2003-04-12 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach
From the Editor's Desk By Howard Schwach

From the Editor's Desk
By Howard Schwach

The argument over who "lost" Rockaway is not as important as "who lost China," or "who was better - Mantle, Mays or Snider," but it is an important question for those who have lived their lives in Rockaway and who remember the "good old days" of summer nights on the boardwalk and the availability of four movie theaters.

Now, Lawrence and Carol Kaplan have answered the question and the answer is not pretty.

The husband and wife team have written a new book, "Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York," which was recently published by Columbia University Press.

The Kaplan's are well qualified to write a book about the history of Rockaway. Lawrence Kaplan lived in Rockaway during his formative years and served for many years as a professor of History at the City College of New York. His wife, Carol, is a social worker and an associate professor at Fordham University.

By the way, in the name of disclosure, both Leon Locke, the past publisher of The Wave, and I were interviewed for the book and The Wave is heavily quoted in the second half of the book.

In their introduction, the Kaplan's set up the premise of the book.

"For the first half of the century, the small but growing year-round population of the Rockaways enjoyed a sense of cohesion rare in contemporary urban society. The middle and lower-middle-class neighborhoods in which the white population, primarily Jewish and Irish, lived followed a familiar seasonal calendar. Summer visitors arrived with the end of the school year, and most permanent residents felt relieved when these aliens returned to their concrete-bound city blocks each Labor Day," the authors wrote.

"Shortly after World War II, Rockaway's character began to change. By the early 1950's, the area began to lose its resort function and within another decade, the formerly vigorous recreational aspect of the peninsula had practically disappeared. At the same time, the permanent population grew substantially, and ethnic, racial and class differences became more pronounced. For a variety of complex reasons, which trumped the desirability of living nearby the ocean, many middle and lower-middle class white families moved away. At the same time, large numbers of minorities, mainly poor African Americans, moved in."

Why this happened with the rapidity and the force that it did is the thesis of this well-written and well-documented book.

Having said that the book is both well written and well-documented, I have to says that I do not agree with everything it has to say. Nor, do I agree with the author's choice of interview subjects in all cases.

For example, interviewing activist Helen Rausnitz on questions of race is, to me, the same as interviewing Al Sharpton about Tawana Brawley and then accepting everything he has to say as gospel.

I guess, however, that she would say the same about me.

I have been around Rockaway since I was born at the old Rockaway Beach Hospital in late 1939. In the period described in the book, the 1950's, 60's and 70's, I was either a teenager or an adult. I was fairly politically active and aware. And, yet, I do not remember things as described by the authors being quite the way they described them.

For example, they write, "In truth, during the first half of the twentieth century Rockaway Beach practiced segregation on a large scale. Public accommodations such as restaurants, taverns, barber shops and most of the movie theaters excluded black customers. The New Theater, located in the heart of an African American section of town, compromised by reserving a part of its balcony for 'colored.' Popular restaurants, including some on Central Avenue, refused to serve blacks well into the 1950's."

That is just not true. I spent many hours at the theater, which was not in an African American area, but in the Mott Avenue shopping area. I often went with my friends from Far Rockaway High School, many of whom were black. In fact, if the authors were to look at the 1957 high school yearbook, they would see that the co-captain of the cheerleaders was Delores Jackson (better known to one and all as DJ), and that she was selected as one of the most popular students that year.

I also spent many happy hours on Saturdays at both the Strand and the Columbia theaters in the early and mid 1950's, and I have to tell the authors that there was no segregation in Rockaway at that time.

At least, none that I recognized and I am sure that I would have, being I was one of the lower-middle-class residents that they write about.

For my family, Friday night dinners at Bergers, on Mott Avenue right across from the theater, was a weekly affair. I can still taste the open hot turkey sandwiches served by Helen, our usual waitress. I remember that black families regularly patronized that restaurant and many of the others in Far Rockaway at that time.

Perhaps the authors listened too often to Rausnitz or to Goldie Maple and Lovette Glascow, both of who are nice people, but who have an agenda to present, an agenda that has lasted from the 1950's until today.

While I disagree with some of the things said in the book, I do agree with its general thesis, however, and therein lies the strength of the book.

That premise is that city agencies such as the Welfare Department, working hand in hand with local politicians and the Chamber of Commerce, sold out Rockaway and allowed it to become a "dumping ground" for all of the city's problem residents.

"It is necessary to appreciate this background in order to understand the next phase of Rockaway's history," the authors write. "Welfare Department policies, promulgated by Commissioner Hilliard, helped drive New York's social problems to the peninsula."

In fact, according to the authors, the direct orders from Hilliard and from several commissioners who came after him, were to send all those on welfare who could not or would not work in a regular setting to Rockaway, because there were no jobs for them on the peninsula in any case.

In that way, every hard-case who could not live anywhere else wound up in Rockaway.

How the Chamber and local politicians got into the act and why they acceeded to the city's dumping without argument is a column for another week. Remember, however, that we are talking about the past chamber, not the present organzation.

Meanwhile, go out and get the book. It took me about two days to read it, off and on, and it was surely time well-spent.If you are at all interested in the history of Rockaway and how it came to be as it is today, you will love the book. Read it carefully.

At the end, you'll know "who lost Rockaway."

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