Originally published as a news package for JRN 310 at Stony Brook University.
Originally published at The Changing Face of Long Island.
For over 20 years of his career, Eric Alexander, a prominent Long Island community developer, sat in on meetings, listening to local Main Street representatives across the island linger over the stiff competition from their indoor shopping rivals.
“They’d always say, ‘we have to be more like the mall, we have to be more like the mall’,” Alexander remembered. Then he laughed. “Now the malls want to look more like downtown.”
Due to the growth of internet shopping (Amazon.com sales revenue increased 1170 percent from 2006 to 2016, according to Statista), experts say there is a shift in commercial preference from malls and big-box stores to downtowns, which have become cultural centers and restaurant scenes.
“Shopping [isn’t] going out of style in the burbs,” Lisa Schamess, communications manager of Build a Better Burb, a national nonprofit group advocating new urbanism, said. “But its character is changing.”
In Westbury, a Nassau County village, the local government was awarded $10 million in funding to revitalize their downtown last year, as part of an annual grant New York State initiative (called the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, or DRI) launched by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016. The initiative is the largest public aid program for downtown growth toward Long Island in state history.
The strategic investment plan, created by a local committee of Westbury business leaders, includes funding for rezoning a new residential area near the Long Island Rail Road, improvements to the Westbury Community and Recreation Centers, and $4.4 million toward streetscape beautification.
“We are in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment waiting for the state to sign off on some of the projects already approved so we can start spending some of the money allotted,” Tom Verni of the Westbury Business Improvement District (BID) said. “We expect that to be done by the end of the year or shortly after the new year then start rolling some of the programs and initiatives out by the spring or summer of 2018.”
One of the goals of the downtown improvements is to increase restaurant sales. Of a $33 million dollar sales surplus in Westbury restaurants, $32 million of it can be attributed to Old Country Road, which is not downtown, according to data provided by the Westbury BID. There is “unmet demand” for restaurants on Post Avenue, Westbury’s Main Street, according to the investment plan.
Food and beverage locations outnumber retail stores 35 to 31 in downtown Westbury, a margin that is expected to grow in upcoming years, according to the BID. This trend aligns with Long Island’s overall data: employment for cooks and bartenders is expected to increase by 29.8 and 26.9 percent, respectively, according to state labor data. For context, overall job growth is projected to be 11.1 percent.
“Hard goods aren’t coming back,” Alexander, who serves as the director of Vision Long Island, said. “It’s not like the shoe store is coming back to Main Street. It’s really restaurants and bars that are driving this growth.”
Growth of the arts is another major component to the project in Westbury. Funds from the state grant are being allocated to house a permanent home for the Westbury Council for the Arts, which had previously functioned nomadically.
“Ideally we’d like to have a performance space,” Maureen Baranov, vice president of the council, said. “In the basement, we would have a black box theatre, and on the main level, studios where we provide classes. Jewelry-making classes, pottery classes, art classes. Just to bring art and culture to the community.”
The Westbury Council for the Arts, founded four years ago, is heavily involved in the revitalization efforts. Peter Cavallaro, the village’s mayor is a founding member of the council. Residents of Westbury “consistently expressed support” for the arts in early DRI informational meetings, according to the strategic investment plan. Money from the state will help build murals and public art along Post Avenue. The council also sponsored, for the first time, an annual farmer’s market at Piazzo Ernesto Strada, a small park in the village.
“We had 16 straight weeks of sun,” Colleen Locascio, one of the arts council board directors, said. “Never any rain. It was an absolute miracle.”
Three miles to the east, the hamlet of Hicksville won the same $10 million grant this year and is in the preliminary stages of determining their distribution of funds. In its application to the state, Hicksville pitched reconstruction efforts along the LIRR station, the busiest outside the city.
“There are 3,000 people that live within walking distance of the station, and they want to see a true downtown there,” Alexander said.
In the meantime, zoning codes are being written by the town of Oyster Bay, which governs Hicksville, state and local officials are coming together to discuss different ways to efficiently use the money, and planning committees are meeting on a weekly basis.
But while Hicksville and Westbury are receiving lump sums of money, most downtowns across Long Island are not so lucky.
The state allocates one state grant to each region of the state, which can become proportionally unfair. Long Island, whose population is 2.86 million (not counting Brooklyn and Queens), had 21 applicant villages in 2017, according to a state DRI official. For comparison, two other regions of New York State, the North Country and the Mohawk Valley, of 428 thousand and 622 thousand people, had three and seven applicants, respectively.
“We pay 21 percent of the state’s taxes, and here we’re getting 10 percent of the payoff,” Alexander said. “It’s kind of in line with most state programs toward Long Island. We’re contribute more to the state than the state contributes to us. That’s just kind of how it is. Having said that, before this grant, there was never any direct state money for Long Island downtowns. So I applaud the governor for that.”
While other villages across Nassau and Suffolk Counties have to wait their turn for government action, Westbury is thrilled at the opportunity to fulfill its own downtown vision.
“I have so much invested in this community. I care very deeply about this community,” Locascio said. “I want to see it soar.”
Originally published at The Osprey
There are many interpretations of Fagin, the 19th century British pickpocket gang leader from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. In the novel, the man is depicted as a cold and frugal crook. The Broadway adaptation casts a more amicable, comedic version.
When Nick Massone was assigned the role, director Jordan Hue gave him a lot of freedom for his own interpretation of the character in the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts production.
“Being a father, I took a nurturing approach to the kids, as if they are my own,” Massone said. “I feel bad when I have to snap at them in the show, compared with the other, more light-hearted moments.”
Oliver, a Lionel Bart musical based on the Dickens classic, opened on Saturday night at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts for the beginning of a 32-show run lasting until January 21.
“It was a little draggy but that’s normal,” 14-year-old Andrew Timmins, who plays the Artful Dodger, said of the opening weekend. “It always starts a little bit slow, because we still don’t know fully what we’re doing or what the show’s going to be like.”
There are over eight community theatres on Long Island, Ian Washington of the Smithtown box office staff said. Oliver drew about 200 people each night during the opening weekend. At these community theatres, performances are professional, and actors receive a stipend each night based on the ticket revenue.
In a community theatre setting, many of the same actors are cast in shows again and again. Massone played the titular role in the theatre’s production of Young Frankenstein over the summer.
“In many cases, the cast includes people that we’ve collaborated with before,” Hue said. “Either I, myself, have worked with, or the theatre has worked with… We have a whole lot of our local favorites back in the show.”
Long Island community theatres have to achieve a higher standard than most, due to the proximity to Manhattan, a world leader in musical theatre, Jessica Ader-Ferretti, who has starred in many plays at Smithtown, said.
The play has a larger cast than usual, due to its very long performance season. Most Smithtown productions are five to seven weeks, but Oliver will run over 10 weeks due to the holiday scheduling. Because of this, several understudies and swings had to be cast. More than half of the 32 cast members are under the age of 18, and it creates an infectious energy around the set, some of the adult actors said.
“I hadn’t done a lot of shows with kids, so it was nice to see a different work ethic,” Ader-Ferretti, who splits the role as Nancy, said. “Not that the adults don’t have a strong work ethic, they do, but the kids are just always going.”
Hue, the director, has an educational background and most of his directing experience has come with children. He chuckled and said that some of his exercises, “may have grated on the nerves” of the adult cast members, but some of these actors spoke kindly of his style.
“Some directors try to micromanage, and other directors paint in really broad strokes and allow the individual to do the shading and coloring in,” Massone said. “That’s Jordan. He really gave a lot of liberties.”
Auditions for Oliver were held on July 25, making the show a six-month commitment in all. In the last couple months leading up to opening night, there were plenty of mishaps and gaffes. Ader-Ferretti recalled one incident where Brian Gill, who plays Bill Sikes, accidentally hit her for real during a fight scene.
“He wound up to fake hit me and then he did. Right in the face,” Ader-Ferretti laughed. “That was great.”
Oliver will return this weekend for a Saturday show at 2 p.m., followed by a 3 p.m. performance on Sunday. The show costs $25 for adults and $15 for children under 12.
“All the theatres are well supported, and they support each other,” Massone said. “It would be great to have even more of the surrounding community embrace it. I think that’s starting to happen more.”
Originally published at The Osprey
Rosemary Bair and Cassie Rienth had beers in hand at a bar on Monday night, surrounded by five TVs playing a Green Bay Packers football game. But their eyes were focused in a different direction.
“Don’t mess up, Adam!” Rienth yelled across the dance floor to her teammate. Their perfect 3 and 0 record was on the line.
Their team, “Me So Corny” was one of eighteen teams that participated in the inaugural cornhole season at 89 North in Patchogue this week. The local recreational league is the latest growth of LI-Kick, an adult social sports organization, launched in 2013.
What was started by Sal Farruggia as a seasonal adult kickball league that played year-round in Glen Cove has now expanded into a multi-sport, multi-venue venture. Last fall, Rich von Rauchhaupt met Farruggia and the two partnered. Von Rauchhaupt expanded the league into Suffolk County, and now, for the first time, to cornhole.
“I think we’re at the beginning of [cornhole] exploding around here,” von Rauchhaupt said.
Cornhole is a staple game at tailgates and parties in the American Midwest and South, but is relatively unknown on Long Island. The object of the game is to toss small bags, filled with dried corn, onto a board and into a hole 27 feet away. Many players on Monday said that they had just started playing over the last month in preparation for the league.
The organization was unable to secure a permit for an outdoor kickball field with lights in Suffolk County during the fall, so von Rauchhaupt discussed a possible cornhole league with the owner of 89 North and it was in both parties’ interest. The Patchogue bar is usually closed on Mondays this time of year, but now it has a crowd of 60 cornhole players to serve drinks to.
“We used to do bocce ball on Wednesdays and we rent out the venue for country line dancing,” Meaghan Lydon, a bartender at 89 North, said. “Rich approached us about cornhole on Monday nights and we were like ‘why not’!”
In the spring and summer of this year, kickball teams played at Heckscher State Park in East Islip. The league grew to 110 players in only four months. It was a way to make close friends, which one player, Justin King, said was hard to do in adult life.
“Playing a sport again, having not played in forever, was great,” King said. “But there were two components to it. We played kickball for a few hours, which was fun, then we all went to the bars and partied, which was even more fun.”
In preparation for the change from kickball to cornhole, 12 wooden boards, painted with the “LI-Kick” logo, were built over a couple weekends by von Rauchhaupt and a few of his friends over the summer. He was able to secure a sponsorship with Blue Point Brewing Company, which in return supplied prizes for the winning teams, including shirts and cornhole boards and bags.
“It’s hard to throw when you’re wearing a suit,” Anthony Fasano, a lawyer and member of one of the teams, said laughingly. “I came straight from work to be here.”
Originally published at The Osprey
Pellets of hail splashed into the puddles in the parking lot. White-capped waves crashed on the coast. Fully grown trees bent over to the ground. Above, a gull flew toward the shore, but was moving backward in the wind.
“It was nice of Hurricane Sandy to show up for her anniversary,” Rabbi Glenn Jacob, executive director of New York Interfaith Power and Light, joked.
It was on the same day, October 29, that in 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed New York City and Long Island, causing $71 billion in damage. On the anniversary of the storm, about a hundred local residents gathered under a pavilion at Venetian Shores Park in Lindenhurst for a vigil and a call toward the state government for action.
“Sandy is not over,” Ryan Madden, sustainability organizer of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, said. “Communities are still feeling impacts. Five years later, funds have still not been allocated to ensure that all the problems have been fixed.”
After the storm, about 11,000 qualified homeowners without flood insurance enrolled in NY Rising, the state-run housing recovery program. There are still 2,400 that have not been rebuilt, according to a source within the program.
On the Lindenhurst coast, down the street from the rally, some houses still have plywood boards over the windows, with plastic covering flapping in the wind. After storms like the one this weekend, nuisance flooding still affects the low-lying residential areas, as drainage systems were damaged and never properly repaired after the hurricane.
“We’ve been fighting an uphill battle for five years,” Donald Werle, a Lindenhurst resident, said. “Instead of putting things back together the right way, the government came in and half-assed it.”
While Werle’s home was repaired after an expense of $100,000, some houses, he said, were never fixed. A foreclosed building next door is now only home to mildew and mold.
“There’s black mold all up the wall, and a school across the street,” Werle said, pointing to Harding Avenue Elementary School. “I’m not looking for them to make things special. I just want it healthy to live here again.”
One woman was in tears Sunday as she talked about her experience after the storm. It took her family four years to receive money from their flood insurance claim. But most of all, she was concerned with the health effects of the storm, which she said impacted her now 6-year-old daughter.
“Ella was diagnosed with one autoimmune disease,” Beth Henry, a school teacher that lives in Massapequa, said. “Then she was diagnosed with another.”
Adopt a House, which Henry is affiliated with, was a main sponsor of the event. It is a nonprofit agency dedicated to rebuilding local communities affected by Hurricane Sandy. The organization both aids recovering families both monetarily and with case-by-case advisory, director Michele Insinga said.
Several sponsors of the event also made a call for government action to combat climate change, in the wake of the worst north Atlantic hurricane season since 2005.
“We need proactive measures,” Jacob said. “Long Island is just one big sandbar, which makes it incredibly susceptible to rising sea levels and tropical storms. We can’t keep being reactive. We must be proactive.”