Get ready to wax nostalgic.
David Selig, owner of the late, great Rockaway Taco, is working with surf instructor Fernando Pires to open a museum dedicated to the history and culture of surfing in Rockaway Beach. They’re giving a shack-like makeover to the second floor of a Victorian backhouse and stocking it with classic boards and over 500 surfing movies, magazines and memorabilia, mostly sourced from Pires’ personal collection. And that’s not all Selig is cooking up: the ground floor of the building, located on Beach 96th Street, will house a new bakery, and the adjacent tropical hideaway, The Palms, is getting a chef-driven dinner series.
Pires is originally from Brazil but has lived in Rockaway for 35 years. He’s “representative of the Rockaway surf scene,” which has always been “more of a workers’ surf paradise,” says Selig, who is leasing the 600-square-feet space and considers himself a “partner/patron.”
“He’s a guy who every morning would hit the waves, and then put on his United uniform and head over to JFK and work his day at the airlines, and then come back and surf in the evenings,” Selig told us of Pires. “He has not only accumulated a lot of stories, but he’s passionate about surfing, so he has just collected all the memorabilia every time a great surfer from another part of the world came to Rockaway.”
Pires never planned to end up in Rockaway, but “life, it works in strange ways,” he said. An avid surfer in Brazil, he decided to move to California at 20 because “if you want to get good quality waves that’s where you go.” He came to New York first to stay with relatives and learn English.
“Somebody said, ‘Hey, there’s a beach called Rockaway Beach– there might be surfing,’ and I said, ‘Nah, there’s no surfing in New York,’” Pires remembers. But he went to investigate with his sister, just to be sure. “My sister and I, we walked along the shore. It was flat, there were no waves, it was summer time. Two weeks later I’m walking down the beach and there were like four- to five-foot waves, and I was like, ‘No way! Waves in New York!’ So from that time on I hooked up with some lifeguards and I borrowed boards and I started building my life here.”
Back in the day, “it was only 10 guys in the water,” and there were constant fights with the Parks Department and the police. “They would not allow us to go out in the water, and no surfers would get out of the water when the swell was hitting the coast, nobody,” he said, adding that the museum will have archive video of the Parks staff pursuing surfers.
Over the years, as “engineers, policeman, firemen, doctors…all kinds of people” started to surf, it became associated with “bums that don’t have jobs” less and less, and the Parks Department began to allot areas to surfers specifically, like the original surf beach from Beach 87th to Beach 91st Street, and as of summer 2016, a new surfing area from Beach 110th Street to Beach 111th Street, which Pires says will be suitable for the increasing number of novices looking to learn. (NYC Parks told us they’ll also be shifting the surfing area from Beach 67th Street to Beach 69th Street slightly westward, from Beach 68th Street to Beach 71st, “creating a now slightly larger operating area.”)
All the while, he has been collecting boards– some retro ones that he scrounged for $25– and other memorabilia. He says he lost about half of his collection during his divorce, but he’s been rebuilding and has about 40 to 50 classic boards that he’ll put in the museum.
Selig says that on sunny days, the boards will spill out of the museum onto the first floor, where he’ll be opening a new bakery that is currently under construction, and around the Palms, which “made it through the winter mostly.” He said this summer the tropical garden, a “magical environment with jasmine plants,” will host one-off dinners by rotating visiting chefs. Though there had been talk of a comeback, Rockaway Taco, across the street, is “now in the world of myth,” according to Selig. Its shack, which was home to Summer Shift last year, will now house “permanent little food businesses” this season.
Meanwhile Selig’s former partner in Rockaway Taco, chef Andrew Field, will continue to serve up “the same fresh summer options” at Tacoway Beach, which will reopen at 302 Beach 87th Street on April 29. He’s adding “some interesting frozen drinks” to the menu in partnership with the Rockaway Beach Surf Club.
Since the museum is a passion project, Pires will be requesting either monetary or in-kind contributions. Selig hopes that his bakery business and Pires’ longtime side business of offering board rentals, repairs and surfing lessons will also help to keep it afloat.
There is no opening day per se, but Selig says it will open at 1-89 Beach 96th Street before Memorial Day.