Saturday, July 31, 2010

Growing Up in an Experimental Village: Two Views of City Life

The sleek glistening Concorde SST jet, its dropped needle nose angled like a pterodactyl's beak, slid through the cloudless blue sky, high above the Manhattan skyline. I saw this from the balcony of the top-floor apartment where I grew up in New York City's Rochdale Village just north of Kennedy Airport, which the SST was approaching.

My father selected the spacious apartment, with three bedrooms and wood parquet floors, mainly for the view.   My family arrived in 1964 when I was two and Rochdale was still under construction.  I grew up watching the Manhattan skyline about fifteen miles to the West. I saw the World Trade Center being built, with self-erecting cranes atop rising towers that glowed a fiery orange at sunrise. I marveled when the lights atop the Empire State Building were tinted for various occasions: red, white and blue for the fourth of July, orange for Halloween, blue and white in honor of the New York Mets.   I had an unobstructed view of fall foliage, train movements, fires, storms, fireworks displays, and blackouts.

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Rochdale Village was established as a cooperative and named after the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, a group of British skilled workers who, in 1844, banded together to form the first consumers' cooperative to sell items they could not otherwise afford.  Rochdale Village was developed by the United Housing Foundation, a real estate investment trust with roots in the labor union movement. It received crucial support from urban planner and builder Robert Moses and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, along with $86 million in financing from New York State agencies.  Rochdale was experimental in that it was one of the first large urban developments -- twenty fourteen-story, three-section buildings holding nearly six thousand families -- intended to be racially integrated. It was also designed to retain the middle and working classes in New York City instead of losing them to the suburbs.

Rochdale was planned as a walkable and self-contained residential community, with two elementary schools, a middle school, two shopping centers, a medical center, a community center, generous parking, access to public transportation and even its own plant for generating electricity. It was laid out with broad green lawns, a network of walking paths and many playing fields and playgrounds.

The early years of Rochdale seemed to fulfill the its promise. Low housing costs, community amenities and the prospect of living in an integrated community attracted a diverse group of middle and working class people. A multiracial and multicultural community flourished with many racially mixed organizations. My mother taught in one of the elementary schools, and was well-loved in the community. During those early years, we had many friends and I could always find children to play with. 

But Rochdale was not insulated from the crime and racial and class tensions rampant in New York City during the 1960's and 1970's. It was built on the site of the former Jamaica Racetrack in a historically African-American area with solid neighborhoods of private homes as well as low-income housing projects and pockets of extreme poverty.   However, its initial racial composition was 80% Caucasian.  As I grew up, I became less and less comfortable walking around. I got lots of sneers and taunts from many of the kids who used our parks, malls and schools but lived in the surrounding neighborhoods, or who had recently moved to Rochdale from tougher neighborhoods.   By the time we moved out in 1981, all of our Caucasian friends and many of our African-American friends had fled Rochdale for the suburbs or other New York City neighborhoods.

I have not kept in touch with anyone in Rochdale Village, but the community website and demographic data suggest a thriving, overwhelmingly African-American community, and crime statistics show very significant reductions over the last twenty years.

I grew up with two views of city life: the skyline and the experimental community.   I learned that cities are fascinating, complex and organic--always full of possibility but often beyond our control.

For this article, I referred to Rochdale Village and the rise and fall of integrated housing in New York City by historian and former resident Peter Eisenstadt, whose forthcoming book Rochdale Village: Robert Moses, 6,000 Families, and New York City's Great Experiment in Integrated Housingcan now be ordered in advance.


  1. Yes, I grew up in Rochdale too, living there from 1964-1971 as one of the original kids in the development. To see the development rise right in front of me as a seven year old was an incredible memory that I will never forget.

    And yes, it was an incredible place to grow up, especially in the early years. Everybody was basically in the same boat financially, and everyone got along spectacularly, at least from my childhood viewpoint.

    When Martin Luther King was murdered, things changed, and they changed rapidly. The outside community finally had a rallying point to take out their aggression on the community. I have found out in later years that their venom was not just directed at whites, but at everybody living in the development.

    The schools became flashpoints for much of this aggression, in particular, I.S. 72, the junior high there which became little more than a zoo during my years there. Even dedicated teachers of all backgrounds could make sense of the Wild West atmosphere that was prevalent there.

    Yes, most of the original residents moved in the early to mid 1970s, having had enough of the changes in the development and the changes in New York City as a whole.

    However, I look at my experience there as something that was absolutely incredible in a positive way. Sure, we were guinea pigs in a way, but those years--and in particular, those early years--demonstrated that any living arrangement is possible if done right.

    And Rochdale was done right, only to be pummeled by the weight of its direction and goals.

  2. Larry,

    Thanks for your post. I couldn't agree more with your analysis. I was six when MLK was murdered, and remember attending a memorial event in the community center with my mother, and not completely grasping the significance of what was going on.

    The early years at Rochdale did have a utopian quality, only to be sullied by vandalism, intimidation and other petty crimes. My mother taught primary grades in one of the community rooms occupied by Public School 30, and was extraordinarily dedicated and loved by the community. But one day, her purse was snatched from her desk when she stepped out of the classroom for a moment to get supplies or confer with the teacher next door.

    I was glad to see your blog, The Rochdaleans, and will subscribe to it.



  3. A fascinating piece, Iver - thank you. I've learned over the years that your closing comment, "complex and organic--always full of possibility but often beyond our control" is as true of corporate organizations as it is of cities, or probably, any form of organization. That's where the fallacy of "organizational change management" becomes a fallacy - to imply change can be managed is to imply it can be controlled. I'm not so sure it can!