Long Island

Rockville Centre

In this sought-after community, scars remain from long-ago 'urban renewal'

Minority residents mostly live in West Side of Rockville Centre, a village where Newsday’s testing found white homebuyers were far more likely than others to be offered a listing.

In Rockville Centre, a south shore village in Nassau County, the sports fields bustle with youth soccer and lacrosse teams and the restaurants and bars downtown attract lively crowds.

The bells ring for mass from the imposing three-level tower at the Cathedral of St. Agnes, seat of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which ministers to Catholics in Long Island’s two counties.

It’s a place where generations of families settle, attend well-regarded schools and have a quick train ride into the city.

While attending the highly rated schools is a benefit open to all, where you live in Rockville Centre makes a difference.

For some, a Tudor-style home on a wide, leafy street is an option. The median price for a home in Rockville Centre was $615,000 in 2017, according to the 2013-17 American Community Survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau. The Multiple Listing Service of Long Island put the median price at $612,500 in June 2019.

Otherwise, you may live on the West Side.

That’s where the majority of black families reside in Rockville Centre, in public housing created by a 1960s urban renewal project that uprooted the black community there and was among the most contentious of such projects on Long Island.

Hispanic residents are concentrated in apartments, live over stores or in smaller homes.

Heading still west across Peninsula Boulevard is another section with a Rockville Centre ZIP code made up mostly of black people, although children there attend schools in the predominantly minority Malverne district.

Rockville Centre does not have the whitest complexion on Long Island – 75 percent of its residents are white, compared with 90 percent in Garden City and 86 percent in nearby Oceanside, for example, according to U.S. Census figures.

A Newsday investigation of home-selling practices on Long Island, however, found this community to be one in which white home buyers were significantly more likely to be offered a listing than were minorities.

Tonya Thomas, her husband and two daughters are a black family that has lived in a highly desirable area of Rockville Centre since 2004. They landed in the village after they looked for homes on the North Shore and Garden City but couldn’t find a suitable place within their budget.

They also experienced resistance in some of those communities, Thomas said, including people not answering the door for scheduled showing appointments or arriving to an address to find that the home supposedly had been sold just minutes before.

When told of Newsday’s findings involving Rockville Centre, she said it was not surprising given Long Island’s history with segregated neighborhoods.

“Although my husband and I did not have a negative house-buying experience in Rockville Centre, I cannot say that that was the case for many communities that we visited on Long Island,” she said. “It took us two years to find a house.”

She said Rockville Centre is a wonderful community with lots of amenities where her family has been “blessed” to have great neighbors and an excellent school district where her children have thrived.

“It can be challenging finding a community that provides all the resources and experiences that one wants for their family,” Thomas said. “We all, no matter who we are or where we come from, want the same things.”

The black-white racial history of Rockville Centre began early in the 20th century in a neighborhood on the village’s West Side.

She was forced out of her Rockville Centre home

Black families, many of them Southern migrants working as domestics or laborers, found modest housing in an explicitly segregated area north of Sunrise Highway up to Lakeview Avenue, and east of Peninsula to North Centre Avenue. Ernestine Small, now 82 and living in senior housing in Uniondale, recalled growing up in the West Side neighborhood in the 1940s and ’50s, the daughter of a bank caretaker and a domestic who came north in search of a better life. Not all the housing was run down, she said, and the neighborhood was active and cohesive.

“Our life was good,” she recalled in an interview. “I came out of a working family. My father had a beautiful garden, and all he raised my mother canned and cooked, so we had plenty.”

She joined her community’s all-black Girls Scout troop and 4-H Club, and she was active in her church, St. Paul AME, which was then on Randall Avenue, she said. “I had the love and support of my community and my church.”

For the 1960s urban renewal, the original plan devised by village trustees would have replaced housing and stores in the black neighborhood with commercial and office space and some middle-income housing – with no new housing for the displaced residents of more modest means.

Demolition started in late 1961. By 1963, the federal and state housing agencies forced the village to include moderate-cost and public housing in the plan and produce an accurate count of residents who would be eligible for it.

The first houses demolished in the renewal area belonged to black and white middle-income homeowners in the northern section, from Maine Avenue to Lakeview, west of North Centre Avenue. First down were the homes of the two leaders of the homeowners association formed to protest the inclusion of these well-kept houses in the renewal area.

What happened to the two families – one white, one black – goes to the heart of the racial reality in the village at that time.

The West Side Property Owners Association was led by black attorney Clem Ransom and white pharmacist Charles Benincasa, neighbors across Maine Avenue. When it became clear their houses would be demolished, they looked for homes elsewhere in the village.

In a Newsday article the month his house was razed, Clem Ransom said he and his family had moved out of the village to integrated Hempstead. They had failed to find an available house in Rockville Centre, didn’t want the stress of essentially “blockbusting” a white block and were disgusted by the village’s treatment in any case.

The Benincasas, on the other hand, were able to find a home a few blocks away on Lakeview Avenue.

Richard Benincasa, now of Merrick and a pharmacist like his father, said the family never considered leaving Rockville Centre.

“I would have been sorry to leave Rockville Centre but that never occurred to me,” he said, recalling he was a teen at the time, attending parochial school in the village. “My dad had a business in town and he wanted to stay. My life didn’t change at all … I don’t know what happened to the black families in the neighborhood.”

What happened to the black homeowners was dispersion and displacement. Many bought homes in Lakeview, Hempstead, Freeport and other communities where blacks were clustered.

Ruth Ransom, 94-year-old widow of Clem and now living in an apartment in Hempstead, recalled the events of 1961 clearly. These events “leave a permanent, almost indelible memory. I can see that house, and feel a sense of loss,” she said in a recent interview.

“I realize it was just a reflection of what goes on – the powerful people do what they want, they have their own agenda and protesting doesn’t move their needle very far.”

Her husband, she said, was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and received a law degree from Fordham Law School. He had a law office in Harlem, and she worked for a time as a legal secretary.

The loss of their house had a pronounced effect on her children, a daughter who was in junior high school and a son in elementary school. Ronald Ransom, now a retired probation officer living in Virginia, recalled the big house on a large corner lot with wonder and affection.

“We were probably well off considering we had this house, a great huge house almost like a castle to a kid,” he recalled. “I felt comfortable and accepted at school and really I didn’t know that black was something to be different. I found that out when I got to Hempstead.”

Now he thinks his educational opportunities would have been greater had he remained in the well-off community of Rockville Centre, he said. He’d have had greater opportunities to join extracurricular activities, he said, noting that opposing teams appeared better prepared and better equipped than his school’s teams.

“In Hempstead, they steered kids to general education and they landed jobs in the sanitation department,” he said.

But one black man who did go to Rockville Centre schools isn’t sure Ransom would have been better off staying. Prince Shaheed Scott, 23, grew up on the West Side with his mother, Sabrina. He said he got along fine with his classmates but that was because everyone was divided along racial lines. Academically he doesn’t think black students had the same opportunities or institutional encouragement and support.

“I left the district as soon as I could,” Scott said. “It was not good for me and probably many black students.”

Today, black students make up 6 percent of the Rockville Centre schools’ population and Hispanics 13 percent, according to New York State Department of Education statistics for the 2017-18 school year. This compares with 49 percent black and 25 percent Hispanic in the neighboring Malverne district.

In 2018, 78 percent of black graduates received Regents diplomas with advanced designation in Rockville Centre, compared with 95 percent of white graduates and 69 percent of Hispanic graduates. The number for black students was a steep rise from 2017, when 47 percent received advanced Regents diplomas.

All of the 2018 rates far exceeded the state average of 33 percent, the statistics show. “The equity issue is the elephant in the room, and we as a nation have to learn to deal with it,” said school superintendent William Johnson. “It starts with public education. We are the gateway for many of these children. We work hard and diligently to make sure children who come from families who struggle share the aspirations of their classmates.”

That means hand scheduling every class to reflect the community at large, he said, and to provide all students access to the same classes with the support they need.

The impact of the urban renewal project lingered. A 1966 report by the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights found evidence of racism and noted the drop in the number of black residents as a result of the project.

The Rockville Centre school district was ordered by the state education commissioner in 1977 to produce an integration plan affecting 4,000 students in six elementary schools, based on complaints by five couples made the previous year that the Floyd B. Watson School had more than 50 percent minority enrollment. The plan was enacted in 1978.

A decade later, the village police force and village government were ordered by a court to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to compensate a black youth beaten in an arrest.

Scott said there is a dichotomy of being in the community but not of the community. Growing up, he said, he and his friends could meet a suspicious eye from white residents when going for a slice of pizza in the village, and there was always the chance for those who live on the West Side to be targeted by police for common youthful behavior.

“For the white kids, they never seemed to be bothered by those things,” Scott said.

He said Rockville Centre is a nice place to live but not everyone is welcoming.

He said he would not buy a home there.

Briana Britt is 30 and grew up on the West Side, a third-generation resident. She still lives there with her three daughters, ages 14, 8 and 1. She echoed what Scott said about the social climate in high school and how it reflects the greater outside community.

“The black kids hung out with the black kids and the white kids hung out with the white kids, that’s just the way it was,” she said.

She said she remains in Rockville Centre because of the quality of the education the district offers, saying it outweighs the challenges of being a black resident of a predominantly white community.

“I don’t always feel comfortable,” she said. “Sometimes I feel out of place at places like the grocery stores around here.”

She said she feels profiled going into an area home goods store and is sometimes followed by security at a local drug store.

“I don’t steal so I don’t have a problem with it,” she said. “But it’s noticeable.”

Dyondra Wilson grew up on the west side of Peninsula in Lakeview, but her ZIP code is Rockville Centre. She attended Malverne High School. Still, she said she feels like Rockville Centre is home, with options to dine out, shop, go to the movies, the train and attend church.

“There have been a few incidents, but I feel comfortable there,” said Wilson, 25. She is a 2018 SUNY Stony Brook graduate with a degree in journalism.

Wilson was set to start a new job teaching English in South Korea and thinks growing up in a community where she stood out will help her. “Being different, standing out, doesn’t bother me,” she said. “It’s just the way that it is, so you can’t worry about it.”

Tonya Thomas said it’s important everyone knows that learning about and living with people from different cultures and ethnic groups only enhances one’s life experience.

“Encouraging and embracing diversity not only better prepares our children for the world they’ll be leading and living in in the future, but it also makes a community stronger.”

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