In 1939, when the WPA Guide to New York Citywas first published, South Queens, and particularly the area around what would become Rochdale Village, had little to recommend the visitor.
"Springfield, Laurelton and Rosedale, at the southeastern extremity of the borough, are undistinguished products of the Queens building boom of the 1920s," the WPA Guide reads, without elaboration.
The neighborhood's lone tourist attraction was the now-defunct Jamaica Race Track, which opened in 1903. The 1959 renovation of the Aqueduct Racetrack in nearby South Ozone Park obsolesced the former, which was demolished to make way for a new housing cooperative—what would be the world's largest until the completion of Co-op City in 1971.
Rochdale Village was, from the get-go, a vision of utopia. Developed under the auspices of the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, the cooperative was built to provide affordable housing for low- and middle-income families. The name—pronounced ROTCH-dale—derives from the eponymous English town whose guild of weavers drew up what became known as the Rochdale principles: open membership, democratic control, political and religious neutrality, and so forth.
The brainchild of—who else—Robert Moses, the complex, designed by cooperative housing pioneer Herman Jessor, drew its inspiration from the Le Corbusier "city-within-a-city" paradigm. Although antithetical to the urban planning models proposed by Jane Jacobs, who apotheosized sidewalks, stoops, and streets, Jessor's design is impressive in size and scope. Five circles of four buildings—20 total—rise majestically from an outlying neighborhood of row houses, earning the development the sobriquet "The Jewel of Jamaica." In addition to the 5,860 residential units, Rochdale Village's 120 acres boast two public schools, a police station, a library, two malls and its own power plant. Transportation is also convenient: JFK Airport is a short cab ride away, and the Locust Manor station on the Long Island Railroad is within walking distance.
However romantically conceived, Rochdale Village fell from idealistic grace before ground was even broken. Blacks were barred outright from working on its construction. What had been a sleepy Queens outpost became a battleground for the nascent civil rights movement. William Booth, who would head Mayor John V. Lindsay's Human Rights Commission later in the decade, was among 23 protestors arrested for blocking truck access to the construction site in 1961.
Blacks were allowed to live in some of the units, however. When Rochdale Village opened in 1963, African-Americans occupied about ten percent of the apartments in what was originally a Jewish enclave. As racial tensions seethed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, attended by an uptick in violent crime, many of the occupants moved to the suburbs—the so-called "White Flight." (This was the dark period of New York history when subways were coated in perpetual graffiti, the city hovered on the brink of bankruptcy, and the Daily Newsran the famous headline FORD TO NYC: DROP DEAD). Some of the apartments were scooped up by blacks and other people of color, but many were simply abandoned. With the vacant units came a loss of revenue, which led to a decline of services, which led to even more crime.
Rochdale Village was not Urban Utopia but Failed Housing Project.
But the community rebounded. Crime rates dropped, maintenance improved, turnover stabilized. The foundation of the rebirth was one of the ownership requirements: Rochdale Village is 100 percent owner-occupied, which serves to make the population less transient.
In a 1997 piece in the New York Times, Charlie LeDuff wrote, "Under new management, Rochdale has become a preferred residence for middle-class black people. There are only nine vacancies. The grounds are well kept; there is a community garden."
But even this rare mention in the paper of record was tinged with Manhattan-centric snobbery. The article concerned a massive "assault" on rats in Southeastern Queens. Even though every person associated with Rochdale Village—the property manager, the director of maintenance, the chairman of the board—vehemently denied the presence of any rats, let alone enough to warrant such an offensive, Leduff could not resist noting that the cooperative was nicknamed (by who, he does not say) "The Vermin Capital of Queens" and punning on the unfortunate homonym of "Roch" and the colloquialism for a certain insect endemic to New York.
Today, Rochdale Village is still called the Jewel of Jamaica, and it lives up to the designation—although not in the way you might think.
"It's a desirable place to live in Jamaica," says Mamie Freeman, the newly-minted general manager of Rochdale Village. "With almost 6,000 families on only 120 acres, it brings in a lot of money, it brings in a lot of jobs. I think that's why they call it the Jewel."
The demographics have also changed a bit.
"It's a diversified community," Freeman says. "There's a large senior population, a large youth population. There's a little bit of everything."
This is no artist colony, or redoubt for singles on the make. One of the few places in the city where a three-bedroom apartment is affordable, Rochdale Village is a haven for families. As such, there is quite a bit going on. There are any number of churches, youth groups, childcare and toddler programs, and other programs and organizations geared towards family living. Queens Community Board 12, which includes Rochdale Village, is particularly active. City Councilman Thomas White, Jr., a Rochdale Village resident, spons ors an annual Banner Day picnic and parade at nearby Baisley Park that is well-attended.
Generally, the residents' collective mood mirrors that of the original developers: optimistic.
"It's getting better," says Freeman, when asked where she thinks Rochdale Village is headed. "It's an integral part of the revitalization of the community. And it's a good, sound financial investment."
In the coming months and beyond, Rochdale Village will have two challenges to overcome. One is a matter of age, the other a matter of money, but both threaten to disrupt what is a delicate balance in South Queens.
Although exact numbers are not available, the population of Rochdale Village—over 25,000, according to the official website—skews older. As the years go by, and the older residents go, the complexion of the community will inevitably change. In all likelihood, the young population of the Village will replace them, but the future is uncertain.
More exigent, and still very much an ongoing story, is the effect of the subprime lending crisis on Rochdale Village. Kel Sawyer, a local resident whose blog, The Progressive Southside, focuses on community issues in the "South of South Jamaica" area, frequently sounds the alarm on the problem.
"To say modestly," he says, "dozens of Southeast Queens homeowners will lose their home this year because they won't be able to pay their mortgage."
According to an August 2007 report by state Senator Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester), an analysis of foreclosures from July 2006 through July 2007 by zip code, Jamaica-Rochdale Village's 11434 postal area reported 450 filings—the most in the Borough of Queens. Granted, the territory comprising the 11434 zip code is vast, and mostly outside the confines of the Jewel of Jamaica. And while Rochdale Village is unlikely to experience a nadir like the early 1970s when so many units were vacant, it is not difficult to imagine the subprime lending crisis adversely impacting the community.
"I see a large population of middle-class families fighting hard to stay here," says Freeman.
Help could be on the way. In August 2007, Senator John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) introduced a bill to establish an urban homeowners' assistance program, designed to staunch the proverbial bleeding. Middle-income and minority families—which would potentially include Rochdale households in dire straits—stand to benefit if the bill passes.
No matter what happens with the subprime mortgage crisis, or how the senior population is replaced when the time comes, Rochdale Village residents are right to be optimistic. The cooperative has survived crises that destroyed similar neighborhoods, and is in the midst of a kind of renaissance. How could such a place suffer slings and arrows and rebound? By being what Robert Moses conceived it to be back in 1959—an idealistic community.
Greg Olear is a freelance writer, editor, web designer, astrologer and stay-at-home dad living in Highland, New York.