Written by Melissa Belongea
For years, the association between surfing and New York City has been trace, despite that below the surface, a current of activity has been ebbing and flowing since surfing’s first boom in the 1960’s. Today, there is a burgeoning surf culture in New York and surrounding areas. While some of the interest that has mushroomed recently captures the romantic and aesthetic appeal, there is in fact real surfing within reach and an unmistakable, New York surf-style in place.
Tyler Breuer, one of the founders of SMASH (Surf/ Movies/ Art/ Shaping/ History) and whose family has deep roots in New York surfing, describes the timeline of activity, “When surfing first became popular here, it was not unheard of for the shops of the time to sell 1000 boards in a summer. Once the 70’s short board revolution came along and ushered in a new crowd, surfers from the previous era moved on to other activities and numbers of participants declined. The 80’s saw a small peak and then in the 90’s, the resurrection of long boarding revived nostalgia and brought those who left it years earlier back in, among others. That brings us up to the last 12 years, when the surf industry in general saw a lot of growth and continues to today.”
The late 1990’s/early 2000‘s marks the beginning of modern surfing in New York, when improved wetsuit technology did much to keep people in the water, the Internet provided more accurate forecasting and the Pro Am contest, unsOund Surf, started at Long Beach by Mike Nelson and Dave Juan, subtly laid the groundwork for greater surfing expansion. Last year, the Quiksilver Pro teamed up with unsOund to produce the largest surf contest New York has witnessed. This was the first time the Quiksilver Pro had made the stop. Out of this event, the Long Beach Surfer’s Association was formed by a group of long-time, local surfers who seized the opportunity to lobby (and win!) more surfing coastline, which was previously restricted to as little as only one beach on some summer weekends. The 2011 Quiksilver Pro-NY contest was met with superior conditions and local support. But after an unexpected logistical tangle, stirred up by Hurricane Irene, that almost wiped out the entire organized effort and exposed the vulnerabilities of hosting a large-scale surf contest in the region, Quiksilver was content to end on a high note.
In the last three to five years, more and more variations of surf culture have spiraled out to form what is now truly distinct about New York surfing, its creative perspective. Just as other destinations have made their mark on surfing, New York City has created its own manifestation, not only that of the quintessential “urban surfer,” but the “artist…who also happens to surf, instead of the other way around,” says Breuer. That is not to sideline the dedication that can go into being a surfer here. Contemplate for a minute early morning pilgrimages on the subway with surfboard in tow and cold, stark winter waters or catching up with short-notice swells, which all require a desire beyond convenience. It’s just that for the most part, surfing in and around the city is a leisure activity that pairs nicely with one of New York’s (and consequently surfing’s) primal qualities – creative expression.
WAX Magazine, which just launched it’s inaugural print issue in July, illustrates this distinction in the way that it specifically addresses urban surfing from an artistic point-of-view. Ariel Brown, one of three founders of the magazine (along with graphic designers David Yun and Zak Klauck) describes surfing in New York as “a bit gritty and an oxy moron.” Philippe Egger, who is featured in the first issue and is a graphic designer says he moved to New York because of the surfing. While it is not really a place where one can live to surf, what he meant was that it is one of the only places where he can pursue serious career ambitions, while also accessing a more physical creative outlet.
Keeping the connection between surf, movies, art, shaping and history strong in the area, Breuer and his partners, Adam Cannizzaro, Michael Machemer created SMASH as a hub for presenting the unique contributions of the community it serves. Building on past projects and robust experience in both surfing and the arts, the group’s founders have assimilated a creative pool that is deep and wide. With thoughtful curation, SMASH works to set the creative bar high, as well as form a context around surfing that educates its participants on the history as well as keeps them informed on current happenings. Excavating underground surf cinema gems and bringing them to light is just one of the ways SMASH has enhanced the New York surf community.
Recently, the emergence of shops and businesses that cater specifically to the intersection of creatives and surfers indicates the presence of this small, but resounding community. Pilgrim Surf and Supply in Williamsburg is one such community hub. Owner Chris Gentile says he designed the shop to be “sculptural in a sense,” treating each surface carefully. Corrugated walls run up into a bleached wood ceiling, lending clean lines and a backdrop for the surfboard line up. Large, natural wood formations make up display tables and surf relics/ supplies fill in the rest of the space. Early on, Gentile ran Mollusk, which was the original Brooklyn gateways to surfing and a place that did much to sew the seeds of today’s surf interest. Presence of neighborhood skate shop, KCDC (which resides in the basement of Pilgrim) and unique events all contribute to the community that Pilgrim continues to foster.
Creating adequate places to hangout and connect with others who possess a similar affinity toward surfing is clearly a priority for these types of business owners. Reflective of its location in Soho’s fashion district, coffee shop/ retail store, Saturdays NYC offers respite and familiar surroundings among the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. As well, Saturdays NYC has done much to connect New York’s surfing aesthetic to the rest of the city and beyond. A third store in West Village just opened and previously, a second location in Japan happened earlier this year.
Internet-based club houses are taking over as well. On the petit end, East Coast Surf House is the online outlet of three Polish friends who live in Brooklyn and simply like to document and share their common interests, which inevitably point back to surfing. Picking up where supremely influential New York Surf.com left off, NYNJSurf.com reports wave conditions, hosts forums and galleries and generally ties a lot of bonds in the area. Proving that there is genuine, year round interest in catching waves, the site receives around 50,000 unique visitors and often tops 1 million page views per month, even during the winter, according to the site’s founder, Will Hallett. Having grown up in the area and surfing his whole life, he wanted to give something back that would enhance his surfing community and bridge other areas in the region, namely New Jersey.
Rockaway Taco, which came about in 2008, serves the summer masses and is another place made for the locals to gather. Parter, Andrew Field, contributing his culinary sensibilities says he is careful to emphasize food as a central element for weaving social bonds. Shutting down in the winter months when crowds deplete and leave little economic rewards for staying open, the Rockaway Taco crew is free to wander the globe in search of surf. Field says that accomplishing this balance of lifestyle in a place like New York City constitutes a personal mark of success.
By now, surfing has opened up to a whole new generation and inspired a new set of lifestyle expectations, which is sure to play itself out in even newer ways over the coming years. In the meantime, New York can offer a place to be for those who value both a highly charged creative environment and the sanity of knowing that surfing is only a short train ride away.