Argentina-born garage rocker Tall Juan explains how he found home in the area’s seaside food joints and sandy boardwalks.
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After moving from his sleepy hometown in southwest Argentina to New York, Juan Zaballa, aka Tall Juan, hopped around apartments in Brooklyn before settling down in the Far Rockaways with a few friends. While his last release, Tall Juan Plays Cumbia, saw the psychedelic garage rocker journey sonically back to Latin America, Zaballa says his forthcoming album, Atlantico, was influenced by spending time in the remote seaside area, which, 8 years after Hurricane Sandy, remains an embodiment of the city’s cultural diversity and unstoppable spirit.
In this installment of Smells Like New York, Zaballa speaks about the hidden charms of a sleepy beach-front community in Queens that most people only visit in the summer months, taking us through his favorite places to eat, walk, and write music.
Look out for Atlantico later this year.
As told to Alyana Vera
Juan Zaballa: I moved to the Rockaways after Sandy, in early October 2013, with a few friends. Before that, I was in a bad living situation in Greenpoint, where this guy would charge me $400 just to crash on the couch. I would have to leave before noon, because nobody knew I was sleeping there. My friend was also in a bad situation, so we decided to get a place for ourselves.
When we first came to the Rockaways, we weren’t really sure if we wanted to move here because of Sandy. The neighborhood we moved into, Averne, got damaged a lot by the storm, but the house was just so beautiful: We had a huge backyard by Jamaica Bay, and that was so inspiring. The window in my room would face the water, and I would be writing and recording, looking at the water the whole time. We had no neighbors, so we could play all day. I moved into a new house about six months ago, because I wanted more privacy, but that house was very special to me—we called it the Bayfield House because it was on Bayfield Avenue.
I didn’t know much about the Rockaways before moving here, but I really fell in love with the ocean and the quiet. In the Summer, it may be crazy, but not during the year. You can really rest here. You don’t hear trains or buses, and whenever you feel a little crazy, you can go for a walk. I always go to Beach 68, and once I get there, I just start walking. I like to just get lost in the horizon.
Growing up in Argentina, the neighborhood I lived in was very flat—no mountains or nature. When I was a kid, I used to have dreams of walking down my block and finding a mountain. Here I walk two blocks, and I have the ocean. I’ve seen dog sharks and whales at the beach. One time, a friend and I did a photoshoot there; while I was posing, looking into the ocean, I saw dolphins going by. They really only come when there aren’t many people.
I think my favorite time to go for a walk is in the Spring, but it’s pretty cool when it is Winter and there is snow. It’s a pretty landscape to see—the ocean and sand all covered in white. On my walks, I think or write lyrics while I look at the ocean. It just makes me feel grounded. Sometimes during the Summer, I wish it was empty, but that’s very selfish.
The first thing I do when I get home from tour, if I’m hungry, is go to Goody’s BBQ Chicken & Ribs. It’s a Jamaican place in my neighborhood that’s been open since 1989, the same year I was born. I’m pescetarian, so I order the veggie patties, which are the best out of all the places I’ve tried around New York. The people who work there are really nice, and they make a really great chocolate cake. They have everything I need to be happy.
My first time at Goody’s, I was a little shy. It was my first time having Jamaican food, but now I’ve been going there for six years. I’ve become an addict: I’ll take whoever is visiting me, and I go there as much as I can. All the people who work there know me now, which I usually hate, but that place is really cool. Each time you buy food there, you get five points, and after fifty points you can get a free pattie. Once you get to a hundred, you get a free T-shirt. I have a couple.
The Rockaways have changed a lot since I’ve started living here. In my old neighborhood, there used to be trees, but now they’ve cut down everything and put up huge condos. I feel like there are way more people coming here now, and I miss how it used to be a little more quiet. But change is a part of what New York is, I think.
I would love it if they opened an amusement park one day, like the Coney Island one. I would never leave the Rockaways if we had an amusement park here, and maybe a movie theater. That would be so cool. But I like it here right now. I don’t think I could have stayed in New York for too long if I hadn’t moved to Far Rockaway.