Beverly and Arlington Brewster moved to North Amityville in 1975 to a largely segregated community. By some measures, the segregation is now deeper.
Fifty years ago, black couples like the Brewsters who wanted to become homeowners had few options. “Places like Levittown — you could go there and they wouldn’t even show you the house,” recalled Beverly Brewster, 70, a retired Amityville schools teacher, with Arlington Brewster, 73, a retired correction officer, in their Harrison Avenue home.
In 1970, according to the census, North Amityville had a population of 11,840, 65 percent black and 35 percent white. Median family income was $64,861 in today’s dollars, trailing its neighbor to the south, Amityville Village, by $13,219. Newsday, in 1966 articles, had described a place with no parks and few theaters or street lights. Factories and abandoned warehouses dotted the land.
Today, the hamlet has grown to 19,774, roughly 90 percent black or Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census’ 2017 American Community Survey five-year population estimate.
Median family income in North Amityville is $86,933, trailing Amityville Village by $18,692. Residents are more likely to rent than their incorporated village neighbors to the south, and they are more likely to be stretched by housing costs. The median home value in North Amityville is $278,700, while the village’s is $382,200, according to the census.
Through paired testing of real estate agents on Long Island, Newsday found evidence of separate and unequal treatment of minority potential homebuyers and minority communities. It found some agents urged home buyers to avoid areas, including North Amityville, where the school districts had a high proportion of minority students.
Ninety-two percent of the student body in the Amityville school district, which serves both areas, was black or Hispanic in the 2017-18 school year, according to the New York State Education Department. Eighty-two percent of the student body is considered “economically disadvantaged” by New York State, and 20 percent of the students speak little or no English.
White residents, who in 2000-01 composed 16.5 percent of the student body, in 2017-18 composed 4 percent. About 20 percent of local children attend private or parochial schools, above the state average of 13.2 percent.
The Brewsters’ memories of the place are less bleak than the Newsday accounts from 1966 described. His family had lived in the area for generations; his ancestors, some of whom were Shinnecock Indians, gave their name to local streets and helped found Bethel AME, the oldest African American church on Long Island, where the Brewsters now belong. She was a child of the Bronx whose parents, seeking better schools and housing, had moved to North Amityville’s Ronek Park, an early Long Island subdivision that did not discriminate against blacks, according to archives compiled by Babylon Town historian Mary Cascone. “The development will be unique in that buyers contracts will be devoid of the restrictive covenants spotlighted last year when Negroes were refused the right to purchase a home in the tremendous Levittown community,” a 1950 Newsday article read.
The Brewsters met in Amityville public schools, which they said were racially mixed.
There were good-paying jobs at defense contractors like Fairchild-Republic and Grumman and work to be had too in Amityville Village, where some of Ollie Brewster’s aunts worked as domestics for the wealthy families who lived south of Merrick Road.
The Brewsters recalled walking through “the block,” the commercial heart of the hamlet at Great Neck Road and Albany Avenue, occupied by a candy shop, an Associated Supermarket, a bar and a barbershop. They took swimming lessons at the Amityville Village beach, where the black children from the hamlet had to leave by 1 p.m., the Brewsters said. Young Arlington won the end-of-season races and was told to wait for his medal in the mail instead of attending an awards ceremony, he said.
The neighborhood “was families,” Beverly Brewster recalled, down to the cabbies who served it. “If you got in a car, you knew you could trust them.”
But by the 1970s, Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said, some of the downsides of Long Island’s post-war growth had become clear in North Amityville and other predominantly minority communities.
Local government played a role through zoning, he said. “Communities that didn’t have representation and financial resources to fight a decision” suffered, Schaffer said. North Amityville had prominent civic leaders like Irwin Quintyne, Arlington Brewster said, but “never had people in office, in town or the state.”
Zoning decisions permitted industrial uses such as factories in parts of North Amityville, Schaffer said. School district lines drawn decades ago had already divided the community between Amityville and Copiague, carved big commercial taxpayers out of Amityville and left in other establishments that paid no property taxes at all, like the Dominican Sisters of Amityville, Schaffer said.
North Amityville was hit hard when Long Island began to bleed defense jobs, Arlington Brewster said. “When a lot of the jobs went out of the area, the houses started going.” It happened, he said, “all of a sudden.”
By the early 1980s, “the block” had become infamous as “the corner,” an open-air drug and prostitution mart where police made hundreds of arrests per year. “North Amityville became identified with that,” Arlington Brewster said. Crime at the corner subsided by the end of the decade, pushed in part by a big police presence and town takeover of some of the nearby property, Newsday reported.
In the years since, neighbors the Brewsters had known for years moved out or died. Their own children went to college and scattered across the United States. They offered the house on Harrison to their daughter Jill Brewster, an accounts receivable manager in Charlotte, North Carolina. She turned it down, telling Beverly Brewster, “Mom, I’m not coming back.”
Their neighbors now are American-born blacks, blacks from the West Indies and Hispanics, they said. Hispanics, who did not even appear in census tallies of the hamlet until 1990, made up about 35 percent of its population, according to the 2017 ACS. Hispanic children made up 52 percent of the Amityville schools’ student body of 2,941 for the 2017-18 school year, according to the New York State Education Department.
According to the state, 654 students, or 22 percent of the student body that year, understood little or no English. Amityville schools superintendent Mary Kelly said district staff members have developed programs to serve them. But, she said, “We also have to focus on the needs of students who are experiencing poverty and how that impacts their learning.”
“It’s very well known that Long Island is among the most segregated areas of the United States,” she said. “What has occurred as a result is housing patterns that reflect segregation, and subsequently school systems in different communities where de facto segregation has taken root.”
The portion of district students who scored proficient in Regents exams trailed the New York State average in every subject in 2017-18.
But the district’s outlook is improving, Kelly said, thanks in part to a voter-approved $66.9 million bond referendum in 2016 for major capital improvements, the first since the 1990s. The district has in recent years expanded its advanced placement offerings, created an independent science research program and started a full-day pre-K center.
“We’ve done a lot to take down barriers and get across ethnic, racial and socioeconomic lines,” she said.
In the northern part of Amityville Village, one resident, a contractor named Katrina Conway, said many of these newer residents tend to be renters, not owners. “They’re not vested, they don’t come out, they don’t join, they stay exclusively to themselves … The newer ones, they don’t vote,” she said.
The Brewsters said they welcomed the diversity in their neighborhood but missed the sense of community identity. “It’s not as cohesive as it should be,” Arlington Brewster said.
The neighborhood might once have unified around issues like illegal dumping on Albany Avenue or a halfway house on Harrison Avenue where fights and noise brought the police repeatedly before it was closed last summer, Beverly Brewster said.
Bethel AME and an alliance of local ministers have advocated for residents concerning some of these local issues, she said. She and others are also trying to build a civic association to promote awareness of quality-of-life problems and local development.
Essential ties have withered, though. “We don’t know neighbors two doors down from us,” she said.