Ex-residents of Rochdale Village reminisce

Some of the first residents of Rochdale Village, located in Jamaica, Queens, celebrated the housing complex's 50th anniversary at a party at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Lynbrook. Videojournalist: Johnny Milano (Oct. 5, 2013)

In a crowded party room at the Knights of Columbus hall in Lynbrook, former residents of a sprawling New York City development in Queens called Rochdale Village gathered for a reunion, marveling at the years that had passed and childhood memories that had never faded.

In many ways, they remembered the South Jamaica housing complex as paradise found. The co-op apartments they shared with their families were far more spacious than the cramped quarters they previously called home. But best of all, the complex was abundant in new kids to befriend, games to play and outdoor spaces to roam -- without parents fretting over their whereabouts.

"It was an urban Mayberry," said Massapequa Park resident Larry Lapka, 56, comparing Rochdale to the homey town depicted in Andy Griffith's television show that ran from 1960 to 1968. "Everyone knew everybody. I had hundreds of friends," said Lapka, who was among several Rochdale alumni who organized the gathering.

About 150 former residents attended the gathering in early October. Smaller groups have met in the past, but this was the largest organized reunion by far, Lapka said. Many live on Long Island, in New York City and upstate. Others traveled from Maryland, North Carolina, Florida and California to attend. To an outsider, it could've been any boomers' high school reunion, with loud '60s music and everyone trying to hear or be heard on myriad topics.

Snippets of conversations filled the large room, decorated with green and yellow balloons.

"I haven't seen these people since they were 14," one person remarked.

"You were one heck of a hockey player in Section 4," said another.

Some stood on the sidelines of the dance floor as others let loose to music by Barry White, Chaka Khan and Donna Summer, resurrecting the freestyle moves of their youth.

The reunion featured vestiges of the past. There was a slideshow with 600 snapshots from the 1960s and early 1970s. In the center of the room was a table with black square markings and bottle caps, weighted with melted crayon wax that recalled a once-popular pavement game known as "skully." Souvenir gift bags included a pink Spalding rubber ball, a skully bottle cap, Pop Rocks and miniature wax-bottle candies with syrup.

But the alumni needed little to prompt memories of their old community.

"Rochdale was nothing like today," with kids needing money for movies and the mall, noted Susan Higgs, 58, a Home Depot cashier from Hempstead. "We used to go outside, play ball, jump rope, roller-skate and take walks in the community."

Organizers said the reunion's timing was inspired by Rochdale's 50th anniversary; the complex had welcomed its first residents in December 1963. The development of 20 buildings, each with 14 floors, was built on what was once a racetrack and was conceived as an integrated, all-inclusive co-op development.

When completed, the Rochdale complex spread across 120 acres with 5,860 apartments. The buildings were clustered into five groups of four buildings. Within the enclave were playgrounds, basketball courts, a ballfield, fountains, two shopping malls, three schools and a community center.A project of master builder Robert Moses and the United Housing Federation -- which was rooted in the Jewish labor movement -- the cooperative was distinctive for its size, location (in the third- largest African-American neighborhood in New York City) and its significant achievement as an integrated co-op, according to historian Peter Eisenstadt of Clemson, S.C. Eisenstadt, 59, is a former village resident and author of "Rochdale Village: Robert Moses, 6,000 Families, and New York City's Great Experiment in Integrated Housing" (Cornell University Press, 2010).

The village was created under the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, which gave developers financial incentives, such as low-interest government-subsidized mortgages, to encourage the building of affordable housing for moderate-income families. Buying there required a down payment of $400 for each room, and monthly carrying charges averaged $21 a room. A 61/2-room apartment, for example, cost $1,200 a year, according to Eisenstadt's book.

For some people, moving to Rochdale was an expression of their commitment to racial integration; for others, it was simply a good deal. "The apartments were very nice and spacious, and it was an inexpensive place to raise a family," providing residents with the opportunity to save for a home, Eisenstadt said in a phone interview.

Seaford residents David Benson, 58, a retired plumber, and his wife, Sandra, 56, an executive assistant at a bank, had both lived in the development as kids but met years after moving away. Mutual friends, who also had resided in the complex, introduced them.

While Rochdale's affordability paved the way for David Benson's parents to save enough for a house in Far Rockaway, where they could indulge their love of the beach, the purchase had not been part of their master plan, said Benson, who, along with his wife, helped organize the reunion. "When they moved to Rochdale, that was the American dream," he said. "But it shattered."

Good memories aside, Rochdale's mission -- to be an integrated community -- failed. The vibrant complex experienced a mass exodus of white residents between the late 1960s and early 1970s, attributed, in part, to a monthslong 1968 city teachers' strike, which "revolved around race" and "left the co-op divided," Eisenstadt said. The "fabric of integration" was hopelessly destroyed. Crime increased, too.

Today, Rochdale's image is less glorious than the one fondly recalled at the reunion. A 2011 "docufiction" video on YouTube about Rochdale Village, directed by Hideki Torpedo, is narrated by a young "resident" who talks about the many offerings and conveniences of the community. But the young voice is critical of "the management" and says, "I hate when I see bums and crackheads in my building. They mess everything up . . . Just look at our staircase. It looks like a dump, for real." The youngster's family will likely move from the place where they've enjoyed living, the narrator says.

Former resident Debbie Ashkenazy, 58, who now lives in Oceanside, can relate to declining conditions. She recalled being accosted in the early 1970s by a couple of girls who wanted her pocketbook. A village security guard frightened them away before they could do harm. But, Ashkenazy said, there were many joyful moments there, too. It's where she met her future husband, Hymie, when they were both 14. The couple wed in 1977. "We were the king and queen of Rochdale," said Ashkenazy, who serves as the office manager in the Lynbrook law firm where Hymie, 58, is a partner.

Hymie's fond memories include playing baseball and football on gravel, until a park was built within the village.

Daveen Dean, 60, a freelance fine artist in Plainview who attended the reunion, wrote in an email that Rochdale provided her with lasting friendships, and she is grateful for the "social experiment that was Rochdale," which she called "an amalgam of individuals from different social backgrounds." She noted, "Rochdale was a financial game-changer," giving her parents the chance to save for a down payment on a house in Mineola.

Lynbrook resident Anita Starr, 84, a retired English and social studies teacher who taught some of the reunion's attendees and lived in the village from 1965 to 1975, said she relished the community's diversity and had expected to spend the rest of her life there.

"I was always hopeful that it would be a model for integrated living and education," she said. But, as she tells it, her husband, a hospital administrator who died 30 years ago, pushed for their migration to the suburbs. He had always wanted to live in a house, she said, and had come to feel unsafe in the development's unguarded parking lot when returning home late from work.

"I was very reluctant to move," said Starr. "They were 101/2 of the best years of my life."

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