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What's in a Place-Name?

It's highly likely that, prior to his two-hour debate with Sen. John McCain at Hofstra University, Barack Obama had never heard of Hempstead Village nor even step foot in Nassau County. That's hardly surprising. He was born in Hawaii, spent some of his youth in Indonesia, and had been an Illinois resident for the lion's share of his life where he eventually became a U.S. senator.

Now there's no shortage of people who never set foot on Long Island - indeed, in the New World - who nevertheless had a substantial impact on our area's history. James, the Duke of York and William of Nassau-Orange come immediately to mind. But Barack Obama, notwithstanding the fact that he has no connection to Long Island in general or Hempstead Village in particular, nonetheless is honored with the Barack Obama Elementary School. The honor was conveyed within 24 hours of him being elected President of the United States. Jettisoned was the school's former designation: named after Dr. Charles H. Ludlum (1843-1930) who spent four decades dedicated to public service in the Hempstead community modernizing the schools and bringing them into the 20th Century.

We are losing much of our extraordinary historical and cultural legacy on Long Island as farms become subdivisions or malls, historic old homes are demolished and- in most school districts - Long Island history isn't even taught in spite of the fact that, as one of the oldest settled parts of the country, Long Island is a microcosm for American history.

I work with two history museums. One was established in 1963 and the other in 1997. The week doesn't go by when I don't encounter people living in the same town, oftentimes only blocks away, who don't even know these museums exist. It'd be easy to blame poor public relations except that these museums frequently receive visitors from out-of-state and overseas. Long Island's history is vanishing before the bulldozer but it's also being erased by the growing trend to re-name things and places after people who have absolutely no connection to said things and places and serve merely as some politician's photo-op.

Within a year of my moving to Nassau County from Brooklyn, Salisbury Park was re-christened-- Eisenhower Park. I don't object to the fine memorial in the park to honor the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces during WWII under whom many of our older residents served. But other than an October 1952 ride through the Levittown/Hicksville area along Jerusalem Avenue, there's no real connection between Ike and Long Island let alone that section of the old Hempstead Plains that had been called "Salisbury" since the 17th Century. (He'd been on bis way to attend the dedication of Sagamore Hill).

Likewise neither J.F.K.'s drive down Wantagh Avenue in the Wantagh/Levittown area in 1960 nor his assassination three years later would seem to warrant a park in his honor in Hicksville. I mean, what about John Heitz or Frederick Heyne who, in 1849, purchased a thousand acres from the ailing Valentine Hicks and created many of the streets and plots that give Hicksville its distinct character? Or Julius Augistin, the merchant, farmer, newspaper publisher, and civic activist who did much to transform Hicksville into a thriving German-American community?

Name-changes on Long Island are nothing new. Christian Hill became Muttontown to reflect the sheep-rearing industry of the 19th Century. South Oyster Bay became Massapequa to honor its original inhabitants. Central Park became Bethpage, the original designation of the area on the purchase of 1695. And Jerusalem/Island Trees became Levittown for the family whose endeavors in the 1940's and 50's led to the utter transformation of our isle.

What makes these old name-changes different from the Barrack Obama Elementary School, Eisenhower Park, or John F. Kennedy Memorial Park is that they were part of the natural evolution of our area; they reflected events that occurred here and people that had come connection to our area, its history, and its people.

Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org
Donald O'Brien February 28, 2013 at 12:08 PM
FYI, Pres Obama lived in NYC for about three or four years, when he attended Columbia University for two years and worked in Manhattan for a year or two after graduation from Columbia. Therefore he may have traveled to Long Island in that time.

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