Written in 1998, for the NY Times Long Island section
Getting off the boat from Hungary, Germany and Poland, I doubt very much that my great-grandparents’ American dreams were of themselves living on Fifth Avenue next-door to Henry Clay Frick (Yetta, Yussel, wanna come over and see my new Vermeer?). No, most likely they got past Ellis Island and simply exhaled an “Oy” of relief. What they wanted, I’ve always supposed, was to be free from fear — of starvation, of religious persecution, of rape and pillage by stupnagel peasants.
Once they could sleep through the New York night without worrying that some Hapsburg goon squad might kick in the door, to say nothing of their teeth, I do not believe they dreamed grandiose skyscraper dreams about champagne at Delmonico’s or sapphires at Tiffany’s: Their American dream was set somewhere out there.
So they moved to Brooklyn. The outer boroughs seemed to offer what ordinary people yearn for: the occasional tree, good schools for their children, decent neighbors. The neighbors were key, because out of the ghetto for the first time, the various immigrant groups — my Jewish great-grandparents and the Irish, Italians, Poles, Swedes and Latinos — joined the blacks and the Protestants of English and Dutch descent already in Brooklyn and, thus, got to know their fellow Americans.
How did they like their equals? I think for the most part they did like them, often enormously, but (and here is the first glimmer of the Long Island style) not enough to join hands with them and leap into the melting pot. The inexorable process of assimilation that elsewhere was turning young Lithuanians and Letts into a nation of Little Miss Markers and Andy Hardys was far slower in New York City, in part because there were enough Lithuanians and Letts and Sicilians and Chinese to allow the various groups to survive and sometimes thrive in the new soil. What might not play in Peoria or Pocatello was okey-doak here; there was far less pressure to “pass,” to shorten multisyllabic surnames and noses, to eschew the old, spicy comfort foods for fear the neighbors might smell something garlicky (and therefore suspiciously foreign) in their kitchens.
Still, especially after World War II, the five boroughs did not feel like the culmination of the American dream. People did not want apartment buildings. They wanted houses with land, a town with an actual Main Street. Yet they were torn, because, as children and grandchildren of immigrants, they sensed the paradigmatic Main Street wasn’t was not the heaven on earth the movies and Life magazine made it out to be. First of all, the media’s Main Street was all white. No one strolling along was even remotely beige. To those children of Catholic and Jewish immigrants who had character and memory enough to recall not just the prejudices of the old country, but of being discriminated against by their white Anglo-Saxon Protestant fellow Americans, the lily whiteness of suburbia was a source more of distress than of consolation. Second, the Reader’s Digest and MGM vision of Main Street, as well as Main Street’s own vision of Main Street, was relentlessly sunny. Everyone appeared too damn full of vim (except for the token curmudgeon, usually named Pops, who could only be jollied out of his cantankerousness by a prepubescent girl à la Margaret O’Brien climbing onto his lap). The suburbs seemed to lack the tragic sense of life, to say nothing of decent pastrami. Deep down, the New Yorkers understood their heart’s desire — painful as it was to admit — was a tad boring.
The remedy? Go in a different direction. Instead of heading west to get lost in America, or north to join the horsey set in Westchester (via the Bronx) or the Yankee-dominated society of New England, or south to New Jersey — the state New Yorkers have always enjoyed feeling morally superior to in the same supercilious way other Americans feel morally superior to New York — our parents and grandparents reversed the normal flow of immigrant traffic. They headed east, to Long Island; they headed east largely in the same company with whom they arrived at Ellis Island.
So while Levittown did become America’s archetype for the cookie-cutter suburb, in fact, it was not a one-cookie town at all, at least not in the sense that other suburban communities were, where the dominant culture — usually Wasp — so eclipsed all others that it diminished them to the point of invisibility. Levittown’s residents — and Massapequa’s and Port Washington’s and Huntington’s residents — left the city more to avoid the limits and the ills of the urban life than to escape who they were.
So what is Long Island style? A mix of gritty urban ethnicity, garden club manners and middle-American taste. We still take our cue from New York City: Socially, most of the Island is a verdant improvisation on Brooklyn and Queens, while the non-agricultural world of the South Fork takes its cue more from modish Manhattan. (Manhattan-domiciled Hamptons homeowners weigh fifteen pounds less per capita than other Long Islanders. However, to view that area solely as a chic playground for wolves of Wall Street and media darlings is an error. Like the borough to which it perpetually correlates, the Hamptons are made up of many worlds in which everyone aspires to be a hotshot. Each weekend, there are gatherings of the glitterati of endodontia, the jet set of the bankruptcy bar, the intelligentsia of preteen sportswear.)
The “lifestyle” of Long Island is simply that there is no single way of life. We are not so much a melting pot as a stew in which the ingredients remain discrete: meat stays meat, potatoes remain potatoes and carrots are clearly carrots even though they go well together and hang out in the same pot. (Of course, some Long Islanders do indeed choose to lose to identity, to become part of the gravy. Rather than looking to the city for culture or commerce, they turn away, frightened by its turmoil and its life. They not only give up on the city. They court blandness, mistakenly thinking that being accepted means being blah. These are the people most likely to give up on their own backgrounds, their ethnic, religious or racial ties, to try to become generic Americans. They long to be indistinguishable from their sisters and brothers in suburban Bismarck and outer Shreveport.
However, Nassau remains smack-up against Queens; Long Island is literally, an extension of New York City. Like that great, gray city, it tolerates a wide range of styles and behavior. No, it is not the East Village, but neither does it force its residents into one particular mode of behavior. I have heard that the garden maven-Gold Coast socialite C.Z. Guest has as neighbors the novelist Victoria Gotti and the raconteur Howard Stern. While such a mingling delights me, it does not surprise me. It truly exemplifies the Long Island lifestyle, albeit the high-rent version. Guest and Gotti and Stern, like us, have the freedom not only to pursue an American dream, but to make that dream a distinctly personal vision — one that does not break faith with the past.