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Rockaway Point Action Committee

Seated right to left
In addition to (right to left) Joseph Wengler, representing the RPA, Martin Moran of the PBA and Joe Stehn of the RPA, Chairman John Hale, Vice-Chair Dan Scannell, Ruth Clark as Secretary; the membership included William Ulbright as Treasurer, along with Francis Fleeson, Gus Guida, Alexander Greeley, Frank Concannon, Kenneth Thornhill, Joseph Kearns, Edward Barnett, Howard Noonan, Vincent Fetch, John F.X. O’Connor, Thomas Powers, Thomas Fitzgerald, Thomas Seningen, Edward Robinson, and Charles Waters.

The diligence and quick action in 1960 of the Joint Action Committee, too often little remembered today, saved the tenant summer colonies of Breezy Point, Rockaway Point and Roxbury from eviction. They created ways to block a developer’s purchase of all three communities. Instead, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, they negotiated a deal whereby we would purchase most of the property. Then, they conceptualized a new governing and ownership structure for the merged communities that soon birthed the Breezy Point Cooperative, Inc., itself a new, hybrid, kind of communal property ownership. Their efforts and accomplishments were truly existential. This year, we induct the Joint Action Committee into the BPHS Hall of Fame.

Much of what occurred during a few critical months in 1960 likely isn’t known by present generations. How a new, single, incorporated community was formed out of what might have been the wreckage of three small seasonal bungalow colonies which might have ended up as unremembered footnotes to regional history is a fascinating story. Today we tend to think of Breezy Point, Rockaway Point and Roxbury almost as neighborhoods within the same community, but these identities and the geography were very different prior to 1960. Although there was a common landlord - the Rockaway Point Development Company over the prior half century - the three communities had distinct identities. Each was relatively self-governing under its own homeowner’s Association which established its own by-laws, often enforced by its network of block captains, and each provided its own social services. Each had its own Volunteer Fire Department, churches and commercial centers, and even its own docks. Yes, there was a common landlord, the Rockaway Point Development Company, but each “colony” pretty much ran its own affairs. Although they physically adjacent in some locations, any merger was not easily anticipated, nor anticipated to be necessary. After Labor Day 1959, families trudged back to their winter homes, and expected that the summer of 1960 would pick up where 1959 had left off. However, suddenly changed circumstances forced a rethinking. As a result, at the end of a dramatic and very uncertain process over several months in 1960, by January 1961, we were merged into one community under a new kind of leadership that took on a role never exercised by the former landlord. As a further result, we are where we are today, a remarkably stable community which is one of the largest residential cooperatives in the country.

What Breezy Point might have been without the incredible efforts of the Rockaway Point Joint Action Committee.
What Breezy Point might have been without the incredible efforts of the Rockaway Point Joint Action Committee.

In March 1960, the Rockaway Point Development Company signed a contract with a developer for the sale of the Rockaway Peninsula, excepting Fort Tilden, from the Marine Parkway Bridge to the jetty for $17.5 million. The developer’s dream was to build a “city within a city” that would dwarf any prior development in New York City’s history. When word leaked out, the Rockaway Point Association’s leadership quickly persuaded the Point Breeze and Roxbury Associations to join in a common defense. Although each community had deep social ties which provided a foundation of strength, these events were occurring off-season when most residents were in their home neighborhoods, and the financial circumstances doubtless were daunting.However, a critical ingredient of the planning was a reservoir of deep talent, not only in the Associations’ leadership, but also residents skilled in business, banking and the law. Together, they organized what became known as the Joint Action Committee. The JAC was aided by countless volunteers who carried out a massive letter writing campaign to elected officials and city residents, bumper stickers flooded the city, and a fundraising telephone campaign soon amassed a remarkable cash cushion of $1 million. A constant liaison was maintained between the JAC, usually meeting many times each week, and nervous tenants who faced losing their homes, often built or bought with families’ life savings. Meanwhile, the JAC’s legal maneuvering, with help from friends in government, consistently reduced the scope of the proposed development and, with that, the developer’s profits. By August an alternate deal was taking shape: the tenants would purchase the major part of the property for $12 million, 250 bungalows could be relocated, and bank financing was explored. The JAC leadership proposed that a new unified community be created out of the three summer colonies which would be owned and managed cooperatively. Over Labor Da weekend, squads of volunteers termed Minutemen went door-to-door to explain the proposal, enlist tenants’ support, and collect an assessment of $500 from each to fund a downpayment. A renegotiated sale was finalized and financing was arranged. On November 17, 1960, the Breezy Point Cooperative, Inc., a unique community, was created. The next day, the JAC entered the contract, the downpayment was paid, and the sale closed in January 1961.

Many of the JAC formed the Coop’s first Board or were Executive officers. Their collective skills, experience and imagination created what we think of today as a gift from heaven. But it was no gift. It took skills, dedication, and constant attention to detail. It has taken the faith, work and skills of countless people now over several generations to keep it going. But the nucleus was a relatively small group of people who engineered this minor miracle in the face of imminent disaster over a few short frantic months during 1960. They blocked a massive development, persuaded the parties already in contract to renegotiate their deal, and engineered the largest property transfer in New York City history, giving new life to what otherwise would have been communities living on borrowed time. Their legacy continues today.

Article by Kevin Anthony Reilly (past president).