Cerebral Decanting

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by Jason Gubbels

Michael Greenberg’s Secret History Of The Rockaways

1. I grew up in Belle Harbor, on the western part of that fragile leg of New York City’s coastland called the Rockaways, and witnessed many spectacular storms there as a boy. In September 1960, when I was six years old, Hurricane Donna inundated the streets from Jamaica Bay to the Atlantic, the entire width of the peninsula, a distance of no more than a quarter of a mile. “Bay and ocean joined,” declared our rabbi when the flooded synagogue reopened. It was the opposite of Moses’ feat of parting the Red Sea. The storm tide crested at eleven feet and during the days that followed my brothers and I floated ecstatically through the neighborhood on ruined wooden furniture that we turned into rafts.

The Rockaways were strictly segregated in those days, and in the most essential ways they remain so today. At the far western end of the peninsula was Breezy Point, a five-hundred-acre co-op, second only to the neighborhood of Squantum, Massachusetts, in its concentration of Irish-Americans. Then as now, it was mainly a summer community for New York firemen and police. In June 2001, The New York Times dubbed Breezy “the whitest neighborhood in the city.” When I was a boy, there was a guard in a wooden booth at the entrance to prevent outsiders from intruding. If he didn’t know you by sight, you had to explain your business, and if you had none you were sent away. Jews were restricted, a fact that we accepted as the way life was, and should be.

2. A mile or two to the east was Belle Harbor, twenty or so blocks of Jewish professionals and small-business owners. Our neighbor ran a dry cleaning store in Flatbush, another made jewelry boxes in a loft in SoHo. My father commuted to his scrap metal yard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Like the Irish, we huddled protectively among ourselves. At St. Francis de Sales, the galvanizing Catholic church and school on 129th Street, the neighborhood became Irish again, larger and less exclusive than Breezy, close-knit in the deep way of certain outerborough New York communities that have managed for generations to keep their fabric from tearing. Today, it isn’t unusual to see a young couple living in a bleached wooden beach house that has been in the family for eighty years.

The Hebrew day school I attended was only a few blocks from St. Francis. Without much solemnity, we each received our parochial educations. In both schools our teachers seemed more concerned with reinforcing tribal affiliations than instilling religious devoutness. Meeting on the street, we would fight with the Irish once in a while, in a kind of obligatory harmless embrace, but mostly we ignored one another, as the grownups had taught us to do, with a mutual air of condescension and hostility. We had little understanding of one another and made it our business that it stayed that way.

At around the time of Hurricane Donna I had one Irish friend, a delicate, radiant-eyed boy of my age, with twelve siblings, all of whom addressed their parents as “Sir” or “Ma’am.” In the immediate aftermath of Donna, I admired—and envied—the way his family and their friends cared for one another, pulling their neighbors clear of ruin with an insistence that was foreign to my world where acts of mutual aid, as I saw it, were more apt to involve collecting pennies for Israel.

3. Further to the east were acres and acres of the extreme poor, almost all of them black, who had been removed to Rockaway from more central parts of the city, displaced by roadway construction, real estate development, and other “urban renewal” projects during the 1950s and 1960s. The black neighborhoods, known as Arverne and Edgemere, had previously consisted mainly of working-class Jews.

In their excellent history of the Rockaways, Lawrence and Carol Kaplan point out that government officials regarded Jews as least likely among ethnic groups “to oppose the entry, by government decree, of blacks into their neighborhoods.” (Brownsville in Brooklyn had been similarly transformed from a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, as had Jewish districts in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit.) Irish and Italians, officials assumed, would fight integration, while Jews would simply move away.

In 1971, when Jewish residents of Forest Hills protested the construction of twenty-four-story housing projects in their neighborhood, the building of large-scale housing projects in New York effectively ended.

4.  The Rockaway public housing projects, many between fourteen and twenty-four stories high, were isolated and self-contained, a separate, forgotten world, with some of the city’s highest rates of infant mortality, infectious diseases, and unemployment. When approaching Rockaway by car, it was jarring to see them towering over a landscape that otherwise consisted largely of one- and two-story homes. Many residents of the projects would go years at a time without leaving the peninsula.

The Kaplans convincingly argue that “the Rockaway poor received worse treatment than their counterparts in any other urban location outside the south.” By the end of the 1970s, the peninsula contained half the public housing projects in Queens, though it had only .05 percent of the borough’s population. It also became a dumping ground for group homes for the mentally disabled and last-stop nursing facilities for the aged. By the 1980s, Rockaway had more of these than any other part of New York.

— Michael Greenberg, “Occupy the Rockaways!” New York Review of Books, January 10 2013



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