Between Ocean and City

Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York

Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Between Ocean and City
    Book Description:

    Rockaway Beach was once a popular seaside resort in south Queens with a small permanent population. Shortly after World War II, large parts of this narrow peninsula between the ocean and the bay became some of New York City's worst slums. 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. In particular, the authors qualify some of the negative assessments of Robert Moses, suggesting that the "Power Broker" attempted for 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 largely African American community's struggles and resiliency in the face of grinding poverty, urban renewal schemes gone wrong, and a forced ghettoization by the sea.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53416-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xi)
  4. Map of the Rockaways
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    The study that follows deals with the harsh transformation of an urban community in the decades immediately after the Second World War. Rockaway, New York, located in the southern part of New York City’s borough of Queens, is a slender peninsula, the westernmost of the barrier beaches that reach from the eastern tip of Long Island to New York’s harbor. It is also known as Rockaway Beach, or simply the Rockaways, a name derived from a Native American word meaning “sand place.”¹ Outsiders sometimes refer to the whole peninsula as Far Rockaway, but this is the name of only the...

  7. CHAPTER 1 The Resort in Summer and Winter
    (pp. 8-21)

    Many of those with longstanding connections to Rockaway tend to pose the same question: how could such a valuable resource have been allowed to go to ruin? All over the globe, beachfront property is treasured. Yet in New York City, the resort once called the city’s favorite playground, described by the New York Times as “the equivalent of some of the great beaches of the world,”¹ became a symbol of urban decline.

    Of course, not everyone connected with the peninsula views its transformation as a disaster. People who do so tend to define “decline” as the disappearance of the original...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Race and Real Estate
    (pp. 22-36)

    The ethnic groups that constituted the year-round population of the Rockaways during the 1930s and 1940s included Irish Americans, Jews, African Americans, and a smattering of others. An earlier white Protestant section of Far Rockaway had slowly dwindled during the twentieth century. Many of the Irish were drawn to an ocean community that resembled their original home in County Sligo on the Atlantic Ocean in northwestern Ireland. They had come before the turn of the century, to work first on the railroads and then in the amusement industry. They remained in the area where the rides, taverns, and fast food...

  9. CHAPTER 3 The Trestle Burns and the Projects Begin
    (pp. 37-50)

    It would be comforting to attribute the fate of the Rockaways to natural forces. Nature has not always been kind to this southern Queens community: the storms, hurricanes, floods, and erosion that frequently occur have taken their toll. As a barrier beach, the peninsula absorbs nature’s aggression while protecting the coastal city of New York. In addition, after the Second World War, New York’s municipal authorities used the Rockaways as an outlet for pressures emerging in the more densely populated parts of the urban colossus. This did not always serve the best interests of the area, its residents, or the...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Rockaway’s Welfare
    (pp. 51-70)

    In Arthur Miller’s play The Price, one of the main characters, a policeman, announces that he walks a beat in the Rockaways. Another character responds, “That’s Siberia.” Although Rockaway had become incorporated into the City of New York in 1898, during the first half of the twentieth century its residents felt that they lived apart from the city. Their conception of the peninsula possessed a certain truth during the winter months, when Rockaway’s remoteness, spaciousness, and relatively small population made it feel like a small town. Indeed, this southeastern section of Queens remained far from the swirl of activity in...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Robert Moses and the End of a Resort
    (pp. 71-85)

    With its miles of sandy beaches, breezes that blow from bay and ocean, and proximity to the heart of New York City, Rockaway was destined to become a major resort. As early as 1833, a fashionable hotel opened in Far Rockaway, catering to the rich and famous. Several more were built during the following decades. At first, ferries served as the chief means of transportation from the mainland, leading to the construction of hotels along the bay. Before long, summer mansions also dotted both bay and ocean shores along with several yacht clubs. The completion of the Far Rockaway branches...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Storms over Title I
    (pp. 86-99)

    Rockaway’s various neighborhoods have always reflected class, racial, and ethnic differences, and even with their population growth not much changed during the 1950s, Neponsit and Belle Harbor maintained their reputation as two of the most fashionable addresses in all of New York City. In parts of Far Rockaway, solidly middle-class people owned single-family homes. Seaside housed working- and lower-middle-class Irish Americans. Arverne and Edgemere had similar class characteristics but continued to be predominantly Jewish throughout the decade. Italian Americans joined the ethnic mix in Somerville. The majority of African Americans lived in Hammels, with another remnant on the periphery of...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Where They Live
    (pp. 100-114)

    The main victims of city policies in the Rockaways were the poor, black residents of Hammels who were forced by outside agencies to live in squalor. Many of them had been moved repeatedly; families who had started in Redfern, or in some other section of New York City undergoing urban renewal, had been shifted to one neighborhood of Hammels only to be relocated a few years later into another—like pawns on a chess board. At the end of 1959, when the Hammels middle-income development reached the clearing-out stage, residents faced the prospect of being displaced once more, many for...

  14. CHAPTER 8 Trends of the Sixties
    (pp. 115-131)

    A remedy for the spreading blight in Rockaway did not come from the community but from Robert Moses. As early as 1958, he had let it be known informally that he contemplated an additional Title I proposal for the Arverne area.¹ In a public statement a year later, at a ceremony marking the demolition of the first buildings at the Seaside site, he directed his audience’s attention to the shamefully ramshackle housing owned by rapacious landlords: “Thousands of huddled wooden shanties and disgraceful summer shacks, built without regard to health, fire hazard and proper zoning, cannot be replaced overnight.”² Additional...

  15. CHAPTER 9 The Whitest Neighborhood in NewYork
    (pp. 132-147)

    The tip of the Rockaway barrier beach lies west of the Marine Parkway Bridge traffic circle. Called Breezy Point, or sometimes just “the Point,” it contains two other subcommunities, Rockaway Point and Roxbury. Despite the obvious geographical connection, its residents do not like to think of themselves as part of Rockaway.¹ Almost every media discussion of the Rockaways omits mention of the Breezy Point enclave, and there is a certain reality to the separateness of Breezy Point. Until the late nineteenth century, the area did not even exist. It was created by littoral drift which carried sand westward. Almost from...

  16. CHAPTER 10 Divergences
    (pp. 148-162)

    The process of building numerous Rockaway housing developments during the first two decades after World War II lent itself to political influence and corruption involving construction companies, unions, lawyers, and real estate interests, among others. Democratic Party leaders steered lucrative business opportunities to certain Rockaway firms. Local politicians seem to have chosen the appraisers who evaluated the worth of condemned properties, and sometimes they even appraised real estate themselves.¹ It is generally believed that well-connected sellers of property received higher prices. Although no evidence exists of convictions for bribery, knowledgeable interviewees claimed that certain individuals received prices above market value...

  17. CHAPTER 11 The 310 Acres
    (pp. 163-177)

    The election of John V. Lindsay as mayor in November 1965, after two decades of Democratic Party rule, offered a promise that politics as usual would no longer characterize municipal life. The previous three-term mayor, Robert F. Wagner Jr., had been a cautious executive who balanced various interest groups through compromise, avoiding sharp political conflicts. As a result, however, certain basic issues were given piecemeal treatment. Throughout most of his two terms in office, Mayor Lindsay initiated new projects, showing an innovative flare and a willingness to take risks. He is also credited with bringing neglected constituencies into municipal politics,...

  18. CHAPTER 12 The Reckoning
    (pp. 178-188)

    Physically, Rockaway at the millenium, shaped by the events that followed the Second World War, looks much the same as it did in 1975. Despite certain changes, many of the trends observed at that time persist. Older residents remain skeptical about the future, even though local officials sound an optimistic note.¹ The famed resort of an earlier era, with its amusement parks, bungalow colonies, and hotels, like Humpty Dumpty could not be put back together. The elimination of the two-fare subway zone, which for residents constituted perhaps the most notable improvement of the mid-1970s, failed to have a broader impact....

  19. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  20. Notes
    (pp. 189-214)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 215-222)
  22. Index
    (pp. 223-238)