New Book Shows Long Island’s Past With Glimpses of Future - 27 East

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New Book Shows Long Island’s Past With Glimpses of Future

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"Making Long Island"

Lawrence R. Samuel, author of

Lawrence R. Samuel, author of "Making Long Island."

Joseph Finora on Apr 5, 2024

“Making Long Island: A History of Growth and the American Dream,” by Lawrence R. Samuel (History Press, 192 pps., paperback, $24.99) tackles the rise, fall and rise cycles of one of the world’s most famous bits of real estate in an entertaining and forthright style.

Samuel, a historian as well as writer was born and raised in Nassau County’s Woodmere in the 1960s and 1970s — the “crabgrass frontier of suburban America” and after having lived in several other places, now looks back on Long Island with fondness and optimism. “While problems remain, a ‘new and improved’ American dream has emerged on Long Island, I propose, something that its residents should feel very good about,” he said in a telephone interview.

Half travel story, half history, the book takes the reader on a journey that begins at the very start of the Long Island housing/development boom of the 1920s, through the Great Depression, World War II, the explosion of the suburbs, the decline and subsequent renewal. “Long Island was considered a prime site to realize the American dream, i.e., ownership of a single-family house with all the consumerist trappings. Between the 1920s and mid-1960s, that really did happen for many of the middle class,” Samuel said.

As Long Island lies nearly perfectly east of New York City, it was only a matter of time before the two became inextricably linked. There are numerous transportation milestones that took place across Long Island. The Long Island Rail Road was founded in 1834 and brought fish and farm produce to the New York City markets, and brought tourists to Long Island’s beaches and other numerous natural destinations.

The LIRR united Nassau and Suffolk with Manhattan long before New Jersey or Westchester County had railroads of their own while ushering in a new phenomenon — large scale, suburban-urban commuting via mass transit. The butt of numerous commuter complaints and insults, the LIRR is nevertheless the oldest railroad in the United States still operating under its original name and charter.

Aviation also experienced numerous firsts on Long Island, most notably on Mitchell Field. When it came to roadways, Long Island (or Vanderbilt) Motor Parkway that ran east-west for 43 miles over the center of the Island was the world’s first limited-access concrete highway. The Northern State Parkway made that highway obsolete in the 1930s, and 20 years later, the Meadowbrook Parkway added a much-needed north-south artery. The idea of building a suspension bridge from Orient Point to Connecticut where it would connect with Route One while Plum and Fishers islands would serve as “stepping stones” for motorists, was more than a fantasy and actually was the subject of serious discussion that included a 1957 engineering study that concluded that it was indeed possible. The project would also have created an approximately 35-mile Long Island Expressway extension from Riverhead to Orient, dissecting the North Fork.

Samuel gives ample attention to the not-so-rosy times on The Island, especially during the 1970s when a recession forced its economy to evolve. “The American dream became more of a nightmare for most residents,” Samuel notes. “As economic and social forces made home ownership a major challenge, Long Island became as much urban as suburban. Over the following decades, it was Long Island’s high taxes, low unemployment, bad traffic and crime rate that frequently made headlines.”

However, Long Island’s universities, educated and fairly affluent population, helped it to reverse the decline. “Compared to many other communities, while the taxes are high, Long Island generally has good school systems,” said Samuel, who also spends significant time discussing the de facto racism that was prevalent in many developing communities including the massive Levittown, which has something of a symbol of mass-suburbanization. Samuel notes that banks and real estate agencies “conspired” to keep People of Color out of their nascent communities, creating a subtle segregation that lasted for many years.

“Through much of the 20th century,” Samuel noted, “Long Island was a prime site to realize the American dream, i.e., ownership of a single-family house with all the consumerist trappings. Between the 1920s and mid-1960s, that really did happen for many of the middle class, although African Americans were conspicuously excluded from realizing their dream.”

This is where Samuel takes yet another turn. He concludes by noting that while acknowledging problems, Long Island’s future is bright. Environmental concerns are being addressed. Island residents have access to major airports, transit hubs, health care facilities and relatively easy access to all New York City has to offer while being within easy reach of New England. Samuel is also pleased with the emergence of numerous minority and underrepresented groups across Long Island communities.

Readers will enjoy the approximately 50 photographs and illustrations. The book will give most Long Islanders a greater appreciation of the land that has given so much to them.

“Long Island is today in many ways better than what we remember as the golden days of the Eisenhower era. There is far more racial, ethnic, religious, and economic diversity. Single parents and the LGBTQ community are no longer marginalized, all very good things. A new-and-improved American dream has emerged on Long Island, something its residents should feel very good about.”

Larry Samuel will speak about “Making Long Island” at the Bridgehampton Museum’s Nathaniel Rogers House on Saturday, April 13, at 5 p.m. Visit bridgehamptonmuseum.org to register. He will speak at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton on Monday, April 15, at 6 p.m. Visit myrml.org to register. He will speak at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor on Thursday, April 25, at 7 p.m. Visit johnjermain.org to register.

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