Monday, October 4, 2010

Rant #346: My Little Town

I received a terrific surprise over the weekend. Getting my mail on Saturday, I found a cardboard envelope in my mass of bills and garbage. I opened it up, and lo and behold, the book about my old neighborhood had come to me, about a month and a half early.

"Rochdale Village: Robert Moses, 6,000 Families, and New York City's Great Experiment in Integrated Housing" (Cornell University Press) is the 323-page hardcover book that I, and many of my fellow former Rochdale Village residents, have been waiting to be written for decades. The story of Rochdale really is the story of New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s, and using a broader stroke, it is a microcosm of the history of urban America during that period.

Written by Peter Eisenstadt, who, among other things, is the editor of the Encyclopedia of New York State--and whose brother, Eric, I used to play ball with--this tome takes the reader from the earliest proposals for such a massive development--20 buildings of 13 floors each, at the time, the largest cooperative housing development in the world--to all the trials and tribulations of its construction, its population, and how it changed the urban landscape.

My family was one of the 6,000 families that lived there, and in our seven years there, we personally went from thinking that this place was something of a Garden of Eden to our belief that we were in a living hell there, and everything in between.

Rochdale Village--named after the first cooperative development in England--was an experiment in urban living that might never be duplicated ever again. It was designed to provide affordable housing to middle income families, and it was the largest experiment in integrated housing in New York City--and maybe even the entire country--in the 1960s.

Built on the site of the old Jamaica Racetrack, it was a development that was plunked right in the middle of one of the most famous minority areas in the United States, with the idea that blacks--as well as whites--would live together in such a development, with whites having the largest portion of the population. Add to that test tube that a majority of the whites were from an oppressed minority themselves--a high proportion of the population was Jewish--and you get a mix that was both energetic and volatile.

The site was a virtual city within a city. Not only were the streets interconnected so that you never had to cross a street to get to any one of the sites in the development, but it had its own shopping areas--two malls--and its own power plant. During the 1965 Blackout, it was one of the few areas with even a scant amount of electrical power.

The experiment worked beyond the creators' wildest dreams in the mid-1960s. Blacks and whites did live together in harmony within the development. However, those living outside the development were never comfortable with such a massive project in their neighborhood, and due to a number of factors, there were problems between the insiders and the outsiders from about Day One of the project.

Not getting the project off on the right foot was that early on, minority laborers and construction people were not allowed to work on the project, which got the goat of the surrounding community. There were many other confrontations, but what some--including myself--thought was the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back" happened in 1968.

With the schools starting to move in a downward spiral due to a number of factors, including an extremely bitter school strike, another major blow to the experiment was the assassination of Martin Luther King. This unfortunate incident led to much malice between those inside the community and those on the outside, and the "white flight" of the late 1960s and early 1970s was a result, at least in part, of this and many other incidents that galvanized around the death of the civil rights leader and how that impacted the Rochdale Village envionment.

Today, Rochdale Village continues to stand, with an almost entirely black population.

I am simplifying the whys and wherefores of this community, but I can tell you that for the Baby Boomer kids like myself who grew up there, we truly lived in a Nirvana. As a little kids, there seemed to be a million of us who lived in the development (really thousands), and you didn't have one friend, you had many, many friends--black, white, Jew, non-Jew.

I lived there from the age of seven to 14, and I can tell you that the racial aspect only reared its head during our last years there, and certainly after King died.

Nobody cared about race--we just wanted enough kids to play punchball or touch football.

But when King died, everything changed. It just wasn't the same place anymore. It was if the heart and soul of the community died with King.

The amazing thing is that 40 years after I left there--and most of my fellow baby boomers left there too--there is an extremely active social community revolving around our old neighborhood, and I am proud to count myself as part of this.

It started out on something called Delphi Forums and moved over to Facebook, but lots of former kids that I grew up with--we're all in our fifties, many of us have our own kids, and some of us are grandparents--regularly speak to each other about the old neighborhood as well as a variety of other subjects.

It is truly amazing, and one of my personal most amazing events revolving around this social networking was held this summer, when I had a whole bunch of people I hadn't seen in decades over to my house for a barbecue, one of the numerous events this group has had over the past 15 years or so. It was so much fun seeing my old friends and acquaintances--it's as if we never left the old neighborhood.

Was Rochdale Village a success or failure? The jury is still out on this, but Eistenstadt's book crystallizes the events and circumstances that will allow the reader to reach a conclusion himself.

The book is fully footnoted, and I am proud to say that I am quoted several times in the book and my name is in the book's extensive index.

It is a wonderful, insightful read, and anyone interested in urban culture will be interested in this book.

And I am proud to have been a part of both Rochdale--the greatest place for a kid to have grown up in--and this book.

It is a legacy that I--and countless other fellow Rochdale Village baby boomers--don't take lightly.

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