It was the public schools, a symbol of Great Neck’s desirability, and the proximity to Manhattan that drew Karen Ashkenase and her family to the wealthy peninsula on the North Shore of Nassau County in 1979.
Two of her children were enrolled in the local elementary school in Fresh Meadows, Queens, but Ashkenase said she and her husband wanted better for the youngsters.
“The top reason we moved was education,” said Ashkenase, 72. So the family moved to Kensington, one of nine incorporated villages on the Great Neck peninsula.
The Ashkenases, who are Conservative Jews, still live in the same house, while two sons, now grown, have moved off Long Island. A daughter lives in Great Neck.
Nearly half a century later, the Great Neck peninsula’s same attributes brought Sean Shi and his family from Austin, Texas, to the area after his wife accepted a tenure-track position at Farmingdale State College.
Shi, 40, a software engineer in Manhattan who emigrated from China more than a decade ago, and his wife moved into their house in the village of Great Neck Estates in April 2018.
Parents of two girls, a 4-year-old and a 4-month-old, the Shis are part of a growing number of Asians, predominantly Chinese and Koreans, who have settled on the peninsula in the past decade, replacing mostly white and Jewish residents.
The Ashkenases and the Shis represent the changes taking place in Great Neck over the past five decades as people from different backgrounds, looking for the same high quality of life, come to live.
First-generation immigrants from China, Korea, Iran and Russia – each with their own cultural history – live side by side with second-, third- and fourth-generation immigrants from around the world who have assimilated into American culture.
Between 2000 and 2017, Great Neck’s Asian population more than doubled, from 2,657 to 7,347, and they rose from being 7 percent of the population to 18 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates. In 2017, 27.8 percent of Asians were under the age of 18. Meanwhile, the white population decreased from 32,234 in 2000 to 29,904, or from 81 percent to 72 percent. In 2017, only 12 percent of non-Hispanic whites were 18 or younger.
During the same period, the Hispanic population dropped from 6 percent to 3 percent and the black population declined from 4 percent to 3 percent.
The Great Neck peninsula, with more than 41,000 residents, has also seen its population of Orthodox Jews, Iranian Jews ¬- who refer to themselves as Persians – and other Middle Eastern Jews grow, according to local residents interviewed for this story. Bukharian Jews, many of whom immigrated to the United States and settled in Queens after the Soviet Union collapsed, have also moved to the peninsula in recent years, according to residents.
There are at least 20 synagogues, two kosher supermarkets, a kosher butcher shop and more than a dozen kosher food establishments on the peninsula. Great Neck has three mikvahs, indoor pools in which Orthodox Jewish women immerse themselves for ritual purification.
An eruv, a symbolic religious boundary that makes it possible for Orthodox Jewish residents to carry certain items outside their homes and engage in activities such as pushing a stroller on the Sabbath, covers most of the peninsula, except for the village of Lake Success.
In Newsday’s paired testing of real estate agents on Long Island, the population shift in Great Neck was referenced by some agents as they spoke with customers.
“Any community that you live in is going to undergo changes. Things evolve,” said North Hempstead Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth, who moved to the peninsula from Forest Hills in 1980. “I think that Great Neck has become a more diverse community. I think that adds to the strength of the community that there are so many different cultures that are learning from each other.”
The Great Neck peninsula, which is 9.6 square miles, juts into Long Island Sound on the northwestern edge of Nassau, just across from the Queens border.
Great Neck starts south of the Long Island Expressway in the village of Lake Success and stretches all the way to the affluent village of Kings Point, thought to be the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s town of West Egg in “The Great Gatsby.”
The peninsula consists of several unincorporated areas in the Town of North Hempstead and nine incorporated villages, each with its own mayor and village trustees. In addition to single-family homes, there are co-ops, condominiums, rental apartments, several senior residential developments and two hotels.
Prices range from $225,000 for a one-bedroom co-op in Great Neck Plaza to $35 million for a waterfront mansion in the village of Kings Point, according to the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island Inc. The median home value is $940,000, according to MLSLI.
A buyer looking for a four-bedroom house will generally pay $1 million or $1.5 million in certain villages such as Kensington, said Hong Guo, also known as Dana, a real estate broker with Keller Williams Realty in Great Neck.
Great Neck has been confronted with changes over the years as different waves of newcomers move to the area, transforming the community each time.
After World War II, Ashkenazi Jews left the city and relocated to Great Neck. In the 1980s, the peninsula was a refuge for Iranian Jews who fled Iran after the country’s monarch was overthrown. As the Persian community grew, they built the Iranian Jewish Center, the North Shore Sephardic Temple and the Mashadi Jewish Center of Great Neck.
Village of Great Neck officials in July approved the site plan of a proposed three-story, 75,000-square-foot Mashadi Jewish community center in a residential neighborhood.
“One of the reasons I moved to Great Neck was because of the growing Persian community in Great Neck,” said Jacqueline Harounian, a lawyer who moved to Kings Point from Old Westbury more than three decades ago. “When I moved to the community, it was much, much smaller. Now it’s much, much larger.”
The latest wave of newcomers, Asians, arrived in greater numbers in the 2000s.
“If you live in Flushing, Bayside or College Point and you’re looking to move to Long Island, the first choice is Great Neck or Jericho,” said Youngsoo Choi, 47, a lawyer who moved from Flushing to Spinney Hill, in Manhasset, a decade ago with his wife and their two school-age children.
Great Neck has one school district, with 6,438 students, that serves the entire peninsula as well as North New Hyde Park and part of Manhasset Hills. The majority of Spinney Hill students attend the district.
Asians made up 12.8 percent of the student population in the Great Neck schools in the 1999-2000 school year, but their ranks had grown to 26 percent a decade later, according to state data. In the 2017-18 school year, 36.6 percent of the district’s students were Asian.
While Asian students made up 15.1 percent of the population in Great Neck North High School in 2017-18, they were the majority, at 53.5 percent, in Great Neck South High School.
In the last decade or so, as Asians move to Great Neck, some said differences between the newcomers and the more established population have led to tensions.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Iranians in Great Neck, who spoke in their native Farsi, stood out among the area’s Ashkenazi Jewish residents.
“Yes, when the Persians moved in, they opened restaurants; they spoke a different language; they looked a little different; their values were a little different. And, I am sure that made a lot of people very uncomfortable,” said Harounian, whose parents emigrated from Iran. “And, yes, you see the same thing happening with the Asian community.”