What is now known as Rockaway was inhabited by the Lenape Native Americans, but sold to the Dutch by the Mohegan tribe along with most of Long Island in 1639, and to the British in 1685. Finally the land was sold to Richard Cornell, who settled there. The name "rockaway" is the later corruption of a Lenape language word that sounded phonetically something like "rack-a-wak-e", and referred to the area.
Rockaway became a popular area for seaside hotels starting in the 1830s, and popularity grew with the coming of the Long Island Rail Road in the 1880s. The bungalow became the most popular type of housing during the summer months. Even today, some of these remain, converted to provide modern amenities, although the vast majority were razed in urban renewal during the 1960s.
In 1893, Hog Island, a resort known for entertaining Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall sank into the sea. Located a few miles east of Breezy Point, and also known as Rockaway Island, the entire island disappeared during a storm. Plates, along with older artifacts still wash up along the shore of Rockaway Beach.
Rockaways' Playland, a world renowned amusement park opened in 1901, and was a popular place for New York families until 1985 when insurance costs and competition from major regional parks made it impossible to continue operations.
The completion of the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge in 1925 and the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge in 1937 increased the accessibility to Queens and Brooklyn, however, the development of Jones Beach by Robert Moses drew tourism away from both Coney Island and Rockaway Beach.
Today the area still draws crowds during the summer, with well-tended beaches. Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden can be found on the western end of the peninsula, part of the Gateway National Recreational Area created in 1972 as one of the first urban national parks. A long boardwalk and long sandy beaches make this a popular summer day trip for New York City residents. towards the western end of the boardwalk, several portions of the beach are fenced off to preserve the nesting habitat for several species of terns and plovers, making for a unique urban birdwatching locale.
With the advent of inexpensive travel, air-conditioning and the highway system, Rockaway lost its luster as a recreation area, and development transformed much of it into residential communities.
The peninsula's main communities are Belle Harbor and Far Rockaway. Other important neighborhoods on the peninsula include Arverne, Neponsit, Rockaway Beach, Rockaway Park, Breezy Point and Edgemere. Broad Channel, located on its own island in Jamaica Bay between the peninsula and the mainland of Queens, is generally considered to be psychographically part of the Rockaways. The Rockaway area, including Broad Channel, is served by the IND Rockaway Line of the New York City Subway, although both lines run completely above ground locally, using tracks purchased from the Long Island Rail Road in the 1950s (until 1975, an additional fare was charged to passengers either boarding or departing the train at any of the Rockaway-area stations, including Broad Channel, if the trip originated or terminated outside the area).
In the years immediately following World War II, several public housing projects were built in the region, and these eventually became hotbeds of crime and related social pathologies. This provoked a backlash from some of the peninsula's more established residents (many of whom are of Irish Catholic ethnicity). A strong Jewish community (many of whose members are Sephardi Jews) also exists in the area south of Far Rockaway.
Redevelopment has started in some areas of the peninsula. Although plans including casinos, sports arenas, and various other real-estate projects had been proposed in the past many of those plans did not come to fruition due to either lack of funds, development stagnation, or resident resistance. However, in 2002, a "revival" began on the peninsula, as a new residential development plan started construction in a large vacant section between Rockaway Beach and Arverne. The new areas have become known as Arverne By the Sea and Arverne East.
The new development projects however, have sparked a new building boom in the neighboring communities. This has caused some concern and has led to various debates regarding development within those neighborhoods. The main problem has to do with Rockaway's zoning laws: those laws, decades old, cater to large multiple dwellings because of the hotels that had once existed in the area. This has led to construction of taller and wider buildings in areas that currently contain lower density housing. In response, some communities have approved rezoning plans for their neighborhoods in order to stop "out of character" development.
Opponents also contend that due to the rapidly growing population, the current infrastructure is inadequate and that there are environmental issues to consider. Those in favor of the development, however, contend that the development will help spur economic development and that the infrastructure cannot be upgraded until the population has reached a more noticeable level. Furthermore some developers have questioned the legality of "down zoning".
The Ramones song "Rockaway Beach" is probably the most common pop culture reference to this region, although Herman Melville refers to it in Moby-Dick. Woody Allen's Radio Days was filmed in Rockaway Park, with period facades and cars turning back the clock during the shoot. Denis Leary's hit TV series Rescue Me has filmed in many locations on the Rockaway Peninsula. In the Seinfeld episode "The Marine Biologist", Kramer suggests that George and Jerry accompany him to Rockaway to hit golf balls into the ocean.