The Historical Information Health of Black Communities on Long Island

Stony Brook University Honors College Senior Thesis

Case Study 1: Gordon Heights

The Gordon Heights census-designated place with schools, libraries, and other points of interest. Map by Arielle Martinez.

INTRODUCTION

Gordon Heights is a community deep in Long Island’s interior. In the 1920s, the hamlet was founded as plots of land being marketed and sold to African Americans moving out from New York City. Gordon Heights is an example of the legacies of racial discrimination and housing-market segregation on Long Island in the 20th century. The predominantly white communities on the island’s shores often have historic downtowns, village-level governments and dedicated news organizations, which all provide civic information and can encourage civic engagement. But communities in the interior of the island, which have larger minority populations, like Gordon Heights, usually lack these characteristics.

BACKGROUND

Geography

Gordon Heights is a hamlet in the Town of Brookhaven in Suffolk County. It sits close to the geographic center of both the town and the county. Gordon Heights is south of Middle Country Road (also known as State Route 25), north of the Long Island Expressway, west of the Carmans River and east of State Route 112. It has a total area of about 1.7 square miles, according to the 2010 Census. It has 4,042 residents, a density of about 2,378 people per square mile, according to the census.

History

Gordon Heights was founded in the 1920s, when Louis Fife, a land developer, began advertising Long Island land to black residents of New York City in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. In 1927, Fife and his company, the Gordon Heights Development Corporation, sold five 100-by-100 acre plots for as little as $10 a month. Gordon Heights was named after “Pop” Gordon, one of the earliest residents of the area (“The History of Gordon Heights”).

Gordon Heights and other hamlets in the interior of the island have several characteristics that distinguish them from coastal communities. For example, the wealthy village of Bellport on the South Shore of the Town of Brookhaven was founded by sea captains in the 19th century. Fishing and clamming were the main industries of the village, but the location also offered boating and fishing in warmer months and ice boating in the winter, according to the village website. But Gordon Heights and other interior hamlets like Coram and Middle Island were primarily farming communities and stretched along the major thruway of the day, which is today known as State Route 25 (“Middle Country Road”).

The development of Gordon Heights as a farm community was Fife’s intent. “When I decided to offer Gordon Heights as a community of small farms to the public, it filled a need,” he said, according to “The History of Gordon Heights,” an essay published by the Longwood Central School District. “I was a lone pilgrim in those days. There were other projects, but they belonged rather to the fly-by-night, get-rich quick variety. From the very start, we began to develop to build homesteads, and lay the foundation for a solid, well-knit community of small farms.”

Today, one can see how the differences in development between the coastal communities and interior communities have led to differences in the use of land. Interactive maps developed by the Long Island Index show that in the interior hamlets, commercial land is concentrated along State Route 25, so these communities don’t have true downtowns to act as centers of the community. On the other hand, most of the shorefront communities have historic downtowns. Bellport has two schools, several churches, the village hall, a historical society, a playhouse, a library and a post office within a half-mile radius of the center of its downtown (“Long Island Index: Interactive Map”).

“Whites in certain areas knew who Mr. Fife was buying and building for,” the essay “The History of Gordon Heights” reads. “Racism and discrimination dominated thinking and attitudes towards the young black settlement.”

Demography

Gordon Heights’ population of 4,042 is 28.7 percent white, 52.9 percent black, 1.9 percent American Indian and Alaskan Native, and 1.9 percent Asian, according to the 2010 Census. People of two or more races make up 4.6 percent of the population, and Hispanic or Latino people of any race make up 25.0 percent. About 2,867 people, or 70.9 percent of the total, are over the age of 18. And about 640 people, or 6.32 percent of residents, are foreign-born, according to the 2015 American Community Survey.

Gordon Heights has a greater percentage of black residents than the Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County as wholes (52.9 percent in Gordon Heights vs. 5.5 percent in the Town of Brookhaven vs. 7.4 percent in Suffolk County). The hamlet also has a greater percentage of Hispanic or Latino residents of any race (25.0 percent in Gordon Heights vs. 12.4 percent in the Town of Brookhaven vs. 16.5 percent in Suffolk County). Gordon Heights has a smaller percentage of both white residents (28.7 percent in Gordon Heights vs. 84.5 percent in the Town of Brookhaven vs. 80.8 percent in Suffolk County) and Asian residents (1.9 percent in Gordon Heights vs. 3.9 percent in the Town of Brookhaven vs. 3.4 percent in Suffolk County).

But in order to get a better idea of the extent of the longtime de facto segregation of black residents on Long Island, one must look census data from not only Gordon Heights but also surrounding communities.

A neighboring community in the island interior, Coram, has a population of 39,113 that is 77.4 percent white, 10.6 percent black, 5.0 percent Asian and 13.6 percent Hispanic or Latino of any race. Another neighbor, Middle Island, has a population 24,142 that is 83.6 percent white, 8.2 percent black, 3.5 percent Asian and 9.3 percent Hispanic or Latino of any race. But Bellport, the wealthy village mentioned above, has a population of 2,082 that is 94.2 percent white, 1.7 percent black, 1.3 percent Asian, and 4.2 percent Hispanic or Latino of any race.

Historical census data compiled by the Long Island Index from the last five decades shows that although the black population of the Town of Brookhaven is still concentrated in the Gordon Heights area, the black population has become more dispersed over time, with the percentages of black residents for surrounding communities increasing and the percentage of black residents for Gordon Heights decreasing. The percentage of black residents in Census Tract 1587.05, the tract in which Gordon Heights lies, rose from 44.9 percent in 1970 to 85.6 percent in 1980 and has been falling ever since, from 69.8 percent in 1990, to 59.7 percent in 2000, to 48.8 percent in 2010 (“Long Island Historic Census Atlas”).

Economy

The estimated 2015 median household income in Gordon Heights was $71,447, according to the 2015 American Community Survey — 17.91 percent lower than the townwide estimate ($87,040) and 19.42 percent lower than the countywide estimate ($88,663), but 32.58 percent higher than the the nationwide estimate ($53,889). In 2015, the unemployment rate in Gordon Heights was 12.3 percent, according to the survey. At that time, the unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in the Town of Brookhaven, 6.4 percent in Suffolk County, 8.2 percent in New York state and 8.3 percent in the United States.

TRADITIONAL PROVIDERS OF NEWS AND INFORMATION

Local government

Because Gordon Heights is an unincorporated area, it does not have a village-level government to provide services and information specific to the community. The town that Gordon Heights is in, the Town of Brookhaven, has a population of 486,040, according to the 2010 Census.

Various government officials serve the Gordon Heights area at the town, county, state and federal government levels:

  • Town of Brookhaven
    Edward P. Romaine
    Town Supervisor
    631-451-9100
    eromaine@brookhaven.org
  • Suffolk County
    Steve Bellone
    County Executive
    631-853-4000
    county.executive@suffolkcountyny.gov
  • Town Council District 4
    Michael Loguercio
    Town Councilmember
    631-451-6968
    councilmanloguercio@brookhaven.org
  • County Legislative District 7
    Robert Calarco
    County Legislator
    631-854-1400
    robert.calarco@suffolkcountyny.gov
  • New York State Senate District 1
    Ken LaValle
    State Senator
    Albany Office: 518-455-3121
    District Office: 631-473-1461
    lavalle@nysenate.gov
  • New York State Assembly District 3
    Dean Murray
    State Assemblymember
    Albany Office: 518-455-4901
    District Office: 631-207-0073
    murrayd@nyassembly.gov
  • New York State Assembly District 4
    Steve Englebright
    State Assemblymember
    Albany Office: 518-455-4804
    District Office: 631-751-3094
    engles@nyassembly.gov
  • Congressional District 1
    Lee Zeldin
    Congressman
    Washington, D.C. Office: 202-225-3826
    East End Office: 631-209-4235
    Patchogue Office: 631-289-1097

The special districts serving Gordon Heights are:

Schools

One of the ways in which Gordon Heights has historically been isolated from traditional sources of information is its long-standing physical distance from areas in which schools have been established.

In 1813, the Town of Brookhaven, in which the present-day area of Gordon Heights lies, was divided into school districts. The boundaries were supposedly “measured by the distance a boy could walk to school” (History of the Coram Schoolhouse). The area that is present-day Gordon Heights did not have its own school district. The closest school district to the west of Gordon Heights was District No. 10 in Coram (“Coram Schoolhouse”). The closest to the east was District No. 11 (renamed District No. 16 in 1842) in Middle Island (“Schoolhouse #16”).

During the early years of the Gordon Heights development, children traveled a mile to school in Yaphank, which is farther east of Gordon Heights than Middle Island, according to the essay “The History of Gordon Heights.” But when the school in Yaphank closed down, the children were bused to the Port Jefferson schools, about eight miles northeast.

The same was true for many of the other hamlets in what is known today as the Longwood Central School District. In Coram, a one-room schoolhouse was built in 1813. In 1900, the school was condemned, and it was later rebuilt. By 1950, the Coram school housed students in grades 1 and 2, while students in grades 3 through 12 were bused to the Port Jefferson schools, as the students in Gordon Heights were (“Coram Schoolhouse”).

In Middle Island, to the east of Gordon Heights, another one-room schoolhouse known as West Middle Island School was built around 1813. This school was used until in 1914, when a new one was built. Then the district voted to close the school down in the late 1940s, and the district’s students were bused to Port Jefferson (“Schoolhouse #16”).

“The [Middle Island] district had no building and owns no property, although the school population is growing rapidly, caused mainly by the growth of the Gordon Heights development,” according to another essay published by the Longwood Central School District, “Schoolhouse #16.” Therefore, even though the district’s constituency of students from Gordon Heights was growing, the district chose not to serve this constituency directly with a local school, instead choosing to bus them far away.

But larger schools were eventually built closer to Gordon Heights than Port Jefferson. In 1951, the Coram district built a new school for grades 1 through 6 on Coram Mt. Sinai Road. High school students were still bused to Port Jefferson (“Coram Schoolhouse”). Another school in Middle Island was built in 1956 on Swezey Lane (“Schoolhouse #16”).

In 1959, Middle Island, Coram, and several other hamlets were joined under the newly formed Middle Island School District. The name would later be changed to the Longwood Central School District (“Coram Schoolhouse”). Today, Gordon Heights still lies within the Longwood Central School District.

Library

Just as the local schools were built miles away from Gordon Heights, so was the local library. Gordon Heights is in the Longwood Public Library district. The Longwood Public Library, originally called the Coram Public Library, first opened in 1953 in the Coram School.

In 1959, when the local school districts were combined into the Middle Island School District, the library became known as the Middle Island Central Public Library.

In 1966, the library moved into an empty school building on Main Street in Yaphank. “Although the new facility was larger, it was not conveniently located for all the communities it served,” according to a history of the Longwood Public Library on the library’s website (“History of the Library”).

But the library has since moved to more central locations. In 1971, the library moved into a rented space in the shopping center that now houses the WalMart on Middle Country Road in Middle Island. In 1987, the library’s name was changed to the Longwood Public Library to match the name change of the corresponding school district.

In 1988, the district’s first permanent library building and current location opened on the southwest corner of Middle Country Road and Old Yaphank Road in Middle Island. Gordon Heights residents who do not have access to vehicles can reach the library by taking Suffolk County Transit’s S58 bus, which travels along State Route 25 (About 5.6 percent of households in Gordon Heights have no vehicles available, while 5.3 percent of households in the Town of Brookhaven and 5.4 percent of households in Suffolk County have no vehicles available, according to the 2015 American Community Survey).

News media

The only news publication known to have served Gordon Heights specifically was The Gordon Heights Bulletin, a newsletter published by community founder and developer Louis Fife beginning in 1942 as a way to advertise the area as a good place to live (Wilson). The bulletin is no longer published.

The newsletter contained several sections, including: a section titled “Local News” that was dedicated to any changes that residents made to their properties; a “News From Surrounding Towns” section; a page for editorials and letters to the editor; listings of contact information for civic groups, like the Civic League and the local boy scout groups; a section called “Gordon Heights Grows,” which contained lists of people who had recently purchased property in the area; and a section called “All About Town,” which mostly housed info about social events and the recent travelings of residents.

A typical item in the “Local News” section looked like this one, from the very first issue of The Bulletin:

“Mr. and Mrs. J. Flores have just moved into their new home on Baldwin Lane. They had a very happy Christmas amidst their children, who came to visit them from the City” (2).

The Gordon Heights Bulletin on Scribd

In the early years of Gordon Heights, the area was also covered by The Mid-Island Mail, a weekly published from 1935 to 1941. If one looks through old issues of The Mid-Island Mail, one can see that the Gordon Heights development was initially met with at least some distrust by the surrounding established white communities.

This is illustrated in one story from The Mail’s June 23, 1937 issue, only a few years after the Gordon Heights development was founded. The story, headlined “Stories of Negro Migration to Suffolk Cause Uneasiness,” starts with the following lead:

“Reporting emanating from New York that some interests are seeking to induce large numbers of Negroes from the deep South to come into Suffolk county, and that a hotel and cottage colony for colored people is being started at Gordon Heights, West Yaphank, have caused considerable disturbance among residents in this section during the past few days” (3).

But the story goes on to contradict itself with paraphrases of its sources’ views on the matter:

“While old residents say they have noted some increase in the number of negroes in Suffolk in the past few years, they do not believe the number is great or that there is much concentration in any one place” (3).

“However, a prominent duck grower in the Moriches section Monday night when interviewed, said that negroes coming up from the South are not largely employed by duck farmers, as they have proved unsatisfactory. The negroes come here to work on the ‘dirt’ farms, this man said, and work for very little as they can live cheaply. He said the majority coming to this locality are from North Carolina and Virginia, and he had not noticed any increase this year” (3).

“The reporter also spoke of this to a number of others in the southeastern portion of Brookhaven town and all said they were not aware of an unusually large number of colored people coming up to work on farms this year” (3).

“Stories of Negro Migration to Suffolk Cause Uneasiness” on Scribd

The black residents of Gordon Heights were also symbolically segregated from their white counterparts in the news coverage itself. The Mid-Island Mail featured sections dedicated to each of the hamlets the paper covered: Bohemia, Centereach and Lake Grove, Coram, Farmingville, Holbrook, Medford, Middle Island, Ronkonkoma, and Selden, to name a few. However, there was no designated section for Gordon Heights news, and those stories were often given very little space on the page.

When stories about Gordon Heights were published, black people in those stories were labeled as “colored,” while people who were presumably white did not have their races labeled at all. One story about a car accident from The Mail’s June 25, 1941 issue is an example of this labeling:

“Mary Brodie, colored, of Gordon Heights, West Yaphank, was injured at 9:50 p.m. Saturday, when the sedan she was riding in collided with a coupe on Oak street, Patchogue. According to the report of patrolman Austin Clowes, the sedan, owned by the woman, was operated by Louis A. Jackson, colored, also of Gordon Heights, who was driving eastward on Oak street. The coupe, driven by Mrs. Grace Dauernheim of 1740 Gates avenue, Brooklyn was entering Oak street from the parking area alongside the Bee Hive store. The Gordon Heights woman was attended by Dr. Wickham F. Case of East Main street, for bruises of the chest and right knee” (12).

“Gordon Heights Women Hurt in Collision, Patchogue” on Scribd

Today there are few news publications that cover Gordon Heights and the surrounding area. Weekly newspapers that serve areas near Gordon Heights include The Times of Middle Country and The Long Island Advance.

As for online publications, there isn’t one specific to Gordon Heights. Long Island Press, an all-digital publication based in Syosset, and the Patch websites for Patchogue, Medford and Sachem all occasionally feature stories mentioning Gordon Heights, but this is usually in the case of crime coverage.

Civic organizations

Although Gordon Heights does not have its own downtown, village government, school district or library district, it does have a history of having its own civic organizations. “Recognized as one of the pioneer African American communities on Long Island, Gordon Heights started and managed its own civic association, clubs, and churches,” wrote Jerry Domatob in his book “African Americans of Western Long Island” (109).

There was an early civic association in Gordon Heights known as the Civic League to address the needs of area residents. The Civic League eventually evolved into the Gordon Heights Progressive Association, which was founded in 1945 (“The History of Gordon Heights”).

During the 1940s, the association fought for more telephones and telephone service, better roads and lights for the community. In 1947, the civic association was able to get power lines installed in Gordon Heights.

This group was the parent body of the Gordon Heights Fire Department. “When, in 1946, the small church burned and no firefighters rushed to extinguish the fire, residents decided to form their own fire department,” Domatob wrote. “They did so in 1947, and it became one of the few all-African American fire departments in the county” (109).

“In spite of all the struggle and hardship in those early years,” the essay “The History of Gordon Heights” reads, “they helped to build homes, continued families, and shared in the development of a black community of pride — Gordon Heights.”

Today, there is the Greater Gordon Heights Civic Association. The area is also served by the Greater Gordon Heights Chamber of Commerce.