LeFrak City and The Politics of Place

By Lindsay Holcomb


Chapter One – Building the City of Tomorrow


On a warm spring morning in 1954, Samuel LeFrak walked out of his luxury pre-war building overlooking New York’s Central Park and jumped into the driver’s seat of his navy Cadillac El Dorado. The famed real estate developer was on a mission to scout out a property where he could build the project he had been dreaming of for the past three years: a city within a city, a set of nearly two dozen uniform buildings surrounded by enough green space to rival a suburban area.

To build a neighborhood, though, LeFrak would need a substantial area of land, something quite difficult to acquire in an increasingly densely packed city. Luckily, LeFrak had a place in mind. Several years earlier, while driving out to a development in Forest Hills, Queens he had noticed an enormous 40-acre lot of swamp and marshland in nearby Corona at the intersection of the Long Island Expressway and Junction Boulevard. Flat as a board and covered in weeds, the parcel looked like a midwestern farm.

LeFrak was particularly attracted to the site because it belonged to the estates of John Jacob Astor and his son, William Waldorf Astor, two formidable real estate barons of their time.  For several decades, the Astors had used the property as a country estate, a place of relaxation and respite far outside of what were then the city limits. In the late 1800s, John Jacob Astor had purchased the land from the estate of Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States, whose family acquired the property when New York was still a Dutch settlement.[1] Over the centuries, neither the Van Burens nor the Astors had developed the property with homes or industrial construction.

For LeFrak, the regal legacy of the place was almost tangible. Purchasing the property would mean placing himself and his family firmly in the ranks of New York City’s real estate elite. For a first-generation American, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Palestine just decades before, LeFrak was excited by the prospect of establishing himself among this esteemed group.[2]

For years, LeFrak had felt out of place among the business elite in New York City. LeFrak grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, a predominantly Jewish area with the highest concentration of synagogues in the city.[3] Though his family was financially very comfortable, LeFrak was not spoiled. Instead of the uptown private schools that most of the city’s wealthy elite attended as children, LeFrak went to predominantly Jewish public schools in his neighborhood. At eight, he joined the family business, carrying buckets of water and nails for the construction men at his father’s work sites around Brooklyn and Queens.[4]

LeFrak was never a particularly strong student, and teachers often rapped him over the knuckles with a ruler for writing left-handed. He dreamed of going to Columbia University, but he was rejected for his poor grades. It’s likely that he would not have gotten into the Ivy League University even if he had been qualified. In the 1930s, many elite colleges and universities actively discriminated against Jews. Code words such as “desirable lineage” and “from a home of refinement” in admissions pamphlets[5] prompted many young Jews to attend historically Jewish institutions or larger, less discriminating state schools.

In 1936, LeFrak matriculated at the University of Maryland where he studied engineering. Here, he stood out not for his grades, but for his boisterous personality. LeFrak was a big man with broad shoulders that easily filled his double-breasted tweed suits. With a strong jaw and a protruding forehead that cast heavy shadows over his eyes, he came across as both tough and sincere. He was crowned prom king at the University of Maryland two years in a row and was the president of his fraternity. Yearbook quotes describe him as “larger than life” and “a real all-American.”

This recognition was important for LeFrak. Though the name on his birth certificate read Le Frak, a clearly French surname, LeFrak preferred to use the pronunciation LEH-frak in an attempt to anglicize the name.

“I don’t want to seem European or different, LeFrak told New York Magazine in 1973. “I don’t want to be accused of being anything other than American, as American as apple pie.”[6]

In 1938, while still a student at the University of Maryland, LeFrak built his first building. His father gave him the responsibility of completing a 60-family, 16-story project on East 14th Street in Brooklyn – a considerable task for a 20 year old – but LeFrak was not daunted. The young man had gnawed on his father’s building blueprints as a baby and built cities out of blocks as a child. The building was a success, and LeFrak joined the family business when he graduated in 1940, investing $2500 he had earned working as a shoe salesman. In 1948, at the age of 30, he became president of the LeFrak Organization, taking over from his 55 year old father.[7]

Over the next ten years, LeFrak continued to expand the family’s holdings by creating more of his father’s signature apartments: two beds, two baths, sunken living room, modest kitchen, and a shower stall, all in a walk up building to appeal to Jewish immigrants observing the Sabbath. These apartments rented for around $70 per month, a modest price for the time.

LeFrak didn’t just want to maintain the status quo, however. He wanted to dramatically expand the LeFrak Organization’s real estate empire. In 1950, he attended a one-week conference for young business leaders at Harvard Business School. In this storied university, surrounded by young CEOs of estimable pedigree who had gone to business school and studied finance in college, LeFrak, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, developed something of a chip on his shoulder. In 1951, he outbid over 400 other developers for 20 mortgages and 29 parcels of land in Queens. His bid was $5 million, but his assets were barely $50,000. Using the properties as collateral, he borrowed $450,000 to satisfy the required 10 percent down payment, and then sold off several of the parcels until he could come up with the balance. Two years later he owned 10 prime Queens properties that generated enough profit for him to begin building larger apartment buildings and ultimately, LeFrak City.[8]

For years, the forty acres on which LeFrak City would stand had been overlooked by developers as being too difficult to build on.[9] Fred Trump, founder of the Trump Organization, built several developments in Corona throughout the forties and fifties, but refused to touch the area north of Junction Boulevard out of concern for the structural investment necessary to make the lot a viable site for construction.[10] The Maspeth, the Native American tribe that had lived for centuries in what later became central Queens referred to the area as “bad water place,” a nod to the brackish swamps filled by the salty waters of the Flushing Bay.[11]

LeFrak, however, was not daunted by the engineering challenge, nor by the fact that there was hardly any development in the plot’s immediate surroundings. Driving around the area, he saw potential in the place.

He wasn’t there to build some structures and hope that the neighborhood would improve. He was there to build the neighborhood.[12]

Looking out at the untouched swath of land in front of him, LeFrak imagined a development where a mother could walk out of her building, drop her child off at daycare, and go grocery shopping without ever leaving her housing complex; where children could go out and play on basketball courts and swim in pools without their parents fretting for their safety; where the everyday man might have access to the same amenities as a Wall Street magnate in a luxury co-op in Manhattan.

Cars hurtled passed LeFrak on Horace Harding Boulevard as hundreds of construction workers worked to incorporate the major road into the rapidly expanding Long Island Expressway. Within the next decade, LeFrak knew, the Long Island Expressway would stretch far out from Corona into the rest of eastern Queens and southern Long Island.[13] More and more people were leaving the city to live in the Long Island suburbs, saddling themselves with commutes of more than an hour into the city. Why travel the extra twenty miles to Jericho, Seaford, or Levittown when you could just stay in Queens, LeFrak wondered. He understood the allure of a backyard, a big house, and a safe community, but he didn’t think young families had to go to Long Island to find this environment. He would create a high-rise suburbia just thirty minutes outside of Manhattan and call it LeFrak City.

Convinced of his vision, Samuel LeFrak drove back to Manhattan, mulling over how he would persuade the Department of City Planning to rezone the Astor estate as a business, retail, and residence district. Without this zoning, LeFrak had no reason to purchase the property at all, as he would be unable to build on it. In the summer of 1954, LeFrak wrote to the zoning commission announcing his plans for a mixed-use apartment complex, which would include an office building and several stores. LeFrak’s request coincided perfectly with a shift in the national conversation about housing and urban renewal.

On August 2, 1954, Congress passed the Housing Act, written “to aid in the provision and improvement of housing, the elimination and prevention of slums, and the conservation and development of urban communities.” [14] The law focused on revitalizing inner cities in order to increase the tax base of large cities. It was  shift from focusing on the slum and its residents to focusing on saving downtown areas and allowing the city to better compete with the suburbs.[15] Helping the poor gave way to making the city more attractive.

At the same time, the New York State Assembly was kicking around several ideas that would become the 1955 Mitchell-Lama Housing Bill. The legislation was a concerted effort to make it easier to build affordable housing for the middle class. Local governments used eminent domain to acquire land and then sold it to developers for housing for low and middle-income residents. The developers received tax abatements and low-interest mortgages.[16]

While LeFrak City was not built with the public assistance provided by Mitchell-Lama, the bill created an ideal political climate for LeFrak’s proposal to convert the Astor Estate into an affordable housing complex. The same public officials who were mulling incentives for private builders now got a proposal for affordable housing from an established private developer. Within months of LeFrak’s application, the Astor estate was rezoned. Now all he had to do was buy the place.

In the winter of 1955, LeFrak sat at his desk in his office on Queens Boulevard, just blocks from one of the LeFrak Organization’s developments. On the wall behind him hung a plaque that read, “Some people see things as they are and ask why; I dream things that never were and ask why not.”[17] LeFrak picked up his phone and called Irving Lew, a real estate lawyer that the LeFrak Organization had used in other transactions throughout the years.

Lew was accustomed to LeFrak’s ambitious dealmaking, but this project topped any previous negotiation. Control of the land was divided between the estates of John Jacob Astor and Lord William Waldorf Astor of England. He would have to negotiate with both sets of heirs. Given the land’s sub-par quality, LeFrak believed that he could offer $4 per square foot, totaling roughly $7 million for the entire 40-acre parcel.[18] The offer was low, as most land in the Corona area was going for $12 per square foot, but LeFrak considered himself to be a talented negotiator.[19]

“Sam often comes off dumb in dealings,” a colleague of his would tell New York Magazine many years later. “But he never makes mistakes. He is forever coming up with some new wrinkle to make a good deal even better, and he fights like hell.”[20]

The negotiations took more than five years, but by 1960, LeFrak was

the proud owner of the marshy but impressive parcel. On May 11, he held a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan and announced that very soon he would start construction of “LeFrak City, the city of tomorrow” in Corona, “the geographic center of New York City.” The venue for this announcement was notable. The same William Waldorf Astor who developed the Waldorf Astoria Hotel had once owned the land for LeFrak City. One generation of builders was eclipsing the other.

“This moment, I feel, is the high point in the history of the LeFrak Organization,” LeFrak told the reporters. “In the past, we have planned great things and we have accomplished them. A fitting climax to our 55 years of building achievement – this is the company’s proudest moment and mine.”[21]




In mid-July in 1960, Samuel LeFrak, his father, Harry, and his wife, Ethel stood at the center of the site of what would become LeFrak City. Reporters from local Queens Newspapers including the Long Island Press and the Queens Tribune gathered around to photograph LeFrak break ground. At around 11 a.m., LeFrak picked up a shovel, drove it into the marshy dirt, lifted his right foot so that it rested on the back edge of the tool, and smiled for the cameras.

“City within a city to rise in heart of Queens,” the Long Island Star Journal announced. “LeFrak will house 25,000.”[22]

Construction began the next day. Locals from around the Corona and Elmhurst areas gathered at the edges of the property to watch the massive excavators and bulldozers move earth on acres of land that hadn’t ever been touched. To the north of LeFrak City was 57th Avenue, a family community, lined with several schools and home to a mostly working class, white population. To the east was 99th Street with its myriad churches and residents of mostly Italian, Dominican, and African American descent. To the west was Junction Boulevard, one of Queens’ oldest and most central thoroughfares, and a straight shot from LeFrak City to LaGuardia Airport. To the south lay the recently completed Long Island Expressway, stretching all the way out to Riverhead, Long Island some 60 miles away. Every commuter living on Long Island would see LeFrak City every day, twice a day, LeFrak knew. He would lure them in by building the city of the future.

In 1957, with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, futuristic themes began to influence architecture and design across the United States. Developments in materials science allowed for cheaper and faster production of everything from homes and appliances to clothing and art in ways that were aesthetically influenced by rocket ships and luxury cars. Americans purchased these items compulsively, working hard to buy the newest, best appliances, and outshine their neighbors. Their consumption reflected a national optimism about the power of technology and the future.

Encouraging this new consumer culture was an enormous demographic shift from the city into suburbia. When World War II ended, the housing market was in a period of major flux. The war had marshaled the power of American factories and industrial labor into production of war time materials, not houses and apartment buildings. When men returned home and rapidly began starting families, there was very little available housing. Nationwide demand for housing was met with the rapid building of suburban homes on cheap, unused land.[23] Developers such as Levitt and Sons, famed for the creation of Long Island’s Levittown, used cheap materials and assembly-line methods to build homogenous residential enclaves just outside of New York City. New Deal-era highways such as the Long Island Expressway were already there, so that middle class Americans could use cars that were getting steadily cheaper to commute from the suburbs to jobs in the cities.[24]

In the peak of their construction boom, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Levitt and Sons built one house every 16 minutes using techniques based on American automobile manufacturing. Groups of non-union workers moved from house to house, each performing one of 26 highly specialized steps, using standardized materials bought directly from their manufacturers. Every house was identical in layout and design and was sold for $7,990, with additional veteran discounts in order to appeal to the thousands of GIs looking for housing after the war.[25] All houses came with their own built in television and white picket fence. [26]

“We are not builders,” Bill Levitt, the president of Levitt and Sons told the Long Island Daily Press in 1949. “We are manufacturers. We are the General Motors of the housing industry.”

Writing in Harper’s Magazine in 1948, Eric Larrabee called Levittown, “American suburbia reduced to its logical absurdity.” According to Larrabee, Levitt’s success was based purely on the time in which he was building. “Any other builder at any other time would not have had the veteran market, would not have had the organization, could not have bypassed union restrictions, and could not have secured the financing. The Levitt story is of how he was relieved of these obstacles, got around others, and ran into the remainder head foremost and knocked them down.”[27]

For LeFrak, on the other hand, Levittown was an inspiration.

LeFrak would use the same building methods and uniform designs to create a suburban lifestyle in Queens. Residents would delight in a homogenous community, uniform houses, ample green spaces, and unparalleled affordability. He would build 20 identical residential buildings, each with 16 stories and 250 apartments, as well as an office building, forming an urban Levittown.




The project was extraordinarily ambitious. The LeFrak Organization wasn’t just designing apartments, but a new way of living. Never before had a private developer attempted to build a community, both socially and psychically. LeFrak wanted to bring people together and then keep them together through the allure of luxury amenities and shopping. Inspired no doubt by the theories of psychogeography popularized during this period by Guy DeBord and Walter Benjamin, which explored the psychological effects of an urban environment, the LeFrak organization intended to create an urban environment, consciously organized to foster togetherness and ease. The twenty apartment buildings of LeFrak were built in five X shaped blocks with four individual buildings in each X and a communal lobby in the center. The arrangement of the blocks created four diamond shaped interior courtyard spaces completely closed off from the street outside. These cloistered green oases in the middle of a bustling city were thought to improve residents’ moods and served as communal gathering places where residents could have picnics with their neighbors. The idea was to create the relaxing effects of the suburbs without the feelings of isolation associated with suburban living. LeFrak was selling LeFrak City as a commodity of urban design, “scientifically proven” to improve not only one’s state of living, but one’s state of mind.

Years later, in a speech at the American Academy of Achievement in Chicago, LeFrak would refer to himself as Dr. LeFrak, “an expert in many subjects” with extensive experience in the real estate, energy, entertainment, and academic sectors. “American business will be cutting a new contract with society,” he said. “Businesses are assuming many of the roles that government used to take on and that the family used to protect as its special preserve, including day care, child care, and elderly care in order to improve the quality of the American workforce.”[28] This diagnosis seemed to echo his vision for LeFrak City. The amenities in his development would form a community and a lifestyle that could ease the burdens of a middle-class existence.

“A city is built from the ground up, but planning for better living comes from the top down,” a newspaper ad for LeFrak City read in 1961. “LeFrak presents the happy life.”

From the advertisements alone, however, it was clear that the “happy life” was intended only for some. Like Levittown’s advertisements, those of LeFrak City exclusively featured white, middle class families. Photos of white mothers pushing their children on the swings in a LeFrak City playground, and white fathers playing tennis on the LeFrak City courts, and white children going to the movie theater populated these advertisements.[29] According to Charles Mehlman, building manager in LeFrak City through most of the 1960s, the typical tenants in LeFrak City were college educated, middle class couples with an average of three children.[30]


A resident play tennis on the LeFrak City courts, 1968. Courtesy of the LeFrak Organization Archives

Residents push their children on swings in LeFrak City, 1965. Courtesy of the LeFrak Organizaion Archives.

Residents play dominos in LeFrak City, 1965. Courtesy of the LeFrak Organization Archives.


Each of the 5,000 apartments at LeFrak City would possess the “General Electric Kitchen of Tomorrow,” which featured built-in dishwashers, refrigerators, freezers, electric ranges, dining bars, and wall-to-wall fruitwood cabinets.[31]

“Compact practical and neat, all-electric color coordinated kitchens by General Electric are the housewife’s dream come true,” explained a 1962 advertisement for LeFrak City. “Exclusive space-saving features of LeFrak City kitchens offer ample room for intimate coffee breaks in breakfast nooks to man-sized meals served in full dining rooms. Dishwashers, over-sized ovens and ranges, and huge deluxe refrigerator-freezers make the kitchen in the World of Tomorrow a push-button joy for the entire family.”[32]

Hallways in LeFrak City were carpeted, lobbies were designed by decorators and attended by uniformed doormen, underground garages provided ample parking space as well as limousine service, and the entire complex had complete air conditioning manufactured by General Electric.

The signature aspect of LeFrak City, however, was the amount of green space available. Nearly 80 percent of the 40 acres on which LeFrak City was built were dedicated to gardens and recreational areas. There were no cars or cross streets in the community, so all enclosed private areas within the development was for the use of residents.[33]

“The working man will live with more recreational and community comforts surrounding him than did the millionaires of America at the turn of the century,” LeFrak told New York City Council members in 1964. “There are only two things required. The first is concern or the will to provide them and the second is imagination so that one may foresee and anticipate those things that make for a fuller life.”[34]

Except to commute to jobs outside, residents never needed to leave the complex, for just outside their doors, they could find what one 1964 advertisement described as “101 total living facilities” – more than 20 garden, parks and playgrounds, an ice skating rink, a roller rink, a heliport, a shopping center with luxury stores, two theaters, half a dozen tennis courts, 10 swimming pools, a putting green, and underground parking garages. There was also a pre-school, a public library branch, a number of restaurants and bars, a doctors’ office, a dentists’ office, and a post office.[35]

These amenities were just one of the four dimensions of total living listed in a 1965 advertisement in the New York Times for LeFrak City. “You deserve the best!” the advertisement reads. “Total living, total safety, total financial security, total suburbia.” [36]  Only at LeFrak City, could one take a dip in the community pool and leave their wallet and keys on their chaise lounge without worry. A security team of more than 100 men guarded the complex as well as a fleet of doormen and 24-hour gatehouse attendants. In an era defined by widespread fear of urban slums and derelict inner-city neighborhoods, living in LeFrak City seemed to defy popular conceptions of life in New York City, functioning as a city unto itself.

“Here is a preview of things to come…an indication of a changing society. Until recently, this was a society reared in – and steadfast to – traditions of the private hearth and home,” the Queens Borough Tribune wrote in September 1962. “But increased problems in commuting, rising maintenance costs, a scarcity of conveniences all contributed to disillusionment with the mythology of Suburbia and a search for a new way of life. For many searchers, all roads lead to LeFrak City.”[37]

In the years to come, though, some of those “searchers” would be less than welcome.




[1] “City Within a City to House 25,000 Will Rise Corona.” Long Island Daily Press
[Queens], 11 May 1960

[2] Melia, John. “He Loves LeFrak City.” New York Daily News [New York], 22 Apr.

[3] Oser, Alan. “Samuel J. LeFrak, Master of Mass Housing, Dies at 85.” The New York Times
[New York], 17 Apr. 2003.

[4] Tobias, Andew. “Someday We May All Live in LeFrak City.” New York Magazine, 12
Mar. 1973, pp. 36-42.

[5] Villa, Wendy. “The Jewish Problem.” Social History of Columbia University,
edited by Robert McCaughey, Columbia University, 10 Apr. 2002, \

[6] Tobias, Andew. “Someday We May All Live in LeFrak City.” New York Magazine, 12
Mar. 1973, pp. 36-42.

[7] Oser, Alan. “Samuel J. LeFrak, Master of Mass Housing, Dies at 85.” The New York Times
[New York], 17 Apr. 2003.

[8] Tobias, Andrew. “Someday We May All Live in LeFrak City.” New York Magazine, 12
Mar. 1973, pp. 36-42.

[9] Marzlock, Ronald. “I Have Often Walked.” Queens Chronicle [New York], 28 Aug.

[10] Rozhon, Tracie. “Fred C. Trump, Postwar Master Builder of Housing for Middle
Class, Dies at 93.” New York Times [New York], 26 June 1999.

[11] “The Native American history of Queens.” Brownstowner [Brooklyn], 27 Nov. 2012,

[12] Tobias, Andrew. “Someday We May All Live in LeFrak City.” New York Magazine, 12
Mar. 1973, pp. 36-42.

[13] New York, Legislature, Assembly, Metropolitan Transit Authority. Number One
Transportation Progress An Interim Report. 1968. Collection of Joseph D. Korman

[14] Housing Act of 1954. United States Code, vol. 12, 1954, sec. HR7839.

[15] Fairbanks, Robert. “The Housing Act of 1954 and the War Against Slums in the
Southwestern United States.” 15th International Planning History Society
Conference, 18 July 2012, São Paolo.

[16] “About the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program.” Homes and Community Renewal. New York
State, 1 Apr. 2015,

[17] Oser, Alan. “LeFrak Wants to Go On Building in City.” New York Times [New York],
25 Jan. 1970.

[18] Tobias, Andrew. “Someday We May All Live in LeFrak City.” New York Magazine, 12
Mar. 1973, pp. 36-42.

[19] Miller, Jonathan. “Change is the Constant in a Century of New York Real Estate.”
Prudential Douglas Elliman,

[20]  Tobias, Andrew. “Someday We May All Live in LeFrak City.” New York Magazine, 12
Mar. 1973, pp. 36-42.

[21] “City Within a City to House 25,000 Will Rise Corona.” Long Island Daily Press
[Queens], 11 May 1960

[22] “City Within A City to Rise in Heart of Queens.” Long Island Star Journal
[Queens], 11 May 1960.

[23] Spencer, Carl. “State and Local Housing Programs After World War II.” Monthly
Labor Review, vol. 69, no. 5, Nov. 1949, pp. 499-502.

[24] Altschuler, Glenn, and Stuart Blumin. THE GI BILL: A New Deal for Veterans. New
York, Oxford University Press, 2009.

[25] Marshall, Colin. “Levittown, the prototypical American suburb.” The Guardian
[London], 28 Apr. 2015,

[26] Archer, John. Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream
House. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Pg. 284.

[27] Larrabee, Eric. “The Six Thousand Houses that Levitt Built.” Harper’s Magazine,
vol. 197, no. 1180, 1 Sept. 1948, pp. 78-88.

[28] LaGuardia-Wagner Archives, Queens Local History, LeFrak, Samuel.

[29] Concepts Our Most Important Product. New York Daily News [New York].

[30] Melia, John. “LeFrak City Survives and Looks to the Future.” New York Daily News [New
York], 14 Aug. 1983.

[31] “LeFrak City Reaches Halfway Mark.” Long Island Daily Press [Queens], 20 Dec.

[32] Melia, John. “LeFrak City Survives and Looks to the Future.” New York Daily News [New
York], 14 Aug. 1983.

[33] Steinem, Gloria. “The LeFrak Way of Life.” New York Times [New York], 31 July

[34] “Queens Skyscraper Area LeFrak City: 6,000 Units.” Queens Borough Tribune [New
York], 13 Sept. 1962.

[35] The “Magic” Ingredients in the Wonderful World of Tomorrow. New York Times [New
York], 12 Oct. 1969. Advertisement.

[36] You Deserve the Best: LeFrak City. New York Times [New York], 7 Feb. 1965.

[37] “Queens Skyscraper Area LeFrak City: 6,000 Units.” Queens Borough Tribune [New
York], 13 Sept. 1962.


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