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A Levittowner and a Hicksvillite

A look at the history of Levittown from historian Paul Manton.

Out of the open, wind-swept, horizon-to-horizon grasslands of the Hempstead Plains, a line was defined.

 "And from thence uppone a Est line to the end of the plaine bounded with wodes one the ese" is how the May 20, 1648 treaty between Robert Williams and Pugnipan of the Matinecock defined what half a decade hence became the Hempstead/Oyster Bay township line and, consequently, in an unimagined future three centuries thereafter, the border between Hicksville and Levittown.

But any sense of boundary between the two entities is of recent vintage. A 1925 aeroview map shows a bustling Hicksville of stores, small factories (pickles, gold-beating, soap-making), houses of worship, and private residences huddled around a railroad depot out of Petticoat Junction; a hamlet with its own playhouse, bowling lanes, courthouse, and recently-erected central high school peopled by families living in the same neighborhood as their great grandparents.

A community no longer entirely agricultural - the scattered potato and cucumber farms betwixt patches of undeveloped land notwithstanding - but not as yet suburban in spite of a number of small housing developments east of Bethpage Road, along Nevada Road, and between Kingston Avenue and Elmira Street. Indeed, except for the latter - called Nassau Gardens before 1930 - little resided south of Old Country Road but the 1860 burying ground and a few scattered farms dotting an area vaguely called Island Trees.

All that changed after WWII, leaving people in the 1950's and 60's to contemplate the bifurcations that were evident in the architecture and plot sizes even as the mass-produced, circuit-board landscape of the Levitt Development crossed Williams' and Pugnipan's "Est line to the end of the plaine" to merge with the triangle and patchwork of the older community.

Billy Joel grew up in this borderland locals called "the Levittown section of Hicksville" by those endeavoring to comprehend the chimera; the place where Norman Rockwell's small town working class America intersected with the emerging Leave it to Beaver blue collar suburbia. The difference was not simply real estate. In the August 13, 1999 issue of The Levittown Tribune, Michael Larkin noted that in the 1950's, Levittown "was composed mostly of people attracted to the Island from the city by attractive low-cost housing, whereas many Hicksville locals had been rooted in Hicksville for generations."

Having worked and lived in both communities - as a Hicksville resident for 14 years and as a Levittown resident for 29 years, and having been active in civic organizations in both, I've often sensed the distinction. Amongst older residents, Hicksville nostalgia is for the days "when all this was still farms" or at least for the days before the tracks were elevated and the railroad station relocated to the Newbridge Road crossing and the west side of Broadway demolished.

In Levittown the nostalgia is grounded in the post-War sense of having found the American Dream with the "old neighborhood" in Brooklyn or the Bronx standing in for what immigrant families used to call "the old country."

This bifurcation is augmented by ethnic considerations with Hicksville having a large Central American and South Asian immigrant population as well as more commercial development.

Still, in the residential streets of both is a common sense of suburbia even if it's come to mean something different than what it meant in the 1950's when everyone knew, or seemed to know, everyone else's name on the block. And still, too, like Billy Joel, I can't help but see myself as both a Levittowner and a Hicksvillite.     

Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org.

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