2009-06-12 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

The Decline Of Rockaway: Blame Two Men - Moses And Lindsay (Part I)
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Now that Rockaway is in the middle of something of a renaissance, it's instructional to look back and see why one of the most beautiful oceanfront communities in the nation declined in the first place.

A few years ago, a Brooklyn College professor who had grown up in Rockaway and his wife wrote a book that was published by Columbia University Press. The book, entitled "Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York," never became a best-seller, but I still consider it one of the most important books ever written about our little peninsula.

Penned by Lawrence and Carol Kaplan the book posited the reasons for Rockaway's fall. The Kaplan's did lots of research for the book, including many hours in The Wave archive and some time with both former Publisher Leon Locke and me.

I reviewed the book when it first came out and I generally agree with most of its conclusions. Perhaps my disagreements with the Kaplans are more of width than breadth, but they are disagreements nevertheless.

The Kaplans see the two men whom I believe were the movers and shakers in the decline of Rockaway as mere players on the stage.

Those two men were Mayor John Lindsay and Robert Moses, whose myriad roles in city and state government would take several hundred pages to explain.

Recently, the Kaplans took to the blogosphere on the New York Times to answer questions about their book and Rockaway's decline.

Most of those who emailed questions, of course, now live or have lived on the peninsula. Who else would be interested in the arcane history of Rockaway?

A number of questions dealt with the impact that the opening of the A Line subway had on the peninsula.

I remember my father, who was an activist with the boy scouts, community organizations and the Knights of Pythias, telling me that the advent of the subway line meant the end of Rockaway as we then knew it. Unfortunately, he was right.

Of course, at the time, everybody hailed the coming of rapid transit to Rockaway. Except for my father and a handful of others, who saw the line as opening up the peninsula to a dumping of those he considered to be problematic - the ill, the indigent, the elderly and the criminal. The Kaplans saw the event as benign, bringing both white and black residents to Rockaway.

"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," the Kaplans wrote on their blog. "Neponsit, Belle Harbor, Bayswater and Far Rockaway continued to be neighborhoods of choice for the middle-class white families. Those districts saw vigorous home construction, and they commanded some of the highest real estate prices in the New York area. During the 1950s, private developers put up the middle-income apartment house complex fronting the ocean in Wavecrest, which had about 1,650 apartments." The subway line also served as a rationale, however, for building several city housing complexes in Rockaway - notably Redfern, Edgemere and Hammels.

The theory was that people who lived in those city housing units could get to jobs off the peninsula by using the cheap transportation provided by the subway. Of course, the city then instituted a two-fare system. You had to pay when you got on in Manhattan and again when you got off in Rockaway.

By the way, I lived in Wavecrest Gardens from the time I was in the sixth grade (1950) until the time I went into the Navy in 1963. It was a great place for a kid to live during those times, but the Kaplans are wrong in believing that the massive housing complex, which 20 years later became a drug and crime-infested haven, drew middle class people from all over the city. The great majority of families who moved there did so from other Rockaway communities such as Arverne and Edgemere.

The subway allowed Lindsay and his commissioners to use Rockaway as a dumping ground for every welfare family that could not hack it in Manhattan and every other indigent person in the city. By 1975, Rockaway, with a population of fewer than 100,000, held 57 percent of all the city housing units in Queens.

The Kaplans point out that land in Rockaway was plentiful and cheap, and owners of summer housing who could no longer rent their bungalows and SROs to summer renters were more than glad to rent them to the city as welfare housing and later to sell them to the city for housing complexes.

In fact, to my mind, the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce and some other locals were as instrumental in destroying Rockaway as were the politicians and the city planners.

Old records show that in the 1950's and 60's the great majority of Chamber members, including the organization's president, had a vested interest in summer properties and in land. The profit motive was hard-wired in these business people and that motive led them to go along with the city in renting dilapidated properties to welfare recipients even though they were not fit to live in even in the summer.

I knew rationally that the city must have had a policy of dumping the worst welfare families in Rockaway's housing projects, but it took the Kaplans to come up with the evidence in the form of memos from the city commissioner in charge of the welfare program.

"The policies of the New York City Welfare Department during the 1940s and 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 blog says. "At the same time, more people from outside the peninsula were brought in by the Welfare Department. There was something particularly cynical about the whole process, especially since there was no employment, no play facilities for children and no services such as mental health, dental care or drug rehabilitation."

The book goes further, documenting the fact that the worst welfare cases, those where no father was in the home and the mother was a drug addict, for example, were sent to Rockaway not by accident, but by city policy.

More about this and about Robert Moses' part in the Rockaway story next week.

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