Long Island

East Meadow

Holding on to a sense of community amid shift in population

In Newsday’s paired testing, real estate agents across Long Island split East Meadow listings roughly half-and-half between white and minority house hunters.

It has the tallest building in Nassau County, a high school near a major jail and a recreational oasis that is larger than Central Park.

And today, East Meadow is changing. It long had a predominantly white and Jewish population but is now seeing an influx of Asians – from China, Korea, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan – and a departure of Jewish residents. The Hispanic population also is growing.

Temple Emanu-El, a fixture in the community for decades with its striking round, stained glass sanctuary, shut down in June and is being gutted to make way for senior citizen housing. A sign out front says, “Thanks for 68 years East Meadow.”

Meanwhile, East Meadow has a mosque that caters to its expanding Muslim population. A decade old, it is looking to add a second floor.

The school district recently adopted Hindu and Muslim holy days as school holidays – Diwali and Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

The community has changed so much that Norma Gonsalves, a long-time resident and former presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, recently organized a “welcome wagon” in her neighborhood. The Wenwoods Oaks development used to have 99 Jewish families out of 105 houses, she said. Less than two decades later, there are no more than 60, with Asian families replacing many of them, Gonsalves said.

In Newsday’s paired testing, real estate brokers across Long Island split East Meadow listings roughly half-and-half between white and minority house hunters. This contrasted with two neighboring communities along Hempstead Turnpike: Uniondale, where agents chose virtually no homes for potential buyers of any race, and Levittown, where agents gave 80 percent of the listings to white customers.

Mohammed Sayed, 60, a native of Bangladesh, said he bought a house in East Meadow in 2016 because he wanted to be close to the mosque, called the Long Island Muslim Society and founded by Bangladeshis.

He lived in North Carolina when he first came to the United States in 1999, moved to Ronkonkoma five years later when he got a job in New York City and then moved to Nassau to be closer to his work.

Initially he rented in neighboring Westbury until he bought the house in East Meadow, about a mile and a half from the mosque.

“I’m very happy with my neighborhood,” said Sayed, an agricultural specialist with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency who works at Kennedy Airport. “It’s very good, very peaceful.”

Between 1980 and 2017, East Meadow’s Asian population grew from 1.4 percent to 12 percent, according to U.S. Census figures. Hispanics went from 2.1 percent to 14.5 percent, and blacks from 1.8 percent to 4.8 percent.

Meanwhile, the white population dropped from 96.2 percent to 67.5 percent, the figures show. Some residents think whites’ current share is even lower.

Many residents say the new mix is working in East Meadow, which is bounded by the Meadowbrook Parkway on the west and Wantagh Parkway on the east and is a stone’s throw from NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum in neighboring Uniondale on the other side of the Meadowbrook.

“It’s very accepting for the most part of diversity,” said Scott Eckers, a member of the East Meadow Board of Education and the community’s unofficial historian. “It’s a great place to raise a family.”

It is a solidly middle-class place. The census puts its median home value at $414,200, relatively affordable compared with more upscale communities in Nassau. Residents contend it still maintains a “1950s” feel of a close-knit community.

In one section, people refer to their block as “Sesame Street” because of its friendly ways, with neighbors chatting on one another’s lawns during summer and visiting each other’s houses, said Alisa Baroukh, 43, who has lived most of her life in East Meadow.

“It’s just a very happy place,” Baroukh said. “It’s truly a community.”

It’s a community that stops to the west at the Meadowbrook Parkway, which serves as a border to two other communities, Uniondale and Hempstead, that have higher levels of poverty and lower median incomes, according to 2017 census data.

“East Meadow tends to be completely isolated from those communities,” Eckers said. “It is almost like when you cross the Meadowbrook Parkway you are in a different world, and there is very little interaction on a day-to-day basis between East Meadow and communities like Hempstead.”

When a victim of the MS-13 gang was discovered in a wooded area just west of the Meadowbrook in late August, some residents objected vociferously when police reported the body was found in East Meadow, Eckers said.

“The first thing you heard was, ‘That’s not East Meadow. That’s Uniondale,'” he said.

“We have more of an association, I would think, with North Bellmore and North Merrick,” which lie to the south of East Meadow, Eckers said. “The lines are blurred between those two.”

The minority populations in East Meadow are not clustered in enclaves but are spread throughout the community, according to local leaders. One exception is the Mitchel Homes complex near the Meadowbrook Parkway, which has 250 apartments and serves partly to house military families. According to residents, at least one-third of the residents of Mitchel Homes are black, and some estimate it as high as 50 percent.

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Charlene Velasquez, 37, opened a Latino restaurant to cater to that growing population in East Meadow and beyond. Called “Pecosa,” which means “freckles,” it features dishes from El Salvador and Colombia – her parents’ native lands.

She said there were few Latino restaurants in East Meadow when Pecosa opened 11 years ago but several now.

“It’s a great community,” she said. “Mostly they are accepted,” she said, referring to Latinos.

But it isn’t wonderful for all. Nadia Marin-Molina, a Latina and former executive director of the Workplace Project in Hempstead, which assists Latino immigrants, said she didn’t face any hostility in the four years she lived in East Meadow, but she did not have close ties with neighbors, either.

“I never met any of my neighbors,” she said. “There was no welcome wagon.”

Many newcomers to East Meadow are drawn by what is seen as a solid school district with an outstanding music program, according to community leaders.

“What attracts people is the fact that the East Meadow school district is a very good school district,” said Rabbi Ronald Androphy of the East Meadow Jewish Center, where membership has dropped from 550 families in the 1980s to 350. “It may not be Jericho, Syosset, but it is still a solid school district. I think the kids here get a great education.”

East Meadow High School is down the block on Carman Avenue from the Nassau County Correctional Center, a jail with a capacity of 1,540 inmates, including MS-13 members and other felons.

Gonsalves said the jail was tiny and located on a farm when the high school opened in 1955. Then, by the late 1980s, the county wanted a major expansion of the jail. Local residents fought it, and while plans were downsized, the expansion was still substantial.

Many residents say the jail now blends into the background and that escapes are rare – though once a couple of inmates in orange jumpsuits dashed through a Home Depot undetected for a time because their clothes blended somewhat with Home Depot workers’ uniforms.

Farther down Carman Avenue is the county-run Nassau University Medical Center, a 22-story, 1,200-bed hospital on a 75-acre campus. It is the main landmark in town.

“You see the hospital and you know you are in East Meadow,” Gonsalves said.

It opened in 1935 amid what were then the potato farms of the Hempstead Plains. Today it is a Level 1 Trauma Center.

The hospital sits on the notorious Hempstead Turnpike, jammed with restaurants, stores and other businesses and known for its high rate of pedestrians being struck by cars.

West of the hospital/high school/jail section is the 930-acre Eisenhower Park, which features three 18-hole golf courses, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, 17 baseball fields and two indoor, NHL-sized skating rinks.

Many residents call it the “gem” of East Meadow.

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