Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Sandy and Far Rockaway: Another Tragedy of Urban Planning

I apologize for another post not directly related to Pittsburgh, that I think brings up some relevant urban issues. As many know, I am from NYC and have some knowledge of one of the areas hardest hit by Sandy. My sister, her husband and now my nephew all worked as lifeguards on the same beach in Far Rockaway for many years. For public school teachers this fit in as a fun summer gig. I haven't been there in many years. It's not the most attractive place, dominated by large public housing projects isolated on a long stretch of beach. Far Rockaway, is not just slightly far away from almost anywhere, else in the city- it's really, really far away. Yes, there is a subway, which in theory could take one into Manhattan if one has a spare hour and a half to two hours- if it's running well.

To break the suspense- I always wondered why someone thought concentrating large numbers of poor on a barrier island, exposed to storms, so far a way from jobs, shopping or social opportunities was a good idea.

From The Manhattan Institute,
Blessed with the Atlantic Ocean to the south and Jamaica Bay to the north, the Rockaways became a popular resort area of elegant hotels and fine houses in the 1830s. The coming of the railroad in the 1880s encouraged more intensive development, including playlands, amusement parks and a few apartment buildings. Attractive beachfront communities were developed, such as Belle Harbor, Neponsit, and Arverne. The opening of the Cross Bay Bridge in 1925 and the Marine Parkway Bridge in 1937 made the Rockaways convenient for middle- and working-class households, who bought the bungalows, frequently distributing themselves according to ethnic heritage.

Later, a series of factors related to falling incomes during the depression and the area's long distance from the city sent the Rockaways into decline.
Officials in the Wagner and Lindsay administrations found what they regarded as an answer to decline: build large public housing projects along the gorgeous beach. Today, the old towns of Arverne and Edgemere have some of the highest concentrations of public housing—and crime and unemployment—in New York. The city also used federal and state financing to support the development of dozens of nursing homes.

Um, That's right- city officials thought an isolated island might be a great place to warehouse not just the poor, but also the infirm, elderly.
These days, almost no one regards the Wagner or Lindsay land-use planning decisions favorably. District manager Gaska, for example, calls the Rockaways the Siberia of city government. "For five decades, the city and state governments dumped their problems here," he says. "If you were a problem tenant in public housing, NYCHA sent you here. If you didn't have a job and weren't going to get one, then this was the place for you. When the state government started closing their hospitals, they began placing those with mental disabilities here, but without any services. The Rockaways now has 50 percent of the borough's adult-facility beds. The state just keeps approving new facilities via their sham community approval process. They send us what's called a 60-day letter, telling us they're going to approve a new facility. We say no, and they say, 'Thank you for your opinion; we're going to open it anyway.' One result was that, according to the 1990 Census, one-third of our population was on public assistance.
Yes. and the mentally disabled too- far away from any support system. What happened seems to have been a cycle, in which any project or population that was unwanted in the rest of Queens was dumped on this secluded stretch of land, few people cared about.

No great shock that big problems developed. That's on a good day but add a a big Atlantic storm or hurricane and one has the potential for a massive tragedy. Now the only subway line into Rockaway may be down for months and ocean water has seriously damaged power lines. While I don't expect government to provide instant perfect responses to all disasters, I wish they would stop creating bad situations like they did in The Rockaways. It's one thing to not help people and another to forcibly create communities in which it's hard for people to help themselves.

Update: As of this posting, most people in Far Rockaway have gone 10 days without power, heat, subway service and other basic needs. Another storm is bearing down on the area.

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