We observe them, in recent years, as places with wayside memorials - sites where pedestrians have been fatally struck by automobiles and the nearest utility pole is subsequently festooned with flowers, letters, prayers, animals.
There are many in our area. Far too many. What most of them have in common is that they occur where the road has a sudden and seemingly inexplicable kink.
It seems odd at first that roads in these parts should have bends. Many of the largest roads, after all, began as Indian trails and whilst the first Long Islanders may not have had the surveying skills comparable to the ancient Romans - a 31-mile section of Roman border in a German forest, for example, deviates only one yard - they had topographical advantages. The Hempstead Plains upon which Levittown and the surrounding communities reside was flat, open, wind-swept, horizon-to-horizon grasslands before the modern era.
Moreover, colonial surveyors were highly accurate as recent work employing GPS indicates. So why a bend in the road that's become a pedestrian hazard in the modern era when suburban development would obscure fast-moving automobile traffic?
Many of our north/south running roads traversed parallel to creeks where water would available to persons on foot as well as livestock. These streams with their reed-tangled banks, cloaked in prickly-pear thickets, and shaded by trees twisted and bended as they fed into each other before reaching the Great South Bay and adjacent thoroughfares reflect that bend.
Wantagh Avenue, for example, bends at Miller Place across the street from the Levittown Bakery due to a slight westward detour of the old Jerusalem Creek. A tributary of that creek meandered southwestwards (as indicated by sedimentary deposit patterns on a 1928 U.S. Geological Survey Map) to reach the Hempstead Turnpike/Jerusalem Avenue intersection and this water might have nourished the "Island of Trees" that ancient grove of pines that grew here amid the sea of grass in early times. Moreover, it bended precisely where there's the kink on Gardiner's Avenue by Halter Lane.
Another tributary of Jerusalem Creek entered the future Levittown along Bloomingdale Road. It continued southwards through the heart of the Island Trees School District cutting through what's now Nassau Mall and thence down the pathway of Ranch Lane to join the main Jerusalem branch near Old Oak Lane. Division Avenue runs along Big Hallow Creek; the rill bending southeast to meet up with those other streams by Southern State Parkway. Most of these rills were dry creek beds by the time Willliam Levitt was born in 1907 but their subtle contours can still be traced.
West/east running roads like Hempstead Turnpike have their little meanderings too. The one at Jerusalem Avenue, which makes this an especially accident-prone intersection, is probably a legacy of the "Island of Trees." A slightly less noticeable bend at Hicksville Road might, in part, be accounted for by another and more elongated grove called "Point-of-the-Woods" in the late 17th Century and this served as the Town of Hempstead/Town of Oyster Bay boundary.
Although these roads are under the jurisdiction of New York State and could have been straightened in earlier times, the volume of traffic they'd handle in 1950 was unimaginable just ten years earlier and by 1950 the number of adjoining property owners had multiplied considerably. Moreover, obvious engineering flaws today are really only obvious in hindsight. On January 29, 2008, for example, a Division Avenue High School student named Lauren Davis was killed crossing Hempstead Turnpike at the Loring Road traffic light; the eastbound motorist approaching simply could not see her over the ridge of the Wantagh Parkway overpass. A May 1936 photograph of this exact location, looking eastwards into the future Levittown, shows flat, open, rural land and an unobstructed view. Nobody in 1936 could have imagined the day when more motorists and pedestrians would pass by in a single hour than passed by in a single week.
The bends in the road and their sometimes tragic consequences illustrate the extent to which we are oftentimes victims of our own history.
Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org