A Little About Rockaway and Community Economic Development

In NLLSA on April 25, 2011 by aburkle

A postcard from the 1950's, when Rockaway was a major amusement destination for New York

As a young high school student, I dreaded the arrival of summer vacation. Unlike many of my fellow classmates who impatiently anticipated the last day of classes and looked forward to goofing off for twelve careless weeks, I already couldn’t wait for next fall.

I liked staying busy. Aside from academics, I was actively involved in sports teams and other extracurriculars during the year. My schedule was always packed with activities; time had a purpose and gave my days structure and routine. I felt productive and satisfied.

But after the last day of school, this structure disappeared. No longer did I have to commute on the subway to Manhattan for school. With no place to go or reason to leave, I’d “stay local,” in Rockaway, Queens.

I kept busy with part-time jobs, and trained for the upcoming cross-country season, but schedules became memories and began to fade. Time slowed and stretched; days soon blended into one another. The intense summer heat seemed to escape from the cracks on the sidewalks where wildgrass sprouted like my morning cowlicks, uncombed.

Since Stuyvesant High School was mostly a commuter school, and only three students (a high number) hailed from Rockaway, I had few friends around the neighborhood. I felt isolated, wholly disconnected from the mainstream, and discouraged.

Running along the boardwalk, I’d pass a series of nursing homes, many in disrepair. These sprung up in the 1970’s, when the City, seeking a distant and unseen corner to tuck away its unwanted residents, chose Rockaway as the destination for former psychiatric patients suffering from various forms of dementia. The large number of patients settling in Rockaway created a high demand for facilities, which private developers met with overcrowded homes below government standards. Government agencies did not interfere, and corruption was common.[1] Some, driven by opportunism and greed, took advantage of the acute need for social services and, instead of delivering adequate facilities, essentially stole from the community.

The old suffering boardwalk planks have been replaced by new ones...

Along the side streets from the boardwalk, even along the main commercial street in town, stood abandoned theaters and commercial spaces, old hotels shoddily converted to group homes and methadone clinics.  Vacant lots pocked the neighborhood throughout, grown over with weeds, collecting litter and debris. Drug activity—sale, purchase, and consumption—flourished quietly and unchecked in broad daylight around dilapidated houses. This place was clearly haunted by neglect—affecting the residents just as much as the physical surroundings. The urban decay of an empty parking lot on a hot day became particularly unsettling. Soon enough, the ghosts started crawling under your skin.[1.5]

The apparent deterioration of the neighborhood weighs heavily on the residents and is a catalyst for the impulse to leave the community. A neighborhood’s physical condition and the residents’ attitudes and states of mind are intimately intertwined, as respected social scientists and observers have written.[2] I didn’t look back when it was time to leave for college, but now I’ve returned to live at home during law school. Conditions have greatly improved.

In recent years Rockaway has experienced a revival, although old challenges remain and new ones have emerged. Local schools lag behind city averages in reading and math scores;[3] certain areas have been acutely affected by the mortgage crisis[4]; unemployment remains higher than the average for the rest of the city[5]. While much of the community is racially and culturally diverse, other portions remain doggedly segregated.[6] But an influx of new residents, many immigrants from Latin America and Eastern Europe, has resurrected the peninsula’s economy. Polish  services have been added to the programs of local churches, complementing the services in Spanish, which were added long ago. Local community development corporations (CDC) have played an important role in revitalizing the community. Even as early as the 1960’s, the Rockaway Community Corporation (RCC) launched a successful publicity campaign to combat lead poisoning in the area, and also prevented the closing of the local Legal Aid Office. More recently, the Rockaway Development & Revitalization Corporation has worked to recharge the economy by providing job training, counseling for small businesses, home buyers,  and youth development. Another organization, the Margert Community Corporation, has focused on developing decent and affordable housing in the area,while providing foreclosure counseling and a host of other services needed by the community. The local shelters and homes for seniors are no longer in disrepair: most have undergone extensive renovations inside and out, and have become community centers.[6.5]

A legal education has kicked open the doors to a larger awareness of society. I no longer see myself as detached from my community, but rather see an opportunity to take an active role as an aspiring community advocate in helping to find solutions.

In struggling neighborhoods, communal ties between residents tend to suffer. Without strong ties among community members, social organization, the life blood of the community, also declines.   According to William Julius Wilson, an absence of social organization triggers other problems that in turn damage social organization even further, including crime, gang violence, and family breakups [7]. The cycle reinforces itself: residents and families leave, which further encourages others to follow. The result is a “downward spiral of disinvestment.” [8] In revitalizing declining neighborhoods, Community Economic Development strategies are intended to combat community members’ isolation from each other and rekindle ties. CED does this by helping create voluntary associations, nonprofit organizations, small businesses, and empowering residents in the process.

By Eko

I am currently participating in Fordham’s Community Economic Development clinic. What drew me to this field of law is the ability and tools to enact systemic change, the promise of achieving lasting and significant improvements in vulnerable communities, and raise our own standard of living. There is no need for our neighborhoods to remain neglected and unwanted places; with work, creative and effective strategies, and perseverance, our neighborhoods, communities, and families can thrive. We can improve our lives in important ways, increase opportunities, and have happy and healthy communities. I encourage you to explore your own community, its history, and the field of CED to see how you can take an active role in its improvement. I also encourage you to go to law school.

Arthur, his mother Anna, and Hillary Exter from Fordham's Public Interest Resource Center at Fordham LALSA's Annual Alumni and Awards Dinner on April 19th, 2011.


Arthur Burkle is a second-year student at Fordham University School of Law and serves as NLLSA’s Community Service Director. He is the outgoing Community Affairs Chair for Fordham’s Latin American Law Student Association, and incoming Co-President along with Christina Miranda, a fellow second-year student and current LALSA Vice President.

[2] William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears 7 (1996); Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid 131-32 (1993).

[4] Id.

[6] Kaplan 133


[7] Wilson 21

[8] William H. Simon, The Community Economic Development Movement 45 (2001)


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