Joseph W. Stehn
Joe Stehn was a leader during a pivotal point in our Community’s history, the formation and infancy of the Cooperative. However, his pedigree in the community reaches back to his childhood. Joe rose to the rank of Major in the United States Army, was married in 1943 to Diane Decker with whom he had two children, Kenneth and Theresa, returned home to earn an Engineering degree at Manhattan College and established a home in Roxbury. He was elected the Mayor of Roxbury in 1950, and was instrumental in the construction of the Mayor’s Clubhouse. Joe Stehn’s convivial life in Roxbury dramatically changed in 1960. Along with Ruth Clarke, the Joint Action Committee of which he was a leading member, and early members of what became the Cooperative’s first Board of Directors, Joe Stehn had to navigate our landlord’s attempt to sell the property out from under us and the interest in building a “luxury city within a city”. This required a delicate combination of toughness and diplomacy as negotiations ensued with the Urban Development Corporation and the Rockaway Point Development Corporation through a perilous period when the likelihood that we would lose our homes was very real.
Although the initial challenge was how to save our homes, the closely related challenge was what to do with the property should we succeed. Today, the formation of coops consisting of vertical structures is commonplace. Not only was it more unusual in 1960, but incorporating what in effect was a summer village spread over 500 acres between two coastlines was unprecedented. Yet, the financing was obtained, the community was incorporated as a residential cooperative and Joe Stehn was appointed in 1961 to be the Coop’s first General Manager. However, being a manager requires having an organization to manage. Joe Stehn had to create the organizational structure that in large part persists very successfully to this day. It took a strong, disciplined and focused leadership to rebirth our community as something new, to manage our finances, hire and maintain a workforce for a seasonal community, and to start the long process of evolving out of a cluster of summer bungalows into a more permanent community.
Seemingly moments after we incorporated Hurricane Donna flooded ashore in 1962, as was said with dismay at the time, the ocean met the bay. Meanwhile, the high-rise buildings went up on AIC property just outside the Gate, their hulking presence not only an eyesore but also an ever-present reminder that our way of life remained under constant threat. And in creating Gateway National Recreation Area in 1972, Congress wrote into the very legislative enactment the stated ambition of acquiring an adequate interest in our property.
The less dramatic but, nevertheless, critical needs of infrastructure also had to be addressed, and always on a tight budget today. For decades, the long-term needs of a summer bungalow colony under the prior landlord could be deferred or even ignored. Joe Stehn, in addition to all the daily operational responsibilities of a village manager, also had to oversee major transitions in infrastructure. Crumbly roads needed reinforcement and resurfacing, and new streets were laid out as new plots were sold and homes east of Reid Avenue were moved in. The primitive water had to be winterized and expanded, and hydrants had to be installed. Chronically splintering wooden walkways were replaced by concrete. Old structures were removed, new parking lots were built. Joe Stehn also oversaw the development of the new shopping center which opened in 1967 and continues to serve us these several decades later. New York City and Long Island can look to Robert Moses as the architect of their modern physical design, we had Joe Stehn.
In 1975, Joe, now widowed, married Jane Walsh. In 1985, he was appointed to Community Board 14 and was a director of Peninsula Hospital. He also became President of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce. He was a member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation, the Catholic Club, and a continuing member of the Mayor’s Club of Roxbury.
On July 19, 1986, Joe Stehn retired from the position of our General Manager after 25 years of service. He died on November 24, 1987. In the final analysis, Joe Stehn’s tenure was one where we as a community constantly moved forward, always improving, deepening our roots, solidifying our finances, and, as evidenced by our recovery from Hurricane Sandy, the result is that Breezy Point is here to stay. By honoring Joseph W. Stehn at this 2018 Hall of Fame Dinner, the Breezy Point Historical Society is recognizing his seminal role in creating our corporate government and the physical community that is our home today.