Rochdale Village and the Rise and Fall of Integrated Housing in New York City

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When Rochdale Village opened in southeastern Queens in late 1963, it was the largest housing cooperative in the world. When fully occupied its 5,860 apartments contained about 25,000 residents. Rochdale Village was a limited-equity, middle-income cooperative. Its apartments could not be resold for a profit, and with the average per room charges when opened of $21 a month, it was on the low end of the middle-income spectrum. (3) It was laid out as a massive 170 acre superblock development, with no through streets, and only winding pedestrian paths, lined with newly planted trees, crossing a greensward connecting the twenty massive cruciform apartment buildings. Rochdale was a typical urban post-war housing development, in outward appearance differing from most others simply in its size. It was, in a word, wrote historian Joshua Freeman, "nondescript." (4)

Appearances deceive. Rochdale Village was unique; the largest experiment in integrated housing in New York City in the 1960s, and very likely the largest such experiment anywhere in the United States (5). It was located in South Jamaica, which by the early 1960s was the third largest black neighborhood in the city. Blacks started to move to South Jamaica in large numbers after World War I, and by 1960 its population was almost entirely African American. It was a neighborhood of considerable income diversity, with the largest tracts of black owned private housing in the city adjacent to some desperate pockets of poverty. In the late 1950s, there was an exodus of at least 25,000 whites from some of the few remaining mixed areas in South Jamaica. (6) Despite that, at least 80% of the original families in Rochdale were white, the overwhelmingly majority of those were of Jewish background. (7) I was a member of one of those Jewish families, and lived in Rochdale from 1964, when I was ten years old, until 1973.

Rochdale was not isolated from its surrounding community. School children from Rochdale and the surrounding neighborhoods attended racially balanced schools, and their parents shopped in Rochdale's malls and its cooperative supermarkets, the first in South Jamaica. Historian Joshua Freeman notes, "Rochdale seemed to embody everything the civil rights movement ... called for." (8) This was widely recognized at the time. A lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine in 1966 by the veteran radical journalist Harvey Swados sensitively analyzed the problems and promises of integration in Rochdale, concluding, that Rochdale was providing the largest and most important practical test in New York City, of the dominant question of the era--"could blacks and white live together?" (9)

This hope was very much of its time and place. Rochdale Village was one of the most tangible products of a period in New York City's history, from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960, that can be seen, in retrospect, as the apogee of the belief in integration, in theory and in practice. To be sure, support for integration was often shallow and tentative; the opposition was often effective and tenacious; and the final results were in many ways frustratingly meager. Nonetheless, there was a surprisingly wide consensus, often starting from vastly differing perspectives, that reached the conclusion that integration was possible, practical, and necessary, and was the best way to resolve the city's growing racial tensions. In the end, the imbalance between the high-minded rhetoric and the paucity of positive results helped bring this optimistic time to an end. For a variety of reasons, Rochdale Village was an important exception to this pattern, a concrete achievement of the era of integration. (10)

Integration was one of the dominant liberal ideals of the 1950s--at its heart is the conviction that to achieve full incorporation of blacks into American society as equals, persons of different races had to work, learn, play, and live together. As such it was commended by a wide and unstable coalition, ranging from ex-Communists, independent leftists, New Deal Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans, as well as some hard-nosed and utterly pragmatic government officials and business executives. …