By Christina Murray
"A symbolic span over which Westchester and Rockland Counties will move virtually overnight, twenty years into the future" When Governor Thomas F. Dewey made this pronouncement in December of 1955, it does not seem as though even he knew how true his words would be. It took till 1989 and "Field of Dreams" to coin the phrase "If you build it they will come", but someone could have very well made the same observation during the 1950s in reference to Rockland County New York. Both of these statements cannot fully impress into the minds of readers that changes that came with the opening of a single roadway.
After World War II ended
there was a great difference between the number of people who wanted to buy
houses and the number of houses that were available. This caused an increase
of house building and a change in people's way of life. Those decades marked
the beginning of the baby boom and the suburbanization of society. Areas around
major cities were the most influenced by such changes and Rockland County, New
York, a suburb of New York City, was no different. Every spot in Rockland County
lies less then fifty miles from Columbus Circle in Manhattan. This close proximity,
along with the "country-like" atmosphere, attracted many people to
the area. This area was not easily accessible because it was cut off from New
York City by the Hudson River. The building of the Tappan Zee Bridge in 1955
became the gateway to Rockland County and its country atmosphere. Many people
flocked to this area and it soon changed dramatically from a rural landscape
and agricultural economy to a bustling suburb. The changes that came with this
transformation including, population growth, land usage, and infrastructure
forever changed the environment of Rockland County.
Up until the late 1940's Rockland County's landscape was best known for the farms that were scattered on its 110,353 acres. During the first few years of the 1950's this landscape saw the rapid disappearance of farms and agricultural lands. This major change occurred from 1950-1954, when the number of farms in the county shrank from 408 to 139. The majority of the farms lost were less than 100 acres. At the turn of the twenty first century about 25 farms still operated in the county, with a total acreage of just over 600. This is a drastic change from the 18,711 acres that were devoted to farms in 1940. This current farming culture is dominated by nurseries and greenhouses on about 24 acres. Most farms in pre-suburban Rockland County produced tomatoes, strawberries, apples, and other crops. In 1968 county officials said that "since 1960 the urbanizing progress had continued to the point where the number of rural families and settlements is infinitesimal and number of operating farms has reached almost the vanishing point" thereby recognizing the changes that were then occurring involving land usage.
This change in land usage during the early 1950's was precipitated by plans for a bridge over the Hudson River. This bridge was to connect Rockland and Westchester counties between Tarrytown in Westchester and Nyack in Rockland. The building of this bridge would become the first step that facilitated massive changes in the area. Developers and farmers saw the opportunities that would come with this bridge, it would finally allow for easy access to the county's rural land by passenger car. Formerly the two towns had only been linked by ferries, which ran half an hour each way. The Tappan Zee Bridge would allow the thousands of people living in New York City to ride just twenty minutes to the north and find a home. "While some people viewed these changes as certain doom, the flood of newcomers saw the county as an ideal place to pursue the American dream." This American Dream included owning one's own home, good schools, opportunities for well-paying jobs, and close proximity of the city. Many of the people moving away from the city were young couples whose families remained within the five boroughs. With this bridge the people would come, and development would follow them.
On December 15, 1955 the New York State Thruway, along with many others welcomed the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which connected Rockland and Westchester counties for the first time . The first talks of a bridge to link the two river towns of Tarrytown and Nyack came during the 1930's when a thirty minute ferry ride was the only way to get from one bank to the other. These plans were finally abandoned after officials realized how expensive it would be to span the three-mile stretch of river. The base rock of the river floor was no less then fifty feet below the water level and it involved too much money for them to invest. Although the bridge project was abandoned for monetary reasons, the project came under fire for other reasons. "Baldwin told a war department public hearing that the proposed bridge would ruin his tranquil village." Ralph Baldwin was the Mayor of South Nyack in 1935 when the bridge was originally proposed. His comments were echoed by the majority of the town people at the time. And rightfully so when the bridge did finally come through twenty years later 74 houses in South Nyack were somehow effected by the bridge construction along with 43 other buildings including a bank and police station. Today the village of South Nyack, for all intents and purposes does not exist any more. During the early 1950's the bridge issue was raised again and this time proponents succeeded. The efforts of towns' people to block the construction went unheard, and the bridge was built. The construction took about three years, and cost around $80.8 million. The bridge, however, quickly paid for itself through the tolls and increased traffic over the years. When originally build the bridge carried approximately 18,000 vehicles daily, today it carries on average 132,000, soaring up to 165,000 on some days. This increase in traffic had great influence on the growing population of Rockland County. The Tappan Zee Bridge opened up rural land ripe for development at the height of the baby boom era.
In 1953 53%, 58,898 acres
of land in Rockland County qualified as undeveloped. In 1994 only 28% of the
county was left undeveloped . Most of the land that remains undeveloped today
either lies on a mountainside or in swamp land. It is not rare to see major
subdivisions or shopping centers being built on areas once considered swamps
or toxic waste sites by the county's residents. Palisades Center Mall and its
surrounding complex are an example of such development. This 3.5 million square
foot shopping mall is built on not only on known swampland prone to flooding,
but the land is also a former toxic waste site. This increase in desire for
buildable land caused the property values to skyrocket, rising from $135 million
to $700 million between 1952 and 1963. The farmers who were still interested
in an agricultural lifestyle were pushed out by the rising property values.
The land, however, was still within the price range of most New York City Civil
Servants, who could not afford to live in other suburbs, like Westchester or
Nassau counties . "Before it [the bridge] opened you could buy land here
for $100 per acre, now its $25,000". Today according to realtor.com it
costs between $50,000 and $1.5 million to purchase buildable land in the county.
This increase in land value made it profitable for people with lots of land
to sell it off at a huge profit while still retaining their own personal "country-like"
homesteads. Due to this increase in value, building lots started to become less
then a quarter acre and houses were selling for between $12,000 and $20,000
in 1956 in the various developments that sprung up on former farms. One of the
first developments to push Rockland County down its suburban path was Apple
Orchard Estates, which in 1953 was offering one hundred and forty homes with
a median price of $12,900. One of the selling points for this subdivision was
its close proximity to the proposed thruway. It lay just one mile from the highway
that would soon bisect all of Rockland County.
The houses being built at the sites of former farms were filled as quickly as they were built. Between the years of 1950 and 1957 the population of the county increased by 27.3 % from 89,276 to 113,680. The growth didn't stop there, in 1960, just three years after the special census of 1957, the population had soared to 136,803. This growth did not slow, and by 1970 the population had ballooned to 229,903, an increase of 68.1% over the 1960 number. This meant an annual growth rate of 7% after 1960 which caused residential and non-residential construction to move along at a brisk pace. Vacant land started to disappear in the county.
This surge of growth was facilitated by the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which caused a 68.1% population increase from 1960-1970. This growth did not slow until the 1980s, when total growth only amounted to about 13%. Population growth slowed further between 1980 and 1990 when growth shrunk to 2.3%. Growth picked up slightly between 1990 and 2000 when an 8.0% increase was recorded, making the current population about 288,567.
At the start of this spike in population growth, housing construction boomed to make room for these new people. 1951 one saw only 737 new dwellings constructed in the county. The following year 832 were built. The growth continued, and by 1959 2,117 dwellings were approved for construction. Construction continued at a vigorous pace in the county in the years after the bridge opening. The steady pace continued until the late 1960's and early 1970's, when building activity finally slowed temporarily. Even at this time the new dwelling rate was over one thousand yearly. A sharp upswing occurred between 1971 and 1973. New home building rose from 1661 dwellings in 1971 to 2403 the following year and 2849 in 1973. During this time it is possible to see the increase in residential land usage. In 1960 there were 14,913 acres categorized as residential. In 1976 there were 19,540 acres qualified as low density residential, and 4,600 acres noted as medium density residential. In total 24,140 acres were categorized as residential, a change of 9,227 acres in just sixteen years. Low density residential is qualified as having between one and four dwelling units per acre. Medium density is above four dwelling units per acre.
Population density amplified during this time, matching the growth in construction and population. In 1950 the population density of the county was 507 people per square mile. It increased to 777 people per square mile in 1960 and 1,306 persons per square mile in 1970. This increase continued steadily until the most recent survey when 1,645.9 people were found per square foot.
The first people who came to these new neighborhoods came from a variety of backgrounds. Usually, they were civil servants, police officers, firemen or former soldiers seeking an affordable place to live. This process began with the conversion/building of affordable veteran housing on the former Camp Shanks site. Shanks Village, as it was known, was soon filled with four thousand former GIs and their new families. These four thousand GIs were housed in the former barracks that had been renovated into small apartments. These apartments could be rented for $32 a month and the addition of linens would cost $1. Most of these residents were men taking advantage of the new GI Bill of Rights, which allowed former soldiers to attend college classes. The majority attended Columbia University as either undergraduates or graduate students. Money was a limited resource for most of these new families and Shanks Village was the perfect opportunity for them to get on their feet. Many of the villagers saw the opportunities that came with living in the Rockland area and decided to stay. One group of villagers saved up their money and bought thirty acres in Tappan and set up their own subdivision. These GIs were soon joined by policeman, fireman and prison guards who had grown up in New York City and didn't want their families to do the same.
Starting in 1956 the county surveyed new home buyers on why they chose the Rockland County area. During this initial survey 41% responded that the "country-like" atmosphere attracted them. The size of lot or house caused 18% of the respondents to settle in Rockland. 16% of those who responded said they were attracted to the area by its close proximity to their work. Other, less important reasons were business opportunity (8%), lower cost (8%), near family or friends (7%), and lower taxes (2%). The response reflects the fact that the mass settlement of Rockland County had just started to occur at this time. It was still possible to get a house that was situated in a rural or "country-like" settling.
Just four years later in 1960 when a similar survey given to new home owners in Rockland County elicited very different. Only 30% of those surveyed were attracted to the country like atmosphere. Another 20% enjoyed the counties close proximity to work. The size of lots or houses slipped to just 10%, and business opportunities also received a 10% response. Convenient travel to work, and lower cost both saw an increase in attractiveness both getting 20% of the vote. Lower taxes and nearness to family and friends saw slight changes. Lower taxes increased from 2% to 4%, and nearness to family and friends going from 7% to 6%. This change in response was precipitated by the vast changes that had occurred in just four years. Rockland was much more of a suburb then anyone could have predicted. The increase in subdivisions and continued loss of farmland started to make the area much more attractive to those seeking a home in suburbia. In 1955 the Tappan Zee Bridge had opened, and the first survey was given just a few months after this opening. By 1960 the bridge had been open five years, and it already had a vast influence on the area. The Tappan Zee Bridge had influenced people's decisions and made Rockland County much more connected to the surrounding metropolitan area.
With the population explosion that came with the Tappan Zee Bridge it became necessary and essential for the infrastructure of the county to adjust and grow. The county needed to keep the various services running efficiently and make sure they were meeting resident's standards. This meant the destruction of more natural habitat to create roads, sewers and the structures necessary for their upkeep. Roads had to be created where trees or houses once stood. Sewer expansions displaced residents who lived around the sites. At the same time limited natural resources like water were being pushed to their limits because of the increase in population. New reservoirs had to be created where streams, forests and golf courses once were private property. These issues helped to influence major changes in the landscape and quality of life for the residents of Rockland County.
Survival in the suburbs depends on the car, and these drivers demanded a system of roads, including major highways, county roads, and village streets. The county had its work cut out for it in providing adequate roads throughout the county. In 1956 the county was crisscrossed by just over five hundred and twenty miles of roadway. At this point distribution of these roads was about even. Forty five percent were being maintained by either the county or the state, and the rest of the roads were maintained by towns. Clarkstown lead the five towns with nearly ninety eight miles of street, which was eighteen percent of the county's roads. By 1976, when the population expansion had started to pass. The total mileage of roads for the county was just over eight hundred twenty three miles. Of this five hundred and fifty six were local streets maintained by the five towns separately. This massive increase in local streets coincides with the population growth that the county was experiencing. These roads, like the developments they lead to were placed on floodplains, toxic waste sites, former farms, and areas known for flooding. This building of roads, like that of the houses, was seen as an essential part of the move towards suburbanization. Even major access roads that connected residential areas to commercial areas were not spared from the threat of floods. One of the major north-south roads, Route 59, is notorious for flooding. Route 59 connects various residential areas with major highways like the New York State Thruway and the Palisades Interstate Parkway and is apt to flooding during heavy or even light rain.
Even before Route 59 ever became a major thoroughfare in the county residents knew about its tendency to flood. One of the first major floods that proved the likelihood and danger of flooding in the Route 59 area of West Nyack was the October storm and floods that followed in 1903. Instead of the daily commute to the train station with a horse and carriage residents relied on rowboats till the waters receded. Today the Palisades Center Mall is accessed by thousands of customers by way of this road. Even today when the road floods the traffic is rerouted through local streets, creating traffic on roads less suited to handle the volume.
With the rapid growth that came to Rockland County after the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the facilities available for maintenance processes like sewer and water distribution were quickly overwhelmed. In 1958 when the growth was still beginning, there were ten sewer treatment plants in the county with a capacity of over nine million gallons per day (gpd). These plants were only processing about six million gallons per day. These figures were quickly changing and upgrades were constantly happening. In 1976 the smaller sewer districts had been combined and now nine treatment plants served the area. Daily these plants had a designed total capacity of about twenty eight million gallons. The daily flow at the time for all the districts was about twenty seven million gallons per day. At this time the plant serving Haverstraw was being renovated to allow for a daily flow rate of about eight million gallons. In 1976 two plants were being run above the design capacity. These were the Upper Nyack plant and the Rockland County plant. The Nyack plant was designed for a flow of about 165,000 gpd and was operating at about 180,000 gpd. The Rockland plant was designed for ten million gpd and was operating at fourteen and a half million gpd. It should be noted that this plant too "will eventually" be expanded to a capacity of twenty million gpd. There is no note on when this expansion is slated to occur. By 1994 the rate of sewer treatment had increased drastically by about twenty million gallons a day. At this point there were again two plants operating at or over daily capacity and two more were reaching theirs. This drastic increase in sewage treatment has had various effects on the residents. They are plagued by rancid odors that can be smelled miles away even on a good day. Another factor that plagues residents is the visual pollution that comes with exposed sewer pipes running across the county. In Blauvelt, for instance, there is a large sewer pipe that extends over the public water supply reservoir. This is visually displeasing to the residents but worse is the threat that a leak would pose to the water supply.
One of the most important situations to address when dealing with the suburbanization of Rockland County is the effect that this growth has had on the water supply of the area. The area is served by a series of reservoirs, springs, and well located within the boundaries of the county. In 1958 the various water companies in the county had systems set up serving 81,100 people, and a capacity of 14.8 million gallons per day (mgd). In 1976 these same companies were supplying water to 249,200 customers with an average supply capacity of 41.60 mgd. By 1994 this number had increased to 272,000 served and a daily capacity of 45 mgd. This rapid growth has brought very few upgrades in the water supply. The water that these companies can provide to customers is limited by what they have in their reservoirs and wells. In a recent Journal News article the water situation created some raw nerves. The Journal News article says that Rockland County has essentially the same water supply that it had 20 years ago, which is proved by the numbers above. During this time, however, the county has seen continuing growth in both residential and commercial activities. Also stated is the planned growth that is set to happen within the next few years, including the building of several facilities on the former Rockland Psychiatric Center, the proposed redevelopment of the Haverstraw water front and specified growth within the town of Ramapo. This has put an already inadequate supply under further strain. This Journal News article attempts to explain the impact of the current four year drought the county is living through. This drought has wrought major water restrictions to the residents of the county, causing disruptions of daily life and business. This past summer the restrictions were so strong that water was not able to be served to patrons in area restaurants unless requested by the customers. Lawn watering was prohibited and all pools in Orangetown were tested for possible leaks. These measures were aimed at insuring the conservation of all the precious water that was available.
Possible solutions to the water crisis were also discussed. The article cited some of the major ones, including, "widening and deepening of reservoirs in Rockland and Bergen. Joint conservation under the same rules and the same time in both counties." Bergen County is included in these possible solutions because many of the reservoirs that are located within Rockland County, in the Town Of Orangetown and Clarkstown, serve Bergen as well as Rockland customers. This means that if one county has stronger water restrictions than the other that water usage could still become a problem. The article also states the possibility of overland pipelines to pump water from other sources in the state. Rockland currently does not pump water from other areas. The problem with such a solution is its cost. Currently Rockland residents pay high water rates, so if solutions to the water crisis are to be addressed they must be the best solutions for the lowest cost to prevent continued price increases. According to the article county officials do not seem overly concerned about the restrictions and possible crisis the county faces. Due to this fact the problem does not seem to be finding a solution anytime soon and the growth will continue to rise and the reservoir levels diminish.
As the county grew in population so did the traffic that crossed daily from Rockland to Westchester and back. The registration of vehicles for Rockland County was growing at incredible rates. Between 1955 and 1960 the number of cars registered jumped 22%, in the next five years, between 1960 and 1965 the rate more then doubled. Increasing from 54,443 cars in 1960 to 91,843 vehicles in 1965. The growth continued for the next ten years, and between 1955 and 1991 the total number had increased by 79%. Movement towards the suburbs continued it made it necessary for families to have two cars, one for the father to commute to his job, and the other for the mother for daily household duties. These duties included transportation of children, grocery shopping, and meeting at various groups. This extra car was more then essential in suburbs like Rockland County because of the lack of public transportation. Before the bridge there had been a railroad that ran along the western shore of New York. It was phased out of service when the population of the county started to grow. This growth in vehicles assisted the traffic crunch on the Tappan Zee Bridge. When originally built the bridge was designed only to carry traffic loads of about 100,000 cars, a figure which was exceeded before 1991, when the daily traffic rate was 112,100 cars daily. These conditions strained the capacity of the bridge making it seem inadequate to residents of both counties.
This feeling of inadequacy's has raised questions about the structural integrity of the bridge and also about what possible solutions exist to help ease the traffic problems that come with the daily flow of cars. The New York State Thruway has identified the Tappan Zee Bridge as a source for problems in the surrounding areas and had set up a task force to address the various issues that are being raised. "The Tappan Zee Bridge provides a vital transportation link not only for the New York City metropolitan area and the Hudson Valley, but for the entire state of New York," said Thruway Authority Chairman Louis R. Tomson. "We have a responsibility to the citizens we serve to provide them with the safest and most effective means of transportation throughout this corridor." There are several solutions being raised, one of which is to rebuild the current bridge, build a totally new bridge and/or tunnel, and construct other transit options. This option of a transit line is ironic because The West Shore Line used to run a similar route to that which authorities now propose. Though currently no final plans have been made, this information has sparked rumors and controversy. Mostly in Rockland and Westchester among both residents and officials. The residents of the area fear the destruction and loss of more land due to the possibility of a Tappan Zee II. Since traffic cannot be rerouted from the current bridge location a new bridge would have to be built along side the original, causing the loss of more valuable lands in Nyack. The Thruway association has vowed that no actions will be taken until a complete assessment of the situation is completed.
This assessment has been defined as both an environmental review and a public comment process. The process of assessing the traffic problems of the Tappan Zee Bridge is a collaborative effort of the, New York State Thruway Association, MTA Metro North Railroad, Stakeholder committee, elected officials and general public, New York and Federal permitting agencies, inter MPO committee, and the selected project management committee. The agency claims to be as committed to public input as they are to the solution of the problem. This process began on November 28, 2000 and has no prospective completion date. Chairman Tomson, by way of the Thruway webpage invites and encourages local residents to take part in the efforts being made to select the best possible solution to the problem of congestion.
In order to best gauge public opinion of the project an outside consulting firm has been hired. Officials hope this firm can better assess the task at hand without involving the engineering or environmental aspects of the project. The process of public opinion gathering had already begun before December of 2002. The public outreach part of the assessment is meant to provide the public with up to date progress reports, and news about changes. It is also meant to help the consultants gain input on issues that could affect the progress that is taking place in other sections of the assessment, including environmental concerns and engineering issues. Public meetings are set to begin around the spring of 2003. By late spring and early fall a report on the alternative analysis should be available for study. The full Environmental Impact statement is now slated for completion until the spring of 2004. This leaves the residents of both Rockland and Westchester feeling unsure of the changes that will come. Daily thousands of people commute from Rockland to Westchester, Connecticut and New York City by way of the Tappan Zee Bridge; none of these commuters enjoy the traffic that they sit through daily, traffic which is commonly back up six miles. Any solution that will ease the traffic will be a good one in the eyes of commuters; residents of nearby villages probably will not feel the same way.
Longtime residents view the changes that the bridge brought with it differently. For some it was a long awaited connection to the city, but for many it seemed to bring nothing but problems. Aaron D. Fred, who was the County Planning Director in Rockland when the bridge turned twenty five in 1985, said that "its effects were dramatic, if you were a county leader at the time and you wanted to see the country grow, then you welcomed the bridge like it was the messiah. If you were a guy living up on South Mountain Road in rural 'exurbia' you saw it as a death knell," and that is exactly what most native people saw. For residents like Isabelle Savell and Jack Geist who lived along South Mountain Road and River Road, the bridge became a fence, enclosing the once wide open landscape and creating an environmental nuisance. Geist, who lives just three houses away from the bridge, often finds oil, rubber, and gas debris in his yard after heavy rains. Ms. Sevell comments that she feels like she's living on a city street with the noise that comes from the bridge. She also said she notices the differences in the way the river flows and silts up because of the bridge. "The sand bars are becoming more and more numerous. At low tide you can walk out up to your knees for quite a distance" this is because the river is no longer allowed to follow its natural patterns. The construction of the bridge has interfered with them. These were the changes that fearful residents expected to see with the onset of suburbia.
According to The American Heritage Dictionary a suburb is the residential area near a city. This, however, does not fully describe the experience that is living in the suburbs. The suburbs, if you ask residents, have easy access to central cities, affordable land values, growing populations, along with retail and commercial growth and opportunities. This classification of suburbs is always changing, when the first people flocked to the suburbs starting in the 1940s and 1950s many were seeking the convenience of city living with the atmosphere of county living. But as more and more people sought this lifestyle as the ideal, it became a lost hope. Too many people were trying to live the same dream. This dream crowds the suburbs, which are supposed to be open and roomy. Instead, growth creates mini-cities; pushing the dream suburb farther and farther out, away form the city. A prospective homebuyer seeking an affordable home on more then a quarter acre, in a country setting is rarely available. Instead prospective buyers in Rockland County see the same suburban sprawl that plagues Long Island and Westchester. Because the land has become so expensive it longer is profitable to build houses for families just starting out. Instead huge houses are built on small lots to take advantage of the land. This practice has now become the norm for developments around Rockland County. Today you can no longer look at Rockland County to fulfill that dream. Instead you must now go further and further north towards Orange or Dutchess Counties to find the subur
Last Updated: 8/24/10