the city at large just how far the neighborhood has come in only four months. Irish America’s editor-in-chief Patricia Harty wrote this story in the December/January issue on the beginning stages of rebuilding the Rockaways, and while the work continues, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade signaled the end of a cold winter and the spirit of a closely-knit community against a stark backdrop of still-boarded windows and piles of rubble where landmarks once stood.

Gael of the Year Hilary Beirne told Irish Central: ‘We needed this, this year in particular, more than any other year. It’s just great to see this, the level of pride here in Rockaway, Irish pride, I mean what a wonderful turnout to welcome Rockaway back but let’s continue rebuilding.’

Among the marchers were members of the New York Department of Sanitation, who received massive cheers as they made their way down the route; marching bands from local schools, many of which had been flooded during the October 29th hurricane that ravished the peninsula; and the Staten Island Pipes and Drum band.

Numerous public officials also attended and marched, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New york Senator Chuck Schumer, City Council Speaker and current mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (who received cheers as he danced in the street), and James Killoran, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Westchester who has been working in the Rockaways for 111 days.

Although Mayor Bloomberg wore a green, white and orange sash with “Thanks” embroidered in Gaelic, reported the New York Times, he garnered  mixed reactions among Rockaway natives, some booing, some heckling, and some silent, but critical signs of his handling of the effort to rebuild. One read, “Mr. Mayor Listen to Rockaway.”

The sentiment was not universal though, with one parade-goer defending Bloomberg’s response to New York 1, saying “He did the best he can,” and in the background of the bagpipe corps the sound of construction crews could be clearly heard rebuilding and repairing the storm-torn Irish Riviera.

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