Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"This is Suburbia" - A Special Comment

I would like to cover two quick things before jumping into today's planned Special Comment.

Final DGEIS Submitted

The Lighthouse announced that the final Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS) was submitted to the Town of Hempstead last Thursday, June 11. Look for the completeness hearing to be conducted by the Town's July 7 deadline, and hopefully we will move into public comments soon afterward.

Process Still in the Works

To answer the question yesterday from Anonymous - Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead are, according to sources, still working on the process for moving approvals forward, with help from the Lighthouse. It will be released when it is finalized.

Today's Special Comment - "This is Suburbia"

As with the last opinion piece, this works better if more people comment.

UPDATE: Apparently I was on the same wavelength as the New York Times, which published an interesting piece on the Lighthouse yesterday.

"This is Suburbia"

Lighthouse opponents are taking more subversive tactics when decrying the project. According to this new paradigm, we must not build a high-density, walkable community with mass transit access and tall buildings because "this is suburbia." It is a rallying cry that calls people to defend the community from supposed infringement.

"Suburbia" was once an ideal, an idyllic community allowing returning GI's and other city dwellers to move in search of a more expansive life, a single-family home, and a new slice of the American Dream. Entire communities, Levittown chief among them, were built to serve an inanimate object: the automobile. As communities grew, strip malls and supermarkets began going up to support the automotive lifestyle. Mass transit was short-changed, with LIRR lines closing, bus lines being done in a half-hearted way, and any expansions falling by the wayside as people took to their cars. The suburban concept was born, and Long Island had an identity.

Suburbia as a Crutch

In recent decades, "This is suburbia" ceased to become an identity and was relegated to little more than a brand name. Now, Long Island seeks to define itself as much by what it is not as what it is. "This is suburbia" mostly means "this is not the city," as people who left the city to move to Long Island are deathly afraid of the city following them out here.

"This is suburbia" became a rallying cry for the small thinkers and anti-visionaries who are responsible for some of the most grievous compromises we have seen on Long Island:

The Long Island Expressway, which was too short, too narrow, and only adequate when it was completed decades ago. It is now a traffic choke-point.

The lack of freight rail on Long Island - incidentally this is the main reason there are so many trucks choking traffic on the LIE.

Nassau Coliseum itself - as I wrote in the very beginning of this blog, it was scaled down from original plans that called for a 20,000 seat arena with an underground Long Island Rail Road station in the spot currently occupied by the Expo Hall.

The undersupply of apartments - single-family homes were great when younger people attended high school and got married almost immediately after. Now, younger people are looking for other options, and they are going to communities that offer those options, in many cases never to return. Those who stay are often relegated to illegal apartments carved out of single-family homes, a problem far more prevalent than anybody in power wishes to acknowledge.

Great communities must stand for something, not simply against something.

What is "Suburban," Anyway?

It amazes me that people seek to defend "suburbia" since the idea is, in and of itself, an artificial concept. It goes against many natural human impulses, such as the need to congregate and share ideas. Never before in human history have people lived so far away from their places of business as they do in modern suburban and exurban America, and that causes its own sets of issues.

The Lighthouse pushes itself as a "New Suburban" concept, but the dirty secret is that the concept is not new. A decade before Levittown was built, the United States Government built three "green" towns to serve as public co-ops for government workers. One of these towns was Greenbelt, Maryland, a town that includes apartments, single-family homes, and a walkable, mixed-use downtown. The Town of Brookline, Massachusetts (of which I am a former resident), population 52,000, has apartments, walkable districts, and mass transit access, but many of its side streets are lined with single-family homes and indistinguishable from a street in an older part of Long Island. Arlington, Virginia has single-family options in addition to walkable, mixed-use districts like the Ballston complex, near mass transit.

Are we the arbiters of suburbia? Do we have a right to tell any of these communities that they do not fit into the suburban concept? Or, is the definition more malleable than that?

I'll tell you exactly what the "Old Suburban" concept has come to. Five years ago, my friend and I were hosting friends who play in a band (they've gotten pretty popular now - check them out). The lead singer/songwriter, who hails from Kentucky, had never been to Long Island before. My friend and I drove him around the Island, showing him the different villages, and he finally exclaimed "How can you tell the difference? It all looks exactly the same!"

Related to the Lighthouse

Many Lighthouse opponents are presenting a false choice - build the Lighthouse or keep the essence of Long Island. Some have even gone as far as calling the planned towers a "blight on our landscape" (I could be wrong here, but the only blight on our landscape I see is the actual blight that is rampant in the Town of Hempstead) and "terrorism targets," proving the fear card is alive and well. In my view, this belief is patent nonsense. We are not deciding whether to be urban or suburban; we are deciding how (and if) different ideas fit into Long Island's suburban concept.

Tom Suozzi has been very clear on this, and I stand with him. The County Executive believes that 90% of Long Island, with its residential streets and waterfront, should remain exactly the way it is, and the other 10% should be re-developed in a smart way that addresses the very real problems this community faces.

So, I pose a question - why can't we have both? Why can't we allow for different ways to realize a suburban dream? Why shouldn't we allow developments like the Lighthouse to build rental units and walkable downtown areas? Never forget that today's renter is tomorrow's homeowner if the resident feels wanted by the community. If policies force out residents in their 20's and 30's, those people will not own homes on Long Island in their 40's and 50's.

Closing Thoughts

In these turbulent times, Long Island finds itself at a crossroads. A community must be defined by what it is, not just what it is not. Many of the current figures of what Long Island is are bleak - educating children who move to other communities, the diaspora of people who grew up here, the lack of corporate support, and a stagnating population. The issue now is: How can we move forward with an eye to the past and the original intent of the community?

To move forward, Long Island must become more inclusive. Rigid definitions of "suburbia" force any resident that does not fit the criteria to leave in search of their chosen way of life. That results in both a lower tax base and an echo chamber among the community. If we continue forcing out those who do not fit a narrowing definition of suburbia, there will come a day when nobody is left.

The Lighthouse is not a cure-all, and I hope nobody believes it is, but it can be a catalyst toward a new way of thinking for the first true suburb in America. It could lead to more options for higher-density living while not infringing upon the current model of single-family homes. We should debate the Lighthouse on its merits, rather than enslaving ourselves to an artificial and malleable concept like "suburbia."

This will always suburbia. It is up to us to decide how Long Island will be suburbia, and approving the Lighthouse would be a great place to start.

Please share your thoughts in comments. Petition. Email Me. Follow me on Twitter.


  1. How much is a house in Suburbia worth? This is a question that the opponents of the Lighthouse project and othes like it need to ask themselves. The answer of course is whatever the present owner can get someone to pay her or himself for it in a sale. If the potential buyers for houses are driven away from the Island then the value of all homes will begin and continue to depreciate and this suburban dream will become an ever more rundown nightmare from which none of us will be able to escape. There are ares that ar already urbanized but in a sprawling sort of way that hides the reality that would be plain to be seen if these opponents to the building of a future for LI would but open their eyes. Look at downtown Hempstead or the area surrounding the Hicksville RR station ...

  2. I will tell you guys a short personal and sad part of my life... I'm in my early 30's..After 2 years of marriage and renting an upstairs apartment I began to get pressured, by my in laws and my wife at the time, to buy a $500,000 starter home in Port Washington, thats cheap in PW, while the housing market was crashing...My ex's parents wanted for her daughter what they had back in the old days and my ex felt she deserved it as well because her mom was putting those expectations in her head...To make a long story short, I couldn't handle the pressure to pay a mortgage of over $5000 a month with $7500 taxes...In the end I was forced to leave because I couldn't "keep up with the Jones's" like my wifes family was pressuring us to do...I wanted to give her the world but it didn't happen...

    The bottom line is the old way of thinking needs to change with the changing times...It was one huge cause for the end of my marriage, it was tragic...There is allot more to it than that and more reasons it ended but it was the nail in the coffin...

    On a lighter note, I also wanted to point out that I have traveled all over the country and abroad and I noticed there are so many nice pedestrian areas in other places, they are so nice to walk around, shop, eat or just stroll...I always thought about why we don't have such nice places at home where we could park the cars and congregate???The LHP would be a blessing...It could attract some tourists, who knows???We have nothing here to attract vacationers except Montauk, IMHO...

  3. We couldn't agree with you more!

    Preserving suburbia, as a tagline for stalling progress, has defined zoning and defied logic on Long Island for nearly two generations.

    Only that which works, as in that which promotes and improves the quality of life of residents, is worth preserving.

    That which serves only as a bar to revitalization, under any moniker, must fall by the wayside.

    Long Island, and Nassau in particular, as America's first suburb, cries out for a resurgence that only a project such as the Lighthouse can bring.

    We must welcome and embrace the new suburbia, and let go of those old, tired notions of a suburbia long ago outmoded and left behind.
    - - -
    For more on the issues that impact upon Long Islanders' quality of life, read The Community Alliance blog at

  4. I wanted to clarify, we bought the house "before the house prices went down" so that added to my anxiety and really went against my good judgment but I wanted to "keep up with the Jones's" and satisfy others...

    Imagine how many young people bought houses out there but cant handle the mortgages and end up foreclosure, renting apartments or worse, end up broken homes due to financial stress...Hows a family to get along when they are stressed about paying a gigantic mortgage???

    Shouldn't LI be a place with options for people who cant afford a half million dollar starter home? Its a disgrace when you can get a starter home here for what you could buy a 5000 square foot home with a half acre in NC...I lost several cousins to NC, btw, due to the living conditions here...

    Sorry about the long comments, nick..I just felt compelled to associate my story...

  5. Your comments are always great - don't apologize.

    Oliver - excellent point.

    TCA - good to see you in the comments section here!

    Overall, including emails, this seems to have struck a chord with people. We can't continue to put our heads in the sand and fight phantom enemies when there are very real problems facing our community right now.

  6. Back up the bus! They wanted to build a 20,000 seat arena with a TRAIN STATION (you mean like the one they have in Boston???) and they didnt' do it?

    Hempstead Turnpike lost that "suburbia" tag a long time ago. Long Island CAN and MUST be more than an antiquated vision of cookie cutter houses, 40 x 100 property and white picket fences.

  7. Dee - it's true. I find it fascinating (though not at all shocking) that we have been having the same arguments about the proposed Lighthouse site for over forty years.

    I just dug this piece out of the NY Times archives - Eugene Nickerson, the first Democratic County Executive (Tom Suozzi is the second), started pushing for an entertainment complex, transit hub, and "destination point" at the Mitchel Field site when the Kennedy administration first ceded the land in 1962.



    Would have been nice if I'd included the link.

  9. I don't have much to add to your post, but add me to the list of those that agree 100%. I've been to a lot of nice places in this country - suburban areas - with nice hubs (for lack of a better word) and bemoaned the fact that we'd never have anything like that on LI. No available land, I thought. Now that this opportunity is in front of us, we need to grab it. The notion that it will kill some suburban ideal is just false.