Back in October, my parents came down from Long island to take my son to Kings Dominion, an amusement park just outside of Richmond. Being that he’s only five years old, he was interested in the animatronic dinosaurs and kiddie rides, one of which was the Peanuts tie-in called “Joe Cool’s Driving School.” He sat in a little car and drove around a mock streetscape that came complete with traffic lights, road signs, and street lamps, one of which looks exactly like the crooked-style street lamp that I remember being attached to jersey barriers on the Wantagh Parkway.
In case you are unfamiliar with the Wantagh Parkway or any of the other parkways on Long Island, this is one of a network of roads that shuttles passengers around Long Island, especially to and from New York City. I won’t name and describe all of them, but will say that the two most well-known are the Southern State and Northern State, which run on the south and north shores, respectively, with parkways like the Meadowbrook, Wantagh, and Sagtikos connecting them from north to south. The parkways were designed in the earlier decades of the 20th Century by Robert Moses (who was parks commissioner at the time and has a state park and causeway named after him) and are passenger car-only roadways with stone-façade bridges, and even some hiking and walking trails.
A satellite view of the Wantagh Parkway, courtesy of Google Maps.
But important to me and my childhood on Long Island, these parkways were the way my family traveled from our house in Sayville to my grandmother’s house in New Hyde Park. She and my grandfather (who passed away when I was in high school) lived in a typical post-war suburban home that they had moved into back in the late 1940s or early 1950s when my grandfather had returned from the Second World War, living in Brooklyn became tougher, and these homes were becoming more readily available. My family drove this route more times than I can count, and it wasn’t until I attended Joe Cool’s Driving School that I realized that every trip to my grandmother’s was a history lesson. I honestly don’t know what prompted it—probably because I have always associated Peanuts with the suburban 1960s of its television specials—and I honestly don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before. After all, I have always been interested in the modern history of my homeland (although I have only read Robert Caro’s infamous New Yorker article on Robert Moses and not The Power Broker, which I swear I will one day pick up and read) so you think I would have realized that Long Island has an element of “living history” to it.
Exit W3 in 2009 with the parkway’s crooked lamp posts, courtesy of street view on Google Maps …
Then again, you rarely notice these things when you live among them and the history of suburban Long Island is not designated with historical markers the way the Revolutionary and Civil War landmarks are near my current home in Virginia. It’s more geologic, in a sense. When you look at a rock formation or a canyon, you see striations in the rocks and any geologist can tell you how that determines the age as well as what can clue you into that area’s history (for example, the presence of certain elements can suggest that, say, an asteroid hit the Earth at some point). When you look at the suburbs of Long island, you see that their history is layered. Sure, Levitt bulldozed farmland and build houses at one point and Moses did the same for the parkways, but that was more than half a century ago and since then, one thing has been built on top of one another, or the old has been repurposed, perhaps several times over.
… and the same exit taken in 2011, accessed on Google Maps.
Starting my trip in my parents’ house in Sayville is perfect for this sort of examination. My hometown is a good 200 years old and while it has had its fair share of changes over the years (read: something was knocked down in order to put up another bank), there are still vestiges of its former life as a seaside gateway for the turn-of-the-century upper class as well as century-old main street buildings that are more suited to its life a s pre-suburban small town, as are the towns of West Sayville and Oakdale, which we would snake through on our way to the three parkways that would eventually take us to New Hyde Park.
Each seems to have its own personality. The Southern State, which when I was a little kid still had a few timber post street lamps lining its shoulders, has the feel of what I can imagine was truly considered a “parkway”—a sprawling, twisting, turning road with stone-façade bridges that reminds you that you are, in fact, driving along the south shore. Even when it becomes the Belt Parkway (the bane of any New York-area traveler), you still feel like you are on a coastal highway. Contrast that with the Northern State, witch seems to choke its way along the north shore before it becomes the Grand Central Parkway and heads straight for Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes, and you have a look at various shades of the past. On approach to New Hyde Park via the Northern State, there are the North Shore Towers, which is a high rise luxury condo but always seemed like a reminder that we were near New York City.
But not the New York City of the time; a New York City of another era, or the type of city I remembered from years of educational films. And the Wantagh provided the transition between the more open, even rural Suffolk County and the increasingly urban Nassau County. Whereas the Southern and Northern States both saw their looks change from years past—lanes were expanded and timber post lights were modernized—for years, the Wantagh still had the same crooked lamp post that were installed in the 1970s and it skirted by towns that at a glance looked like they hadn’t changed in years. It’s not an extraordinary stretch of road by any means and we were only on the parkway for a few miles, but between those towns and those lights, I always felt as if I were going back in time. (more…)