Paleolithic whale-hunters, American revolutionaries, an adored president, French castles, and bathtub gin all combine to paint a portrait of one of New York’s richest historical landscapes—and one that perhaps few people fully appreciate. Nassau County, home to one of the first English settlements in New York State and an estimated 1,333,137 modern residents, is the first county one reaches after leaving Queens and New York City behind, and is a complex mix of urban and suburban values and lifestyles.
About four of the 13 so-called “tribes” of New York-based Native Americans identified by European explorers lived in Nassau County. The Rockaways, meaning “sandy land,” lived from what is now Rockaway Beach to Long Island Sound. The Matinecocks, “at the hilly land,” lived in Flushing, Glen Cove, Cold Spring Harbor and Huntington. The Massapequans, or “great water land,” lived from what is now Seaford to Islip and also occupied Bethpage and the Merricks, “plains country,” lived in Merrick.
The Native Long Islanders probably referred to themselves as simply, “the people” and used different names to describe where they lived, rather than identify themselves as separate tribes, or stake out land they “owned.” Land ownership and boundaries were a foreign concept introduced by the Europeans.
The first European to set foot on Long Island and explore the land on the western half was Giovanni da Verrazano of Italy, whose fleet entered New York Harbor in April of 1524. Da Verrazano wrote in his journal at the time, “we found a very pleasant place. Situated amongst certain little steep hills. From amidst the hills there ran down into the sea a great stream of water…which we found to rise eight foot [sic]—any great vessel laden may pass.”
After Verrazano’s brief visit, two powerful countries also made their way to the new world in the early 17th century to stake a claim on Long Island for two very different reasons.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to call Nassau County home—they settled New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island to trade furs and raise cattle, and they set up shop on western Long Island to grow food crops and tobacco.
“This area was unusual—even written about in books in England,” says Edward J. Smits, Nassau County historian and author of Nassau: Suburbia, U.S.A. The first seventy-five years of Nassau County, New York, 1899 to 1974. “There was this great area of Hempstead plains land across the center of the county from present day Belmont almost to Farmingdale—thousands of acres of just grassland. No one had seen anything like that on the whole East Coast at that time.”
By the mid-1630’s, English settlers from the Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut colonies—disenchanted with the religious friction brewing in New England—sought new homes with strict religious governance.
According to Natalie Naylor, former director of the Long Island Studies Institute of Hofstra University, there is an old quote from the period that says, “Hempstead was half English and half Dutch.” It is believed that the Dutch and English managed to live together despite their differences.
Long Island as a whole had been referred to as the “Isle of Nassau” since it was first settled. The name reflected both Dutch and English influence in the region and was chosen in honor of William of Nassau or William III, both King of England (1650-1702) and Governor of the Netherlands. In 1898, however, the western towns of Queens County joined Greater New York and became part of New York City. Ten years later, the eastern towns—Hempstead, North Hempstead, and Oyster Bay—became Nassau County.
In 1775, the future county of Nassau was split as Northern Hempstead harbored patriots—supporting independence for the colonies — and seceded from the southern loyalists who remained loyal to the King of England. The border between both sections of the town would become Nassau’s “Old Country Road,” which divides the county almost entirely in two.
“Queens County was the stronghold of loyalism in New York,” writes historian and author Alexander Flick in his book Loyalism in New York. “It’s inhabitants were a standing menace to the American cause and an encouragement to the British. They caused the Continental Congress, the Provincial Congress and General George Washington more anxiety and trouble than the loyalists of any other county.”
New York State was probably the most Loyalist State within the colonies, providing the British army with 15,000 men—thousands of which were Long Islanders. The “treasonous” Loyalists of Long Island faced severe penalties after the war, including confiscation of property and seizure of homes. Many escaped to other parts of the world.
Kings, Queens and Bathtub Gin
Subsistence farming was the common thread that tied the early communities of Long Island together in the 17th and 18th centuries, though a few farms were starting to make a fair profit selling their produce—wheat, corn, tobacco and different varieties of beans—in the city. Eventually potatoes, fruits, and vegetables became the dominant staples later in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
One of the earliest industries in Nassau County was tourism. “Even horse racing was a tourist activity,” says Smits. “Right from the beginning, people would ride out from the city with their horses and carriages to the country to small estates, recreation facilities, and the races. That started even in the 1600’s—but not to a great extent until the early 1800’s, with the beginning of the steam boats that became a regular part of the industry as summer tourist communities were set up.”
The introduction of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) in the mid 1830’s and the new open markets in New York City catapulted the farming communities of Nassau County into a frenzy of activity and led to a big leap in its economy and residential growth. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, train tracks ran all along the north, south and central spine of Long Island. By the turn of the century, the LIRR had become the dominant means of transportation to New York City via a direct route to Pennsylvania Station that was completed in 1911. The population of Nassau County’s small villages swelled with the arrival of city commuters and local businesses—leaping from 55,448 in 1900 to 303,053 in 1930.
“In many ways the suburban experience in Nassau County followed the nation’s lead, because we are so close to New York City,” says Smits. “And the same things that were happening there spilled over here. In the 1840’s we began to experience German, Italian and Irish immigration. Some communities were settled by Germans—Hicksville for instance—and we began to get real estate developers promoting the first suburban housing construction in the 1840’s.”
The North Shore of Nassau County enjoyed a residential boom in the early 1900’s, thanks to a grand lifestyle popularized by wealthy New Yorkers who wanted to escape the hazards of urban life. This new trend gave birth to Long Island’s Gold Coast, immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous 1925 work, The Great Gatsby.
The North Shore of Nassau County helped epitomize the “roaring twenties,” a time frozen by prohibition, in which bathtub gin dealers fought the Coast Guard, and lavish parties, speakeasies and nightclubs branded the area as a notorious playground for the cosmopolitan rich. Merrick Road became “Glitter Alley” and Sunrise Highway turned into “The Great Light Way.”
Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote of Nassau County, “there could be no healthier place to raise children up”—built his summer estate Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay. The editor of The New York Evening Post, William Cullen Bryant, erected Cedarmere in Roslyn, and Clarence Mackay, the telegraph company magnate, who created his Harbor Hill Estate after the style of a French castle, were among the giants who helped establish the area.
The aviation industry took off in Nassau County during and after both World Wars. America’s most famous warplanes (and eventually the first lunar module) were manufactured at the old Grumman and Republic factories in Bethpage and Farmingdale. Roosevelt Field, located in Garden City, was a favorite of legendary Amelia Earhardt as well as the site for Charles Lindbergh’s first solo transatlantic take-off in 1927, and Mitchell Field served as a major army base in East Meadow during WWII.
New developments spurred by the booming aviation industry soon began to disturb the peace and quiet of the Hempstead Plains. In the 10 years between 1950 and 1960, the population of Nassau County doubled—and reached its peak in 1970 at 1,428,838. At this time additional roadways were created, such as the North/South parkways and the Long Island Expressway.
As the demand for affordable housing became more intense after WWII, uniform housing developments appeared almost overnight in places like Island Trees, Wantagh, Hicksville and Westbury. The most famous—and possibly infamous, depending upon your viewpoint—was Levittown. Criticized by many—including popular singer Malvina Reynolds, who mocked the new trend in her famous 1963 song, “Little Boxes”—Levittown embodied the concept of ready-made, “cookie-cutter” housing.
The inexpensive, prefabricated homes in Levittown—developed, leased, and managed by William Levitt of Levitt & Sons in 1947 as the utopian planned community—were built to serve the needs of returning veterans and the growing suburban population, but ran into trouble with the culturally-homogeneous standard it promoted. Non-white homebuyers looking to settle in the suburbs often found themselves up against a wall of both unwritten and outright racism. Levittown itself did not allow African Americans to rent or buy homes; the developers arguing that it was a privately-owned community, and therefore they could pick and choose whom they allowed in.
Even with some communities declared off-limits to non-white homebuyers, Nassau County was not entirely without ethnic and racial diversity, says Smits. “The original Levitt deeds did exclude sales to African Americans,” he says, “but even then, there were pockets of African-American populations in Nassau County. Like Roosevelt and Manhasset, for example—and those areas have expanded significantly. Today, a good part of Freeport and Hempstead’s population has a majority of African Americans. Population in suburban areas tends to grow in pockets of ethnic or religious interest…Economics may have been more of a factor than anything else.”
Nassau County Today
Nassau County’s population growth slowed down in the 1980’s and ‘90s and has remained somewhat steady since. Its industrial economy has faded and been replaced with the retail and customer service professions—again mirroring the rest of the country.
According to Dan Ryan, Sr., former president of the Long Island Board of Realtors’ (LIBOR) Multiple Listing Service and a current broker at Prudential Douglas Elliman, the range of professionals that reside in Nassau County vary from civil servants and accountants to entrepreneurs and Wall Street commuters. A large percentage of its population still commutes each day to Manhattan by car or the LIRR.
Renowned for its grand summer estates and vacation residences, Nassau County harbors some of the nation’s wealthiest citizens and contains 10 of the country’s highest income brackets within its borders. In the 2000 census report, four of Nassau’s towns—all located on the North Shore—had average per resident incomes of between $93,559 and $113,320.
These numbers contrast sharply with incomes in the villages of Roosevelt, Levittown, Hempstead Village and Hicksville in the south, which range from $16,950 to $26,741 per resident. Nassau County’s median household income in 1999 was $72,030, however—placing its average resident comfortably in the middle-class. Out of the 447,387 houses in Nassau County, an impressive 80.3 percent are owned.
According to Ryan, “[Nassau County is] certainly suburbia—and there are a lot of different towns within the county. If you like beachfront, there are communities like Long Beach and Atlantic Beach up and down the shoreline from Seaford to Massapequa. There are certainly yards and parks, and there are plenty of golf courses.” He goes on to say that Nassau also offers “a suburban lifestyle plus a little bit of city living,” within the county’s cities of Long Beach and Glen Cove. He also includes the almost pastoral setting of Nassau’s tree-lined North Shore neighborhoods as an alternative to suburbia.
Property values have increased tremendously over past five years in Nassau County. The market has remained steady even though buyers are more cautious than they were three years ago when, as Ryan says, “You’d put a house on the market and you would have multiple bids and it would sell very quickly—it was like a race to the finish line. Now it’s taking longer to sell them, especially with what’s going on in the world with oil prices and interest rates rising. But we’re still selling at the same rate. The prices have not changed that much from a year ago.”
New real estate developments are not especially prevalent in the county except in those areas that have the greatest appreciation such as the North Shore. As Ryan points out, “There’s not a lot of space left to build.” Recently, senior living and recreation centers have begun sprouting up in and around Nassau County. “What we call ‘snowbirds’ or older people tend to either sell their houses. They’ll get a co-op or condo, and then also get a place down south. There’s a big senior community here. You’re starting to see a gradual growth into an assisted living type of expansion.”
Many seniors are moving into complexes like The Bristal assisted living communities in Westbury, East Meadow and Massapequa and the North Shore Towers located on the border of Queens and Nassau County that offer convenient activities and amenities to seniors.
“Nassau County is a coat of many colors,” says Smits, “when the suburbs started to really grow in the 1950s and 60s, the critics decried that they were part of the cookie-cutter mentality—that people were going to be all standardized and so forth. But, we’ve had an enormous number of creative people come out of this area. Billy Joel grew up in the suburbs, and so did Thomas Pynchon, and Billy Crystal. I think those critics didn’t really understand that suburban life was just one of the impulses of American growth, and provided in many ways a rich environment for people—certainly due in part to the influence of New York City and all its energy. People can enjoy safe homes, and natural settings like Jones Beach, and still be creatively and imaginatively stimulated.”
Nassau appears to offer something for everyone. From young couples looking to move out of the city—and who can afford to buy a piece of suburbia— to single professionals looking for an active social community away from “The City,” to seniors looking to downsize their homes while remaining close to their families. They all come to Nassau County to experience the best of both the suburban and urban worlds. As Ryan says in summation, “Overall, it’s a good quality of life.” n
Gillian Kalson is the editorial assistant of The Cooperator.