Green was the colour of resiliency yesterday afternoon as thousands upon thousands of embattled Rockaway residents turned up to celebrate the 38th annual Queens County St Patrick’s Day Parade at Rockaway Beach, just 4 months after their homes and businesses were ripped apart by Hurricane Sandy.
Mayor Bloomberg was there, as was Senator Chuck Schumer and a slew of politicians and personalities but for once it was not about the pols or the celebrities, it was about the Rockaway Irish, undaunted and undefeated even by Hurricane Sandy.
The Mayor got a hard time from many spectators, especially about his plans to run the New York Marathon right after Hurricane Sandy which smacked of a lack of appreciation of what people had just been through. Many felt politicians were just showing up to take credit for the remarkable recovery.
The parade was big news, featured on the front page of the New York Times and every TV newscast.
‘Rockaway’s coming back, right? It’s coming back strong!’ shouted Public Advocate Bill De Blasio through a megaphone to huge applause and there were few around the peninsula who could have disagreed with him.
Vice President of the Queens County St Patrick’s Day Parade committee, John Brennan, a native of County Limerick and Rockaway resident for 30 years, stated that there were initial plans to postpone the parade but he expressed his delight that they didn’t.
‘We had plans for this parade before October, before Sandy hit, and then it was a dark winter, you know? Businesses were destroyed, homes were destroyed, there was loss of life. My house was destroyed, my parents house was destroyed, and we asked ourselves for a minute should we go ahead with this thing and we ultimately 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.'
Dave DeMarco, who lost his home to the storm along with many others, echoed Brennan’s sentiments.
‘My condo was ruined, 2 floors of it covered in water right down there by the beach. I had to move in to another house and I’m still there and will be there until June or July. Fema and the insurance guys are being douchebags about it all. But I’m still here and we’re still here to enjoy this great day!’
Gael of the Year Hilary Beirne was also outspoken in his praise for the event and the huge turnout it drew.
‘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.'
Michael Benn, John Brennan and the rest of their committee certainly did an incredible job organising the event, getting many elected officials down to the beach and making Rockaway the focal point for the weekend, with one of the elected officials being Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg.
But the magic of an Irish organisation is leaving a little room to be disorganised, leaving time for chatter, time for laughter, time for crowd involvement unseen in other parades and this was exemplified when President of the parade committee Mike Benn had to be reminded to stop talking to the crowd and march on.
‘Mike, the parade’s starting. Mike, the parade’s starting. Mike!' shouted the voice from the headphone, to laughs from the crowd and the parade continued on in that laid back and jovial manner. The crowd and marchers intertwined sporadically along the whole route.
‘Hello’s’ and ‘Howya’s’ were shouted, sneaky hugs and high fives given. The traditional pipes and drums filled the air and endless, appreciative claps from cold hands joined them, taking on a charming tune of their own.
Homes and businesses were opened up all along the neat, narrow roads with people seeming to flow in and out, from one to the other, smiles being their unspoken passwords, proof once again that Rockaway really is the close-knit friendly community it paints itself as.
Newport Avenue, Beach Street and Rockaway beach were layered in green. Green flags, bunting and balloons were hung. Green t shirts, skirts, dresses, trousers, hats and jackets were worn, making a continual, symbolic paper chain. One colour they have never worn in the tumultuous aftermath of Hurricane Sandy was cowardly yellow.
One of the many vendors around Rockaway was selling t-shirts with ‘baby steps’ emblazoned on the front, referring to the need to keep rebuilding and renovating, to get Rockaway back to what it was before. But this event was more than just a baby step. A giant step was taken. This was not just a parade, it was a celebration of the human spirit, as indomitable and as powerful as Mother Nature, even on her cruellest days.
Hurricane Sandy hit Rockaway on October 29th. On March 2nd, the people of Rockaway hit back. The pipes and drums were their thunder and lightning, the laughter their wind, the cheers their torrential rain and it delivered a killer blow to Sandy. There may be so much more left to do but it’s safe to say that from yesterday that Rockaway is reborn. Rockaway is back.