How New York City’s Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor
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.”