Uniondale’s supporters acknowledge many view their community as a troubled place, but they say those with that perception need to look a little closer.
Sergio Argueta, a longtime community activist and a Uniondale school district social worker, said there are parts of Uniondale where well-kept homes with manicured lawns on quiet streets have been passed down over the generations, while other areas face economic challenges.
He says there exists an invisible line within the community between the north and south sides.
“Uniondale [is] perfectly situated in terms of it being lower, middle and upper classes,” he said.
Longtime Uniondale resident Mary-Ellen Kreye laughed when told of the negative things some people have to say about her community – high crime, poverty, a gang problem.
“They just don’t know a good thing when they see it,” said Kreye, 83, who serves as vice president of the Uniondale Community Council. Kreye has lived in Uniondale since 1966.
“We have a fabulous community where people work together for the betterment of the community, we participate in civic organizations and coordinate and cooperate, we attend town and legislative meetings, our young people do very well all over the world,” she said.
“It’s very interesting, things people say. They see what they want to see.”
Newsday’s paired tester investigation of real estate brokers and agents on Long Island found evidence of steering and disparate treatment toward minority buyers in individual tests. It also uncovered a larger pattern that showed agents avoid sending buyers to predominantly minority communities like Uniondale.
“Uniondale is basically black and now Hispanic,” said Ernie Catanese, a Uniondale resident since 1954. “Some people don’t appreciate that. They want a white neighborhood.”
Uniondale is a sprawling community in southern Nassau County with neighborhoods featuring a variety of home styles: capes, ranches, high ranches and colonials, along with high-density communities for the aged and people with lower incomes. College students attending nearby Hofstra University in Hempstead have plenty of options for rentals.
The community boasts numerous active civic associations, the 65-acre county-owned Purcell Preserve and a huge library.
Uniondale is home to NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum and the region’s largest hotel, the Long Island Marriott. That area is now poised for another transformation. In December, the Nassau County Legislature took the first step in pushing forward a plan to transform 72 vacant acres surrounding the coliseum into a housing, office and biotech research development known as the Hub.
Manhattan-based cancer care system Memorial Sloan Kettering in April officially opened its $180 million, 114,000-square-foot cancer facility there.
But the community’s challenges are real. Amid an increase in crime more than a decade ago, Argueta said, the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007 designated Uniondale as a Weed and Seed community. The program attempts to weed out violent crime, gang activity and drugs, then restore the community through prevention, intervention, treatment and social and economic revitalization.
“Unfortunately, we do have some gun violence and gang violence,” Argueta said. “It’s part of the unique challenges that many of our young people are facing. It’s the same young people that live in communities where there are a lack of resources, employment opportunities and positive engagement.”
He said some of the economic adversity faced by Hempstead and Roosevelt to the south also impacts Uniondale and that it brings with it residual effects such as low high school graduation rates. Uniondale High School’s graduation rate in 2018 was 73 percent, while the state average was 80 percent.
But Uniondale has advantages over some other communities, he said.
“It’s predominantly an African American and Latino community,” Argueta said. “But because of all of the businesses, there’s still a high quality of life within the region that doesn’t currently exist in a lot of the other communities that are predominantly of color.”
Kreye, who is white, has fought for years to keep Uniondale diverse, joining with other concerned residents to lobby for the community. She said that when she and her family moved from Hempstead to Uniondale, they found exactly what they were seeking.
“We wanted a diverse community that was integrated like the country is supposed to be, and we felt very lucky to buy in Uniondale,” she said. “We’ve never regretted it.”
Uniondale started off like most other Long Island communities: farmland. But by 1988 there were only two farms left, including the last 3.5 acres of the Goehner Family Farm, which 100 years before had been 17 acres. Now, the only remnant is what used to be the Goehner farm stand, which has been relocated and preserved as a museum.
Uniondale has a notable history dating to the Revolutionary War, when it served as an enlistment center, plus a more recent rich military history that helped shape the community.
Mitchel Field, an Army Air Corps base during World War II, was established in 1917 within the Hempstead Plains, the first known prairie in America. After the war, many of those who lived on the base moved to Uniondale, Kreye said. Because the base was also a source for civilian jobs, it helped the community expand.
Nearby military manufacturers such as Grumman, Fairchild and Republic were a quick commute and made Uniondale attractive.
“It’s a convenient area to live in and it was open,” Kreye said. “The covenants in Levittown, which I still can’t believe, that prevented people from selling their homes to people of color, made Uniondale a welcome option.”
When Catanese and his wife, Marie, moved to Uniondale from Brooklyn in 1954, he wanted an easy commute to his job at Grumman in Syosset. The couple also sought an integrated community with good schools.
They picked Uniondale as a direct rebuke of Levittown’s racist policies.
“We just didn’t want to live like that,” said Ernie Catanese, who is white. “It’s not right.”
While Uniondale was integrated overall, whites lived on the north side of town and black people lived south of Jerusalem Avenue.
Eventually, white flight took off.
“When we moved on our block of 54 homes, there were no black families,” Catanese said.
Now, he says, he and his wife are the last white family. “And that’s fine,” Catanese said. “They’re better neighbors; their lawns look better than ours.”
According to the census in 1960, the resident population was 95 percent white and 5 percent black. By 1990 the numbers were 45 percent white and 46 percent black.
In 2010 the census counted 24,759 residents, with 10 percent white, 47 percent black, 2 percent Asian and 39 percent Hispanic.
In 2017 the total number of residents had grown to 31,597, with 21 percent white, 37 percent black, 3 percent Asian and 35 percent Hispanic, according to the census’ American Community Survey. That survey expanded the Uniondale boundaries to include parts of the community known as East Garden City, which will not be a separate census tract in the 2020 census.
Kreye acknowledges Uniondale was far from perfect. Black children from south of Jerusalem Avenue had to be bused to the north side of town to integrate schools.
She said many of the civic organizations in Uniondale were created to make sure the community got its fair share of government funds for beautification, public works projects and street cleaning as compared to surrounding areas.
After the Korean War, war-related work dried up and people began to leave. Kreye said real estate agents tried to pressure residents into selling their homes, saying the area was becoming unsafe.
She said the community developed a “do-not-solicit” list to keep real estate agents from seeking listings from residents not interested in selling. “I do think that it helped,” Kreye said.
Catanese said he’s aware of his community’s reputation, recounting a story about the family of a suitor of their daughter.
“She said, ‘Where do you live?’ And we said ‘Uniondale,’ and she said ‘ugh,'” Catanese said. “It was very, very upsetting.”
James M. Sharpe III, a former Uniondale school board president who has lived in bordering Hempstead Village for about three decades, said he thinks Uniondale overall has a good reputation.
“There’s a transient population. You worry about overcrowding in houses,” he said.
Kreye, Catanese and Sharpe say the latest demographic change, the growing Hispanic population, just adds to the fabric of a diverse community.
What concerns them all are the things that concern many communities: fear of overdevelopment, traffic, absentee landlords, overcrowded schools.
“The people in this community wants what every other community wants: good schools, good neighbors, safety,” Sharpe said. “It doesn’t matter what the people look like.”
But when told real estate agents avoided showing testers homes in his community as well as other minority neighborhoods, he said he was not surprised.
“People have a predisposition of certain areas of Nassau based on what they hear, what’s in the paper, on radio and TV,” he said. “People’s perceptions become their reality.”
He added that he has noticed that when homes are put on the market in his neighborhood and surrounding communities, they are most often represented by independent brokers who are minorities.
“Not showing homes to house hunters does a disservice to everyone involved,” he said. “There’s nothing going on here that’s not going on in any other neighborhood on Long Island, and I mean that in a good way.”
Argueta said Uniondale is a good community.
“We have some incredible things happening in the community that are positive. Ninety percent of our community is the way that it needs to be,” he said. “Unfortunately, you do have some of the same challenges and issues you find in high poverty areas where there’s a lack of resources and opportunities.”