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Washed Up on Long Island: Urban Renewal at the Beach

Ellen Leopold is author of A Darker Ribbon: Breast Cancer, Women, and Their Doctors in the Twentieth Century (Beacon Press, 1999). She was an economic policy advisor at the Greater London Council until it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986.

Lawrence Kaplan and Carol P. Kaplan, Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 237 pages, paper $37.50.

The postwar fate of Rockaway, Queens, may well have been sealed when it was swept into the great consolidation of towns and boroughs that became New York City in 1898. An eleven-mile-long pencil-thin peninsula, Rockaway faces Jamaica Bay along one flank and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Blessed by its natural resources and fairly isolated from the stresses of city life, it enjoyed a very long run as “New York City’s favorite beach resort” with day-trippers pouring into Jacob Riis Park by the tens of thousands. But by the end of the 1940s, its glory days were fading, and it was on the way to becoming an exclusively year-round community.

This change in its fortunes coincided with the enactment by Congress of the first urban renewal legislation in the Housing Act of 1949. No city in the United States took greater advantage of the opportunities this opened up than New York (the city eventually claimed a full third of the federal funds made available nationwide). And though urban renewal was intended to promote the wholesale clearance and reconstruction of blighted and overcrowded urban areas, it quickly found its way to Rockaway, with largely unhappy consequences.

Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York documents the capacity of these programs to do more harm than good. The authors focus on the case histories of Title 1 housing projects, portraying them as Trojan horses, muscling their way into an unsuspecting community with the help of gatekeepers who had been bought off in advance. The perilous passage to completion of each of the major projects, with its false starts, repeated delays, difficult/defaulting sponsors, changes in design, and bureaucratic bottle necks, is narrated with a good feel for the complexity of the horse-trading between local, city, and federal officials caught up in the planning process. The authors also treat at some length—and sympathetically—the lack of influence/access/power bedeviling the work of grassroots social activists. All the key players are all here, from the Mayor’s Office and borough politicians to the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce through to the black church, PTA, and voter-registration activists.

Drawing on their extensive insider knowledge, the authors’ primary focus on housing allows them to bring to life the history of entrenched ethnic and class divisions on the peninsula. These can literally be read off the map as a series of well-demarcated (and occasionally even gated) communities ranging from longstanding Irish settlements on the most remote western end (where American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in 2001) to the much more recent colonies of Orthodox Jews toward the eastern end. Before 1950, a small number of African Americans also lived on Rockaway, serving as domestics and summer resort workers, but they were scattered across several communities, hidden away by the pervasive segregation that still prevailed in Rockaway. While almost all of these communities were threatened with development or renewal plans of some kind, a few (the whitest and most prosperous) fought them off and remained largely untouched by the predations of public policy.

Before the advent of urban renewal in the ’50s, New York City was already using its welfare department to relocate (read: “warehouse”) in Rockaway some of its more undesirable clients, i.e., those who were ineligible for low-income housing in Manhattan and other urban areas. To accommodate these transfers, local landlords bought up dilapidated and disused summer shacks and, after a poor stab at winterizing them, charged excessive (and now subsidized) year-round rents to the newcomers. They became the “landlords of last resort” housing the “tenants of last resort.”

The subsequent arrival of the Title 1 program, allowing properties to be condemned and then sold to the city for clearance, brought the promise of future windfall profits to these same landlords who could now allow their properties to deteriorate while continuing to collect rents. The city finally bought them out and sold their property to the new developers at a reduced price (with the shortfall paid for by the federal government). Justified as a necessary incentive to get the wrecking ball rolling, this arrangement essentially enabled finance capital to operate directly through government agencies.

Real estate deals represented by far the most significant transfers of wealth achieved by urban renewal; typically, the purchase of land and buildings for clearance accounted for two-thirds of total project costs. It is not surprising then to discover that in Rockaway, as elsewhere, fewer people were actually accommodated in the new housing than in the old properties they replaced. And often, they were not even the same people. The poor, and particularly the black poor relocated to Rockaway by the city’s welfare department, were evicted once more and found themselves ineligible for the new housing because they were either on public assistance, unemployed, single parents or alcoholics. There were almost no social service agencies in Rockaway to address any of these problems. Nor were there any real prospects for stable year-round employment.

All these features support the accusation of “dumping,” the charge that slum clearance was really just a thin cover for minority clearance. As a publicly sanctioned practice, it was shamefully at odds with another strand of postwar housing strategy that was funded by the same 1949 housing legislation (Title II). This was the promotion (through federally insured mortgages) of developments providing single-family homes on suburban green-field sites. The intention here was to secure a stable, white, home-owning workforce in affordable housing accessible to major centers of employment. Relocation was not an issue when building on Long Island potato fields. Access to jobs on the other hand was a major consideration, as the millions of federal dollars poured into suburban highway programs in the 1950s attests. Ironically, suburban development strategy, by encouraging the exodus of middle-class wage earners from New York City, undermined one of the original justifications for urban clearance and renewal policies, i.e., the need to increase the city’s tax revenues.

In Rockaway, kickbacks and cronyism greased the wheels for most of the planned new developments. In the context of this morass, the figure of Robert Moses stands out, in perhaps his most favorable light. According to the authors, he was a “committed conservationist,” something they claim that Robert Caro’s biography The Power Broker does not properly recognize. Moses would never permit development on Rockaway to exercise private control over public spaces or allow “the quest for the ‘quick dollar’ by an unscrupulous few” to take precedence over the preservation of and open access to natural and recreational resources. His successful efforts to protect Jamaica Bay, which he saw as “the greatest natural resource we have,” led directly to the creation of the bay’s natural wildlife refuge.

In retrospect, the upheavals in Rockaway revealed, among other things, that the federal government could not legislate physical solutions to social problems. That the long-term well-being of Rockaway residents was never a public policy concern is evidenced by the complete absence of any concurrent strategy to sponsor a stable employment base in the area, not to mention proper health care, education, training and social services—the kind of integrated economic planning that characterized postwar New Town development in England. (English planners at the same time briefly considered an indirect form of land nationalization; this would have required local authorities purchasing land for development to retain ownership of that land forever, leasing but never selling it.) The federal government in the United States, with rare exceptions, chose instead not to intervene directly in the local economy, not to own, design, build, manage or maintain the projects it helped to finance, nor to insist on any safeguards to protect the housing tenures of low-income and especially, minority residents. It underwrote the transfer of power to private real estate interests and then handed on responsibilities to local and private interests, mandating no follow-up and no accountability for the massive investments it had sponsored. The photographs in this book bear witness to the physical legacy of this dereliction.

Once a peninsula with as many as a half-million daily visitors, Rockaway has now become a virtual island of neglect, a ghetto of minorities severed from mainland expectations of growth and prosperity. By 2000, more than half of its population was either African American or Puerto Rican, and 40 percent of the population earned incomes of $25,000 or less. Rockaway now has the highest unemployment rate in Queens as well as the highest percentage of residents living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, twenty miles or so down the road in another community built by postwar federal dollars—Levittown in Nassau County—the average house price has risen thirty-fold, from $7,500 in 1949 to $225,000 today. Built through a program that made black applicants ineligible for FHA mortgages, the community remains, more than a half century later, 98 percent white.