Essay: How New York City’s Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor

How is it possible that the same winding, 538-mile coastline that has recently been colonized by condominium developers chasing wealthy New Yorkers, themselves chasing waterfront views, had been, for decades, a catch basin for many of the city’s poorest residents? The answer is a combination of accident, grand vision and political expedience.

New York started building housing projects on the waterfront because that’s where its poorest citizens happened to live. It continued because that’s where space was most readily available. Finally, it built them there because that’s where its projects already were.

Consider the Rockaways, the narrow spit of land in southern Queens that was so emblematic of Hurricane Sandy’s undemocratic wrath, and whose long row of oceanside towers (the Arverne, Hammel, Redfern and Edgemere developments) stand as a kind of dubious monument to a bygone era of New York City housing policy.

Projects first started to rise in the Rockaways in 1950. At the time, there was an unprecedented demand for housing, from returning veterans and blacks migrating from the South, as well as plenty of federal financing as a result of the Housing Act of 1949.

Above all, there was Robert Moses.

“Why did the Rockaways end up with so much government-financed housing? Largely because Robert Moses wanted it there,”says Robert Caro, author of “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.”

It’s impossible to talk about the landscape of modern New York without talking about Moses, who leveraged his position as head of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance to mass-produce thousands of units of high-rise public housing, often near the shoreline. His shadow looms over much of the havoc wreaked by the storm.

The Rockaways were irresistible to Moses. Once a popular summer resort for middle-class New Yorkers, who filled its seaside bungalows and crowded into its amusement parks, the area had fallen on hard times when cars, new roads and improved train service made the beaches of Long Island more accessible.

Never one for nostalgia, Moses saw the Rockaways as both a symbol of the past and a justification for his own aggressive approach to urban renewal, to building what he envisioned as the city of the future. “Such beaches as the Rockaways and those on Long Island and Coney Island lend themselves to summer exploitation, to honky-tonk catchpenny amusement resorts, shacks built without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living,” he said, making his case for refashioning the old summer resorts into year-round residential communities.

What is more, the Rockaways had plenty of land that the city could buy cheaply, or simply seize under its newly increased powers of eminent domain, swaths big enough to accommodate the enormous public-housing towers Moses intended to build as part of his “Rockaway Improvement Plan.” Though only a tiny fraction of the population of Queens lived in the Rockaways, it would soon contain more than half of its public housing.

The old summer bungalows that weren’t bulldozed in the process were repurposed as year-round housing for those uprooted by Moses’ urban renewal — derided as “negro removal,” by the writer James Baldwin — across the city. In “The Power Broker,” Caro describes a federal housing official’s shock at finding the bungalows filled in the winter, with “several shivering Negro and Puerto Rican families in each.”

Initially, there was a strict screening process to get into the Rockaways’ new projects. Over time, though, those with steady incomes were encouraged to leave, to make room for people on public assistance. To city officials, the Rockaways’ distant location made it an ideal destination for troubled families and individuals. The projects that lined the seven-mile-long peninsula were soon joined by facilities for recently deinstitutionalized mental patients and high-rise nursing homes.

Source Article from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/nyregion/how-new-york-citys-coastline-became-home-to-the-poor.html?partner=rss&emc=rss
Essay: How New York City’s Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/nyregion/how-new-york-citys-coastline-became-home-to-the-poor.html?partner=rss&emc=rss
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