The Bronx Riviera
By the time I got to Orchard Beach, I was jet-lagged and needed a moment to adjust and cope with the environment. It took me almost two hours to get there from Brooklyn. I first got on the G train, then the blue line for a few stops, then hopped on the 4 uptown express train at Fulton Street to 125th street in Harlem, and then the 6 local train all the way up to Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. The ride was a bit lengthy, but got more entertaining once we reached the elevated tracks right after Hunts Point. From the window, public housing projects, tags, decade-old graffiti murals and highways defined the Bronx skyline. Once at the terminal station, I boarded a bus that picks up beach-goers at the intersection of Pelham Parkway and Bruckner Expressway. The crowded shuttle zigzagged an additional 10 minutes across New York City’s biggest park to finally drop us off at the seashore.
While New Yorkers have myriad beach options to choose from in Brooklyn, Queens,Long-Island and New Jersey, many Bronx inhabitants choose Orchard Beach due to its relatively convenient location. It’s the quickest way for them to access the sea, sand and sun. Just a bus ride away from the boiling and humid blocks of the borough, Orchard Beach is the only public beach in the Bronx. And for many families, it is the highlight of the hot summer season.
Back in the late 1930’s, infamous urban planner Robert Moses created this mile long artificial beach, originally named the “Bronx Riviera.” Although widely known as the latter, locals call it “Horse Shit Beach” or the “Puerto Rican Riviera.” Latinos affectionately refer to it as “Playa Chocha”, while New-Yorkers simply know it as “Ghetto Beach.” Orchard Beach is like nothing I’ve experienced before. While the beach may certainly lack proper facilities and the glamour of a “traditional Riviera” (whatever that means), the atmosphere, energy and people clearly compensate… particularly on Sundays or during long holiday weekends.
I arrived at Orchard Beach around 10:30AM on July 4th, and the place was already jam-packed. The best spots in the picnic area of the park were taken and grilled meat and sinsemilla filled the air with pleasing aromas. Families were playing dominos, while elderly visitors enjoyed the shade under massive trees where Puerto Ricans flags hung proudly: pa’que tu lo sepas. Adjacent to the overcrowded parking lot, ballers shouted and screamed during heated basketball and volleyball games.
The main promenade that runs parallel to the beach was filled with unassuming yet jovial, and admittedly loud, characters. This is where the action takes place, and where the people are on display. On section 7, next to the Cuban fast-food restaurant, old-timers chanted the romantic lyrics of their favorite salsa tunes coming out of the homemade ‘maleta boomboxes’. Dancers’ steps were guided by the additional layers of rhythm provided by congas, cowbell and güiro players jamming on the makeshift dance-floor. Teenagers displayed their acrobatics skills while others chatted up any unaccompanied girls who passed by.
A multitude of colorful parasols and extra-large coolers were scattered throughout the hot, crescent shaped white-sand strip, where loungers boasted bronzed, oily flesh adorned with tattoos, exuberant bikinis, flat-top sunglasses and other shiny accessories. Meanwhile, a horde of young lifeguards in bright orange swimsuits watched the kids playing in the water with nonchalance.
There is no bollocks nor hipster-coolness at Orchard Beach. Only raw people, genuine flavor and unbridled attitude. People go to Orchard beach to have fun and they look genuinely happy. Orchard Beach is one remaining enclave of the real New York, and there’s nothing better than the real New York during summer.
Make sure to listen to my salsa vieja playlist “Un Verano en Nueva York” for additional texture and immediate teleportation to the Bronx Riviera.
Also, make sure to check Wayne Lawrence‘s awesome work on Orchard Beach
More images on my flickr
Words, images and playlist by Stephane Missier aka Charles le Brigand
All rights reserved. Une production de Brigand © 2011