A New York Minute In History
A New York Minute In History
Ronek Park: Postwar Non-discriminatory Housing on Long Island | A New York Minute in History

This episode tells the story of Ronek Park, a non-discriminatory housing development built in 1950 in the village of North Amityville. Unlike the many housing developments created in the post-WWII U.S. that followed the practice of redlining and did not allow African American or Jewish people to buy homes, Ronek Park specifically marketed itself as allowing anyone to purchase a home regardless of race or creed.

Interviewees: Mary Cascone, Town of Babylon Historian and Eugene Burnett, Ronek Park resident and former Town of Babylon Police Department Sergeant.  

Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000, 2004.

Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, 1985.

Gene Slater, Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America, 2021.

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis: Neighborhood Redlining and Home Ownership Lesson.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: Understanding Redlining.

National Geographic: Mapmaker: Redlining in the United States.

Devin: Welcome to A New York Minute in History. I’m Devin Lander, the New York State historian. 

Lauren: And I’m Lauren Roberts, the historian for Saratoga County. Today, we’re heading east to the hamlet of North Amityville, which is part of the town of Babylon on Long Island. The sign is located at the intersection of Albany Avenue and Croydon road, and the text reads, Ronek Park. Honored as a non discriminatory housing development started by Thomas Romano in 1950. A part of the local housing boom after World War II. William G. Pomeroy Foundation 2015. So if you aren’t from Long Island, you might be unfamiliar with the name Ronek Park, you probably have heard of a different housing development, also located on Long Island that was built around the same time called Levittown. And, of course, we’re going to be discussing what made these two communities very different. Before we get into that, let’s jump back for a bit and talk about why we have numerous housing developments popping up on Long Island in the late 1940s and the early 1950s.

Devin: I think really the suburban boom in the United States was the result of several different factors; more immediately was that the United States emerged from World War Two as – that though there were horrific losses of American men and women during the war, the United States was essentially unscathed compared to Europe, Japan – obviously, compared to China, the United States did suffer a direct attack at Pearl Harbor, but otherwise didn’t have the catastrophic events unfold that those nations did. And we really have to think about the demographic changes that were happening shortly after the war, the biggest being the Baby Boom. Couple this with an economy that had emerged from the Great Depression. And during World War Two had become a manufacturer of the war. And so the economy was humming. They were looking for housing that could provide for a family, so, all of the new things that were coming out after World War Two as the war economy transitioned to a consumer based economy and consumer goods became ever more prevalent as the technology improved. Prices went down on things like washing machines and other devices that previously had only existed for the very wealthy. There’s also the increase in the automobile, which made living outside of a city more possible. Many, if not most, of the people who moved to Levittown still worked in New York City. So how were they commuting? Well, yes, there’s a train but many of them also are commuting by automobile. And of course, Long Island became kind of a natural suburb of the city. So to learn more about what Long Island was like in the postwar era, and how it became the site of so many of these housing developments, we spoke to Mary Cascone, the town historian for the town of Babylon.

 Veterans Park, North Amityville, Long Island, where the Ronek Park marker is located. Image courtesy of Mary Cascone.

Mary Cascone: Well, I am Mary Cascone and I am the historian for the town of Babylon, which is on the south shore of Long island I do a little bit of everything. I like to tell people that around this office, we never know what we’re going to find until we look. And that’s pretty much how we approach every day. So ask us, and we’ll see if we can.

So looking at population statistics for the town of Babylon, pre World War II 1940, we have 24,000 people. But the big jump that happens, we quadruple our population from ‘50 to ‘70. We go from 45,000 people to 203,000. And I was just speaking at an anniversary program last week, and I was you know, why were we building all these libraries? Well, everything comes down to the suburban boom that the people come out, they need houses, the families bring children which need schools, they need, we need to widen the roads for all of the cars, now they need something to do so we need to expand the public parks. But then all of the commercial entities that come in. The town of Babylon, at some point was just like the fastest growing community during that time. It was definitely on Long Island. It might have even been in New York. It goes to our location. We border Nassau County, so all those people coming eastward from New York City – We already had established railroads, we had commuter stations ready to go. The Southern State Parkway had come through for us by then. So did Southern State. So our infrastructure was kind of just ready. 

Although, I will say that the people at the time didn’t consider themselves ready. I am fortunate to have spoken with a lot of people probably about 15 years ago that have since passed away, including the supervisor from the late 1950s. Arthur M. Cromarty, we have a court complex and Riverhead named after him. Now if you get jury duty, you go to the Cromarty Court Complex, but he described what it was like to have all of these people. One of the reasons why he talked about expanding the parks was we had so many people and they needed things to do. There are so many stories that come out of that suburban boom, including all of the wives and mothers who had been used to living in the city where they could walk to places, and now they’re in the middle of nowhere. So as much as we built these communities have lots of people, there were also those areas where people felt isolated, because now they didn’t have access to transportation. The deli wasn’t down the street, my own grandmother talked about this; moving to Long Island in the 1960s. So it’s another piece that I remember, along with schools were so crowded, they were doing double shifts, very much like what we saw during the pandemic, where they would try to reduce the number of kids in school by doing a morning session and afternoon session. They were doing that in the 50s and 60s. And so I can find newspaper headlines that will say, Oh, “North Babylon school expects to drop second shift by fall.” So as great as it was, as quickly as it built, it was difficult. And you can still see that in some things when people will say, “why does this road and here why doesn’t it connect to the other one?” And you have to look at when was it built? Was it part of an earlier development?

Lauren: There’s also something else that was very helpful in this housing boom, and that was the GI Bill, the government was very conscious of not wanting to fall into a postwar depression. So as early as 1942, they were discussing, you know: how are we going to reintegrate the troops back into regular life after the war is over? And there were estimates that up to 15 million men and women might become unemployed at the end of the war. So in 1944, President Roosevelt signs the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, which is the actual name for the GI Bill, and it really helped in three areas: it tried to mediate unemployment, it gave money to service members for education and training, and the third thing it did was provide money for housing. According to the World War Two Museum, “the guarantee that was provided by the GI Bill made veterans safer investments for banks, since the government would pay back either 50% of the loan or $2,000, if the recipient failed to pay for the loan.” The Veterans Administration guaranteed over 2 million home loans by 1950. So that’s the scale of veterans that were taking advantage of the GI bill by 1950. 

We have to remember that in World War Two, the army was a segregated army. So blacks fought in different regimens than whites at the time. We did not have a fully integrated society, so they were coming back from a segregated army into a Homefront that still was grappling with racial divides, and that didn’t end with housing developments, though the GI Bill was meant to help all service members coming back, there were some endemic problems with getting loans for everyone that was a service member.

Devin: So as we’re thinking about these developments happening in Long Island and elsewhere around the United States, brings us to thinking about how race played a role. And specifically, the term “Redlining.” Redlining actually goes back to the Great Depression, and the Homeowners Loan Corporation Act, which was signed into law in 1933, which was designed to provide an overview and a ranking of communities based on how much of a risk they were to give out mortgages in and it was really through that initial act that the term redlining came into parlance, and that’s because there were four categories of “quality” of a neighborhood and they had corresponding colors, green being the highest level, then followed by blue, then yellow, and then red. And according to historian Kenneth T. Jackson and his groundbreaking work Crabgrass Frontier, the Suburbanization of the United States, the first grade also known as a and green areas were described as new, homogenous, and quote, in demand as residential locations in good time and bad. Again, this is a quote from Kenneth Jackson, “homogenous meant American business and professional men, for example, Jewish neighborhoods,” – or even those with “an infiltration of Jews could not be considered best, or any more than they could be considered American.” So immediately, you see that Jewish people were also prejudiced against, and the lowest level, as we noted, the red color and the D grade, were almost exclusively reserved for African American neighborhoods in urban areas. And this is where we get the term redlining. And in some cases, the racism was so abrupt that even a community with very few African American people in it would immediately get a red line. That was very important because it meant that mortgages and resources going into these communities would not be seen as a good investment. Whether or not the people that lived there were well-off or not, it didn’t matter. These were considered to be high risk, and therefore very hard to get mortgages, very hard to get home improvement loans, very hard to get business loans. And many historians, including Ken Jackson and others, have drawn the conclusion that redlining is something that really decimated urban communities because it discouraged any kind of investment, and it discouraged loans of money and resources. And at the same time, as the FHA and the GI Bill come online, in the postwar years, we see the government favoring the building of new single family homes, in suburban communities. 

Lauren: So as a result of these redlining policies, when new subdivisions were being built, it was important to some of the developers that their communities were not seen as risky communities for mortgage loans. So in Levittown, they actually had a policy that houses would only be sold to Caucasian people. So African Americans were completely excluded from being allowed to purchase housing in Levittown. And that’s why we see places like Ronek Park come about because these African American servicemembers were coming home and they were being denied access to many of the large developments. So they needed a place to go.

Devin: So we know that the gentleman’s name who was kind of the main developer behind this was named Thomas Romano, and what do we know about him and his reasoning for establishing a non discriminatory community? 

Mary: I know that he was honored by many organizations for creating a nondiscriminatory community.

From a business point of view, I think it was brilliant. Because you have people that want to buy a house, you have people that are ready with money, they’re willing to sign a mortgage. And why would you you’re he’s saying, “I’m not going to turn anyone away.” Because remember, he’s not saying, “Only black people come here.” He’s saying, “Hey, everybody, I’m ready to take your money and give you a house.” So that’s how I often look at it.

He buys up the land, and he starts filing those papers. He’s in earlier than a lot of other developments. And people are looking for places, we see that through the sales and the deeds that were being filed. And so when I have people that will come to me, and specifically within the town of Babylon, they’ll say, “Well, why did all the black people move to North Amityville and Wyandanch?” And then I sit there and I explained that people are going to not go not only where they feel comfortable, but also where people are going to let them buy a house. So really, instead of it being the effect is that instead of it just being non discriminatory, they end up being steered that way. And we had in nearby Wyandanch, we already had communities, neighborhoods that had been started by businessmen of color. Carver Park is one that had started. So Ronek Park isn’t the only one. But when it came to the marker program, this was one that I knew was very unique. And also because when I put together almost 100 pages of newspaper articles and everything about it, this was not just being advertised here in New York. And while it gets reported in the local papers, they’re not trying to advertise to people that already live in the North Amityville or the town of Babylon area, they’re trying to appeal to the city people to get them to move eastward. And that’s what we find with a lot of real estate, even going back to the late 1800s. But this was so unique, because this is getting reported across the country. Now, historically, black newspapers in New York City include the New York Amsterdam News and The New Age. But then as I was able to expand out, and that’s what’s great about being a historian in the 21st century is the access that we have to so many more resources. In Baltimore, there was The Afro American. And then there was the Chicago Defender. These are all reporting about, you know, this historic event of Ronek Park. So they may not have been the first, they may not have been the biggest, they may not have been the best, but they were really good at advertising. They got the word out. And that’s probably why more people know about them. 

Devin: Well, I love this advertisement that you’ve shared from the New Amsterdam News that says “not only do these houses brand new cost $6,990 Complete, there are no un-American undemocratic restrictions as to race color or creed.” I think that is brilliant advertising, right? 

Mary: Yes, it is. 

Devin: Because they’re not saying, you know, this is for people of color, or they’re just saying the restrictions that exist elsewhere are unAmerican and undemocratic. 

Mary: They are appealing to people’s patriotism! 

Devin: Exactly. 

Mary: …through real estate! I will also send you an advertisement. That was actually very confusing at first, because when I first saw it, it says, “We Proudly Present America: 1960.” But this was published in 1950. So to us today, we’re going, “wait a minute, that’s confusing. What do you mean?” but published in 1950. They’re saying we’re already 10 years ahead of you.

Devin: So as they were building Ronek Park in 1950, the first 147 homes actually attracted 3000 people to come and see them being built and being plotted out. There was an article Newsday from January of 1950. It says: “3000 Swarm to see Interracial Project.” So again, there was really big interest in this. There was a big market. Obviously, there’s many African American people that were looking to, to build and own homes on Long Island. But there’s also just an overall interest in this because it was being advertised again and written up in the newspapers, including the New York Times as an interracial or community where race would not be taken into account.

Mary: I think it was, I think that the people that moved in, the majority of them were African American, from New York City. This was also a place where mixed race couples would be welcomed. Today it continues to be predominantly black, that community and when all of North Amityville, but its Hispanic population has been growing. Now, we already had a black and Native American population that was living in North Amityville, for generations, but they’re living in a very rural landscape. And then all of a sudden, across the street, you now have this whole modern community. And I have had people that that talked about how there were these social differences just because you have black people that lived there, and now Black people that are moving in, you know, they were city people versus country people. That’s a whole ‘nother social aspect of the newcomers. And also, people that came from the city, we had a lot of World War II veterans, we had people with good paying jobs, and they were arriving with money. For a lot of them, they had a higher economic status than the people that were already living there. And that that can cause friction in any community, regardless of race.

Lauren: In order to get a personal perspective from one of these returning service members, we reached out to Mary who had done an oral history interview with Eugene Burnett in 2008.

Mary: In 2007, and 2008, we had a town of Babylon oral history project, and I interviewed 75 people and a couple of them from North Amityville. And that’s – when people are older, now they’re in their 70s and 80s,  And they’re reflecting on things that, I don’t know, maybe we just created a really safe space for them to talk, but they would share. And so Eugene Burnett, he was really important to our local history for sharing his stories. He talks about being rejected from Levittown about seeing an ad for Ronek Park. And coming here. He describes what it was like living in New York City.  Women, he remembered women washing clothes on washboards, and having to carry things up and down. And that he goes to Ronek Park. And now everyone’s living in the same house, they have all the same amenities. They’ve got these brand new kitchens, there’s washing machines. Okay. I think it’s really actually I just got chills thinking about it, that here’s this guy that he is describing how he watched the women before him struggle in doing laundry, and now that his family would have this modern appliance, but then he also shared how the houses weren’t really built all that well, which is something that we get from mass production, you know, it doesn’t just have to be Ronek Park, I think we can say that about a lot of these quickly built properties.

But he does talk about how there was that sense of community because all these people that came from New York City, they had, they had similar jobs, they had kids at the same time, they’re filling up the schools. And one of the things that did happen, though, I think, is that those people that had the good paying jobs, and then were like, hey, this was my starter house, now I’m gonna move on to something larger, that they left to the community. And during that time, they started to lose a little bit of that sense of community that they had built up in the early years. And Mr. Burnett has since passed away.

Actually, it was just last year, which is why as difficult as it was recording all of those oral history videos, I’m so grateful that we had finally gotten them up to the town’s YouTube channel. Because that’s instead of me telling his story. It’s him.

Eugene Burnett. Photo Credit: Newsday.com

Eugene Burnett: The army at that time was it was a segregated army. Then determining for me that there was a problem with race. And some of the things that were done was just terrible. And they stay with me to this day. But the experience overall was good for me in that it made a man of me. 

I saw this advertisement for Levittown. And I decided that my wife and I, we were talking about getting married, and we didn’t want to raise our children in New York City, because at that time, drugs had come into the community and we had lost some of our friends to heroin. And so we got in the car, we drove out there. And we looked at the house and of course, living in an apartment and seeing this. Everything was brand new and so forth and so on. So So I went up to the salesman, and I said, “I like the house and I’m interested. And do you have an application, whatever that I could fill out?” And he looked at me and he paused for a moment, and he said, “It’s not me. But the owners of this development have not as yet decided to sell these homes to negros.” I was shattered by that, I never expected that. 

Also, I saw that advertisement, also, I think, perhaps in The Daily Mirror. And I, it said “regardless of race, creed, or color,” so I followed up on that and went to the same procedure, and of course, was accepted and eventually bought the house and got married and moved in there. I think it was in November of 1950. 

Very undeveloped. Dirt roads, no sidewalks, no streetlights, houses, that will build these flat tops. They had flat roofs, refrigerator, electric stove, it was an all electric kitchen, washing machine, you gotta understand, from my age, what I saw, you know, women scrubbed and washed clothes, and we had ice boxes, and we had wind-up record players. And the first advancement middle class thing that came in was “The Combo,” they called it, which had a record player, and radio. You know, that was a big deal. And all these things were already readily available when you moved into Ronek Park that we didn’t have in the apartments in New York.

For $38 hours. That includes the taxes, insurance, the mortgage interest, everything $38. But I mean, that sounds like a steal. But as a police sergeant, my take home pay was $149.50 every two weeks. That… things cost different those days. I remember saying to myself, if I could just make $2 an hour, I’d be rich.

That was my goal to make $2 an hour. 

Lauren: Now, these examples of housing developments like Levittown, that practiced the policy of only accepting whites into the communities was not unique. It happened all over. And it wasn’t illegal. It wasn’t until the late 60s when the Fair Housing Act of 1968 actually prohibited housing discrimination by law. So, you know, from the time when Eugene Burnett moved in in 1950, it’s almost two decades before this practice is deemed illegal. 

Eurgene Burnett: As I look back and reflect, it was a feeling of community. The people of – African American veterans had nowhere else to go. So what you had, what came there to buy these homes were educated people well to do people, you know, and it was a nice community.