Ask About Rockaway, Queens

May 26, 2009 at 1:42 am Leave a comment

This week, Lawrence Kaplan and Carol P. Kaplan, the authors of “Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York,” answered questions about the history of this once popular seaside resort in southern Queens.

Was bringing the subway to Rockaway a good thing or a bad thing for the long-term health of the community?

— Posted by Adam Clayton


Adam’s question about the subway has been raised by many people who have expressed concern about the “decline” of the Rockaways, by which they generally mean the decline of Rockaway as a resort and the growth of a minority population. The decline of Rockaway as a resort had a number of causes, which we address in the next response.

But contrary to popular belief, Rockaway’s improved accessibility by subway in 1956 actually encouraged white families to move into neighborhoods that were distant from the ghetto areas. The segregated pockets of poverty remained as remote as ever from the more affluent sections. Neponsit, Belle Harbor, Bayswater and Far Rockaway continued to be neighborhoods of choice for middle-class white families. These districts saw vigorous home construction, and they commanded some of the highest real estate prices in the New York area. More modest two-family homes began appearing in Somerville, as well.

During the 1950’s, private developers put up a middle-income apartment house complex fronting the ocean in Wavecrest, which had about 1,650 apartments. Plans were made in 1956 for a sizable cooperative apartment house between Arverne and Edgemere (Nordeck Apartments), finally completed with city and state assistance in 1960.

By the end of the 1950s, the Lefrak organization had built 11 separate apartment houses, mainly in Far Rockaway. In short, the coming of the subway encouraged middle and working class people to settle in the Rockaways, and increased the permanent, year-round population.

When and why did Rockaway stop being the summertime mecca for New York City residents escaping the summer heat? What filled the economic void?

— Posted by Vince Castellano

Vince, Rockaway began to ebb as a summer mecca for New York City families during the 1950s. After World War II, people had more money and were not willing to settle for the crowded bungalows and rooming houses that they had previously found satisfactory. It would have taken time and a major commitment of money to eliminate all the rundown summer housing from the first half of the 20th century and replace it with modern facilities.

Before that goal could be achieved, some slum-creating processes began to take place. In some areas, like Hammels, property owners were unwilling to undertake the expense of renovating their holdings to make them attractive to a new generation of seasonal renters. Rather, landlords found it much more lucrative to turn these structures over to families on welfare, which the city of New York was sending in growing numbers. As the welfare rentals spread, nearby houses lost their desirability. And as this area came to be neglected and identified with very poor black people, vacationers began looking elsewhere.

Robert Moses, who exercised considerable control in the Rockaways, had a sense of the public good and a commitment to environmental conservation that conflicted with the business-oriented Chamber of Commerce. Moses began with the assumption that parklands belonged to all the people, and he was committed to protecting these resources and developing them for the benefit of the masses.

Commercial interests, some well meaning, believed that they could combine public pleasure with private profit. They hoped to create luxury facilities that would attract a class of people who would pay for their recreation. Yet such a strategy necessarily limited the number of those “consumers of recreation” who would be able to benefit, and could potentially affect the environment adversely.

Moses did not encourage this approach. He would have been content with a Rockaway that had attractive, well-maintained beaches complemented by parks and play areas appealing to city dwellers on a day’s outing, surrounded by solid year-round housing.

Essentially, private developers did not invest money, and Moses’ own plans were thwarted by other obstacles.

Why is there so much public housing throughout the Rockaways? And nursing homes? Was this a policy formulated by the city?

— Posted by Maureen Walsh

I was born there in 1969, and my parents moved to Nassau County two years later because of the racial strife. They had a lot of stories. They said a lot of it had to do with the city’s decision to put public housing there, which was not maintained. I was sent to my grandparents’ house during riots. I think public housing locations were chosen somewhat arbitrarily, but then again where would you put public housing in New York City?

Would like to hear researched accounts of the racial situation of the late ’60s.

— Posted by Matt K

How did the construction of the large low-income housing projects change the demographics of the Rockaways? Why was it considered a good idea at the time to place high-density housing in a relatively isolated part of New York City without any jobs available for its residents? Did the housing projects case “white flight” from the Rockaways in the 1960s and ‘70’s?

— Posted by Mark R

Maureen, Matt and Mark, you each pose a question asked by many: How did so many housing projects happen to be built in the Rockaways? In 1975, Rockaway (population 100,000) had 57 percent of all public housing in Queens (population two million). To begin with, land in the peninsula was plentiful and cheap. Two of the early projects were built on completely empty land (Edgemere and Arverne), and two others were constructed in extremely rundown areas (Redfern and Hammels).

Immediately after World War II there was a severe housing shortage, and the early projects were used for returning veterans, most of whom were white. These projects had extremely strict rules and requirements for tenants, were well maintained, and had long waiting lists. They were popular, even with the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce.

Things changed in the 1960s, mirroring changes that were occurring nationally. Families on welfare gained admission to the projects, while those whose incomes exceeded a specific ceiling were asked to leave. As buildings filled up with impoverished people who paid little or no rent, service personnel were eliminated, maintenance declined, and the buildings deteriorated.

Politics played a key role in the selection of public housing sites. Federal funds were available during the early 1960s for public housing, and pressure was placed by the mayor on the borough president of Queens to choose a site in the borough. Knowing that most communities vigorously opposed public housing, the borough president chose a site that he knew would cause him the least political damage. He justified his decision on the ground that “public housing is a very important step in reclaiming Rockaway.”

Civil rights groups encouraged this decision, hoping that displaced people from slum clearance areas would be housed in the remaining projects. However, this did not happen. Increasingly, “problem” families began to be dumped in Rockaway from other parts of the city. Yet no special services were provided for these families, and no extra security personnel were hired. The projects came to have a detrimental effect on the peninsula.

In this forum and others on the Rockaways, people talk about “white flight.” My family and many other Caribbean, Latin and South American families benefited from that exodus. My parents arrived in the United States in 1970 and were able to buy a home in Far Rockaway in 1976.

I woiuld like the authors to discuss how the area fostered a new generation of immigrants who had experiences and goals not unlike the generations before them.

Also, the area is becoming overpopulated, yet there are not additional resources and infrastructure to support this. What can be done to encourage responsible investment that creates jobs, especially for young people?

— Posted by Samantha C.

Samantha, thanks for reminding us that there is another perspective on Rockaway: that of African-Americans, as well as immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America and other places. Despite the presence of low-income projects and neighborhoods that rank among the poorest anywhere, working and middle-class people of color have continued to move to the peninsula voluntarily. We discovered, in the process of doing interviews, that they have the same goals and aspirations for themselves and their children as earlier generations. Many have become active in the community to improve the quality of life for their families and to advocate for those in need.

By the late 1980s, minority representatives had been elected to positions of importance in the New York State Assembly and the New York City Council. In 1998, Gregory W. Meeks of Far Rockaway was elected to Congress, and continues to hold his seat.

It is often forgotten that in the “good old days” segregation was a fact of life in Rockaway, in restaurants, movie theaters and neighborhoods. Breezy Point is still generally conceded to be the “whitest neighborhood” in New York City, according to The New York Times.

So far I would like to hear all the answers! Mainly, am wondering how the city “developed” Rockaway the way it did. Anywhere else that I can think of, except of course Coney Island, beautiful oceanfront property is to be coveted. What did the city do to reverse this norm? How can we bring Rockaway back to a mixed-use area?

— Posted by Naomi

Naomi, your question actually raises an important issue, which our book addresses at length. In fact, policies of the New York City Welfare Department during the late 1940s and the 1950s helped drive New York’s social problems to Rockaway. In an increasingly conservative political climate, the welfare commissioner purged the department of “Communists” and reduced budgets. The department then began placing welfare families in former summer housing, with the cooperation of landlords who no longer had summer renters.

The shacks were atrocious: people were squeezed into tiny spaces, sometimes whole families in one room. Before long, the highest rates of tuberculosis in the city could be found in Rockaway. Fires were a regular occurrence, and people lost their lives. These dwellings were supposed to be temporary, but many families lived this way for up to up to 15 years.

At the same time, more people from outside the peninsula were brought in by the Welfare Department. There was something particularly cynical about this whole process, especially since there was no employment, no play facilities for children, and no services such as health, mental health, dental care or drug rehabilitation. Nearby schools became overcrowded. With slum clearance, families were often moved repeatedly from area to area, creating new slums in the process without any solution at hand. Thus, the Lindsay administration simply bulldozed the 310 acres of beachfront, most of which still remains empty as a symbol of neglect and failed policies.
What was Robert Moses’ role in the conversions of bungalows into housing for people on welfare?

— Posted by Eugene Falik

Eugene, the conversion of bungalows and rooming houses into year-round dwellings was largely done by private individuals and the New York City Welfare Department, not by Robert Moses. However, during Moses’ construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, beginning in 1955, slum clearance was undertaken, and approximately 5,000 families were relocated around the city. A small number were sent to Rockaway, to live in the “converted” rooming houses and bungalows. As head of slum clearance, Moses was also responsible for the construction of middle- and low-income projects in Rockaway, and in other parts of New York City.

But every time people were moved from the slum areas that were to be cleared, they were housed temporarily in other slums. In Rockaway, they were sent to the bungalows and rooming houses on the beach blocks, which were themselves eventually torn down by housing officials in the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay. By then, Moses had lost his position of power.

Was the elevation of the Long Island Rail Road tracks done by Robert Moses, and was it part of a larger improvement?

— Posted by Greystone

Greystone, you are correct on both counts. Robert Moses wanted to transform Rockaway into a resort with a future, and he set out to rehabilitate the entire peninsula. In part he wanted to bring Rockaway into the automobile age, and in part he envisioned improving a vast seaside park. Beginning in 1939, he began a vast series of construction projects, known as the Rockaway Improvement. As you note, he elevated the railroad tracks, in the process doing away with numerous grade crossings, and he constructed a highway underneath the tracks.

He also completely renovated Jacob Riis Park to resemble a miniature Jones Beach. For access to the peninsula by car, he built the Marine Parkway Bridge and renovated the Cross Bay Bridge, so that Rockaway now had two modern bridges crossing the bay. He created a Shore Parkway with adjoining parks. There were also a few other small projects.

Moses’ stated goal at the time was to make the resort aspect of the peninsula “more popular and accessible” to the people of New York City.

Why were some of the best beaches on the East Coast turned into slums?

— Posted by El Barto

El Barto, your question has partly been answered in some of our prior replies. In many parts of Rockaway, the bungalows and rooming houses adjoining the beach had become rundown, and they were converted by private landlords into year-round housing for welfare recipients. This type of slum dwelling spread eastward from Hammels to Far Rockaway.

The only practical solution to the blighted neighborhoods was to tear down these houses and start from scratch, building new resort facilities in their place. Yet no agency in the Rockaways was prepared to undertake such a remedy. Except on a small scale, Robert Moses was unable to do much using Title I funds. With no other solution at hand, the Lindsay administration tore down the derelict structures, leaving an empty wasteland adjoining the Atlantic Ocean and a once-beautiful beach. Financial difficulties in subsequent decades ensured that the situation would continue for a long time.

What is the historical background of all the nursing homes in the Rockaways?

— Posted by Maureen Walsh and Pat McGregor

Maureen and Pat, Rockaway not only has many nursing homes for the elderly, it also has many adult group homes for the mentally ill. Most of these began to be built during the 1960s. The federal government’s policy of deinstitutionalization of mental patients required that housing be provided in the community. Land in Rockaway was available and cheap, and all health facilities automatically received a property tax abatement of 75 to 95 percent.

The local establishment waged a campaign to limit the number of such facilities in the Rockaways, but in 1974 a court overturned all bans on the further construction of nursing homes, opening the door to private investors who would now be restrained only by market forces.

It should be noted that African-Americans in Rockaway viewed the arrival of nursing homes somewhat differently than many white residents. Finding their needs neglected for decades, many now availed themselves of the new social service positions. For the first time they held full-time jobs, paid into Social Security and became eligible for medical and retirement benefits. In addition, foster home care arrangements for the seriously and persistently mentally ill compensated providers well, and black families tended to be more willing to open their homes.

What caused the decline of the idyllic Rockaway that I knew growing up?

— Posted by Wendy O.

Wendy, it is amazing how many people take this approach, idealizing the neighborhoods of their childhood. It is not restricted to Rockaway (which of course had the wonderful beach). There is a sizable literature , including memoirs and works of fiction, memorializing vanished neighborhoods and lifestyles. Some nonfiction authors, also of the nostalgic school, assign blame for events that allegedly need not have happened. Usually the villains are portrayed as coming from outside the community. For example, Robert Moses is said to have destroyed the vital Jewish East Tremont section of the Bronx almost singlehandedly.

In our answers to various questions, we have indicated some of the factors that brought about Rockaway’s transformation, including the existence of dilapidated summer housing that ceased to be attractive to vacationers, yet could not easily be replaced.

However, one should be aware that people who lived in other communities in the Rockaways did not share the idyllic view of the past. In particular, poor people and minorities experienced segregation, limited opportunities for employment, and — frequently — substandard housing. In our interviews for the book, we also learned of unchecked police brutality and discrimination by teachers against pupils of color.
How much negative impact did Mayor John V. Lindsay have when he tore up the bungalows and put up high rise nursing homes on prime beach land?

— Posted by Wendy O

Wendy, your question echoes the sentiments of many who blame the Lindsay administration for all the ills that befell Rockaway. The nursing homes, adult group homes and housing projects were not built by Lindsay, although some were built after he took office in 1966.

Moreover, the terrible deterioration of summer housing in Arverne and Edgemere had begun well before his administration. Mr. Lindsay was bequeathed a mess by his predecessor, Mayor Robert F. Wagner. The Wagner administration had designated Arverne and the beach blocks of Edgemere as an urban renewal district, but they had done virtually nothing to stop its deterioration because they had no idea how to go about it. By 1966, when Mr. Lindsay took office, this area was no longer viable for summer rentals. In the end, the beach structures were becoming untenable: plumbing fixtures were constantly stolen, children were suffering from lead poisoning, and fires occurred almost daily. Many landlords simply abandoned the bungalows and rooming houses.

The truth is that Mr. Lindsay’s people kept trying to come up with a viable plan, but never succeeded. At some point they decided that the only solution was to level the beachfront area in Arverne and Edgemere, hoping that the federal government would provide money for new housing. But in January 1973, the Nixon administration announced a moratorium on all federal housing subsidies for low- and middle-income housing.

Ultimately, Rockaway fell victim to the economic downturn of the 1970s. With the exception of some new housing in recent years, most of this large area still remains vacant. But it is inaccurate to blame Mr. Lindsay alone for what went wrong.

Do you differentiate in your book between the different neighborhoods in Rockaway?

— Posted by Marge

Yes Marge, our book — which covers roughly the period from the 1930s to the 1970s — does discuss the different neighborhoods of Rockaway. A single public high school in Far Rockaway served the whole peninsula and provided a certain sense of unity, but Rockaway has always been divided into a number of communities that possess distinct economic, social and racial characteristics.

To mention a few, Neponsit and Belle Harbor have always been exclusive, and still possess expensive year-round housing. Breezy Point and Seaside were mainly Irish, while Arverne and Edgemere during this period were largely Jewish. Summer housing could be found from Rockaway Park to Far Rockaway. Rockaway Park has remained Jewish and Irish, and always had more upscale summer accommodations. Hammels and the Redfern area of Far Rockaway had a sizable African-American population, most of whom were poor. Our book depicts the way in which a poor welfare population, starting in Hammels, spread eastward into Arverne and Edgemere, as well as a good part of Far Rockaway. Welfare recipients were brought in from other parts of New York City, and most were people of color.

A suggestion: Extend public transportation to Breezy Point. Would this provoke opposition from residents?

— Posted by Nick Ceferatti

Nick, as you know, Breezy Point lies at the western end of the Rockaway peninsula. Despite its obvious geographic connection, its residents have preferred not to think of themselves as part of the Rockaway community. Almost from the beginning of its existence as a bungalow colony, it was the only gated community on the peninsula and one of a small number in New York City. A gate lets outsiders know that they are not welcome. It would be safe to say that very few residents of Rockaway have ever set foot in this section or know much about it. The families of the civil servants, police officers, firefighters and retirees — the overwhelming majority of whom are Irish — who spend summers in Breezy Point have managed to maintain its exclusivity.

Two threats to Breezy Point’s way of life appeared during the 1960s. First, a private company wanted to put up scores of high-rise buildings, garden apartments, schools, restaurants, houses of worship, shopping centers, etc. The new development would have housed 220,000 new inhabitants By the summer of 1962, two of the tallest buildings had reached 10 stories each.

At the same time, Mayor Wagner’s administration approved a scheme to turn all of Breezy Point into a vast oceanfront park, comparable to Jones Beach. Joined with Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden, it would have been the largest recreational site in New York City, larger even than Central Park.

The second project canceled the first. But before the park scheme could get under way, the Breezy Point Cooperative mobilized and used its considerable political clout to stop it. Despite the fact that the city spent around $30 million to purchase land, in the end nothing ever happened. The concerted action of the Breezy Point residents and their allies won the day.

Even when Breezy Point was absorbed into the Gateway National Recreation Area in 1972, nothing was done to change its character. Once more the efforts of the community secured victory against seemingly invincible forces. Breezy Point had a sense of unity that unfortunately was lacking in the rest of Rockaway.

What happened to the excellent high school that produced the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman?

— Posted by Boulderite

Boulderite, Far Rockaway High School once symbolized the cohesiveness of the Rockaway community. As the ethnic and economic composition of Rockaway began to change, so did the character of the high school. The various sections of the peninsula withdrew into defensive postures, frequently in conflict with one another, and the school reflected this pattern.

Youngsters from different communities became more cliquish. Students in the late 1950s and the 1960s were less likely to mix with those of different backgrounds and neighborhoods than their predecessors had been. As the welfare population grew, and with it the number of young people from troubled families, many of whose elementary education was substandard, the school had difficulty adjusting. Often these teenagers were not academically motivated. The faculty, almost exclusively white, often had trouble relating to students of color. They had become accustomed to traditional teaching styles and compliant pupils, and found themselves unable to cope with serious behavior problems. Some administrators tried to maintain high standards, but a significant portion of the staff, either lacking empathy for minority students or harboring racist sentiments, had no desire to remain in a changing environment and transferred out.

There were other challenges to Far Rockaway High School. A second high school, Beach Channel High School, farther west down the peninsula, attracted the best students from Rockaway and even from other sections of New York. Some affluent families moved out of the Rockaways, frequently to adjoining Nassau County or farther east on Long Island. Orthodox Jews benefited from the decline of property values, buying homes at depressed prices and establishing yeshiva’s for their children. Catholic parochial schools slowly began accepting minority children. In fact, in 1971 one researcher found an ongoing exodus from public to parochial institutions. By the end of the 20th century, 11 Jewish and 5 Catholic schools were listed in the peninsula.

Finally, the rise of gang violence, which led initially to intensive police surveillance, eventually resulted in a decision to close Far Rockaway High School.

Mr. Kaplan, a historian who grew up in the community, and his wife, a social worker, together present an illuminating account of this transformation, exploring issues of race, class, and social policy and offering a significant revision of the larger story of New York City’s development. For example, the authors qualify some of the negative assessments of Robert Moses, suggesting that he attempted many positive initiatives for Rockaway.

Based on extensive archival research and hundreds of hours of interviews with residents, urban specialists and government officials past and present, “Between Ocean and City” is a clear-eyed and harrowing story of this community’s struggles and resiliency in the face of grinding poverty, urban renewal schemes gone wrong, and a forced ghettoization by the sea.

Lawrence Kaplan, who has taught British and American history at the City College of New York, spent his formative years in Rockaway. Carol P. Kaplan is a practicing social worker and an associate professor at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service.

New York Times


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