Words by Chris Viaggio. Photography by Daniel Terna
Along Shore Front Parkway, four concrete, cavernous waves stand adjacent to the missing boardwalk at Beach 76th, Beach 84th, Beach 102nd, and Beach 107th Streets. Monarch Landscape, Mythical Cavern, The Deep, and Surf’s Up make up the series of former bus shelters reimagined by local Rockaway artist Esther Grillo in the late 90s as public murals. At 14 feet high, the crest of each wave curves over one’s head as it is approached and becomes shelter, standing as a sculptural/architectural hybrid with a painted surface. Iron fencing on either end of each one adorns and pseudo-supports the arced forms, invoking Art Nouveau with tendril-like details. Mythical Cavern and Surf’s Up both have pairs of circular cutouts that could be the porthole windows of a seafaring vessel. Cracked and peeling, the structures carry evidence of endurance through time, or an aura of transplantation.
The shelters were designed by Robert Moses for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, memorably themed “Building the World of Tomorrow”. They served as pick-up and drop-off points for the Green Bus Lines, which provided transportation to and from the grounds that would become present-day Flushing Meadows–Corona Park.
Left rugged and dilapidated for years after retiring from their initial purpose, Grillo came up with the idea in 1997 to site murals on these four oceanfront objects as a contribution to the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhoods—Arverne, Hammels, Seaside and Rockaway Park. Seeing this through meant navigating lengthy bureaucratic processes, but the extended period of time that it took to get permission, attain funding, and then complete the murals is a large cause for what has embedded these pieces into the locale as truly public works.
Within the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Grillo’s proposal to paint the structures had been approved and each wave would receive structural renovation in preparation. With the help of the Rockaway Artists Alliance (RAA), she then sought out financial support for the project. Funds were pooled from sources such as the RAA, New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, Rockaway Chamber of Commerce, Queens Council on the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Art Teachers Association, United Federation of Teachers, City Parks Foundation, as well as other private donations.
When it came time to work on the murals, Grillo mobilized around 200 volunteers, most of whom were youth from the community through a corresponding mural apprenticeship program. Between 30–50 volunteers worked on each one, with a minimum commitment of 10 hours per person. “We were working six days a week, 9am–5pm. It became like a family,” Grillo recalled of the dynamic among the teams of volunteers. She further explained how the community also played a role in choosing content and imagery for the murals. The Deep and Surf’s Up were decided upon casually through input from frequent beachgoers who watched the first piece, Mythical Cavern, come to fruition. Divers from Beach 8th Street in Far Rockaway suggested an underwater setting, and the surfers asked for surfers. These two were worked on from 1999 through 2001, and it wasn’t until 2003 that the last piece, Monarch Landscape, had been completed—a process spanning six years.
Despite the slow, incremental pace with which it materialized, the local involvement and multimodal support system that the project required and generated over the course of its production ultimately strengthened the positive impact and resonance the waves still maintain today. As out-of-commission park-and-ride sites, Moses’ structures have been, in a way, reclaimed by the murals. The group of waves revolve around the historic event they were built for like rogue satellites or transitory monuments. They oscillate in and out of the orbit of their original use and at times linger as purely aesthetic objects. What lives in the public domain tends to get left open to input, intervention, or total reinvention by various stakeholders—and objects are often subject to alteration by these forces.
And at times there is the threat of erasure. Surf’s Up was recently targeted for possible removal when the Parks Department proposed preliminary renovation plans for the nearby Sandpiper Playground between Beach 106th and Beach 108th Streets, which didn’t include the piece as part of the redesign. Strong community disapproval has taken this option off the table, and it has been said that the wave will be incorporated into the playground’s eventual reconstruction. Many seem to link the survival of these structures in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to the resilience of Rockaway at large since the storm, and as long as this metaphorical connection remains intact, it is likely the waves will remain standing.