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smithtown-bull

The Smithtown bull. (Photo: ryangessner/Flickr)

What Does the Grey Lady Think of My Hometown?

• August 11, 2014 • 8:00 AM

The Smithtown bull. (Photo: ryangessner/Flickr)

For Ryan O’Hanlon, there’s the Long Island town he remembers growing up in, and then the one the Manhattan newspaper wrote about.

The town I grew up in died a long time ago. You might even say that it died before dying was cool.

SMITHTOWN IS DYING.”

That’s one of the first things that pops up when you search “Smithtown” in the New York Times archives. It’s a 1985 op-ed, written by a woman named Annie Fauvell, a woman whose bio reads, “Anne Fauvell is a longtime resident of Smithtown.”

In the piece, Fauvell, who’d been living in Smithtown for at least 30 years at the time, bemoans the disappearance of neighborhood-business staples like Bohack’s, Howard Johnson’s, and Woolworth’s. She’s upset about the lack of parking spaces at the local post office. She asks for an elevated road system to be built from town to the local mall, a truly and beautifully mad vision for the future that contradicts everything else she writes. And in the end, Fauvell blames it all on developers and contractors.

GROWING UP, I’D HEARD stories about the bronze statue of John Smith’s bull, the one by the train tracks over Jericho Turnpike, right on the edge of the bend that curled into downtown. At least, that’s what I remember being told. It turns out, though, that it was not John, but Richard Smith, who, legend has it, rescued the daughter of a local Native American chief and was then told he could have, as a reward, all the land he could ride a bull across in a single day. Smith waited until the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, rode the bull all the way up to the Long Island Sound, rode it back down, and in the process created Smithtown.

Beyond that, Craig Biggio, the once-great second baseman for the Houston Astros, went to a local high school, and professional wrestler Mick Foley, known for a move called the “mandible claw,” in which he’d put a dirty sock on his hand and then put that hand in an opponent’s mouth, lived in some big house in the woods. Otherwise, Smithtown was many other Long Island towns—loosely congregated around a mall, filled with some people who lived near the water and wore expensive clothes, and some other people who wore sleeveless Megadeth T-shirts and jean shorts.

Being a place that’s almost literally in the shadow of Manhattan, there’s a kind of narrative insecurity that permeates the way some Long Islanders talk about Long Island. With a big city so close—one with jobs, and a nightlife, and young people, and good taste—why would anyone stay?

I ended up in the Times archives after stumbling across this review of a band I’d never heard of: Mr. Twin Sister. The first line made me laugh: ”Long Island doesn’t do good taste.” It made me laugh because its true; take the good taste of Manhattan, put it on the Long Island Railroad with as many brown-bagged tall boys as it can hold, open the doors an hour later at Kings Park, and whatever walks out—that’s Long Island.

But then there was this: “There still aren’t a shit-ton of cool bands coming out of Smithtown, as far as I know.”

Huh, I’m from Smithtown.

Followed by this: “[I]t was unclear if they’d just settle for an upstairs rental in Northport and leave those crazy cool-Long-Island-band dreams to die.”

Wait, the girl I went to prom with was from Northport.

I listened to the song—a not-Long-Island-esque lazy cool, but with those smooth jazz influences that used to swirl out of my dad’s speakers on the way home from soccer practice—and sitting in my brown office in a re-purposed parish rectory in Santa Barbara, I started to sort of miss Long Island. And I realized, you know what, beyond those Revolutionary War-era historical signs (“On This Date, This Happened Here…”) that seem to dot every small town in the northeast, I don’t know shit about where I’m from.

THIS IS THE SECOND result for “Smithtown” in the Times archives: “Book Details Klan Role in Smithtown’s Past.”

It’s something I never remember hearing about, and I don’t blame my parents because I don’t know if anyone’s parents ever talked about this. That’s in keeping with this story, though, which details the reticence of some board members in publishing photos of the Klu Klux Klan in a book on the history of Smithtown.

In the early 20th century, one in eight Long Islanders were Klan members, according to the Times. But that, as the book’s author, Noel Gish, told the paper, ”was only a reflection of America in the 1920’s, no better, no worse. The response to the dramatic societal changes in America produced national stress and drove many to join the new order of the Ku Klux Klan.”

”It was not racial hatred,” according to Richard Bull Smith, eighth-generation relative of Richard Smith. “It was almost an immigration issue.” This seems like a clever way to cleanse the history of a town. It surely would’ve been racial hatred if there were any black people in Smithtown, but there weren’t; instead, Catholics and Jews took the brunt of the harassment. By the 1930s, though, Smithtown had become diverse enough (read: less-Protestant enough) to drive the Klan out.

Per the latest census estimates, of the some 120,000 people currently living in Smithtown, about 1,300 are black, while around 112,000 are white. As a not-proportionally-diverse suburb of a major American city and as one with an uneasy-at-best relationship with the racial politics of its past, Smithtowns fits right in.

If you keep combing through the Times archives, mixed in with all the restaurant reviews and bureaucratic disputes your eyes might naturally gloss over, there are a bunch of stories about stores fighting to stay open, historical buildings people don’t want torn down, and local companies being acquired by someone bigger. There’s a complaint letter about the anti-Semitism portrayed in an op-ed written about someone who may or may not have bought what used to be Smithtown High School just so he could use it to host his high school reunion. There’s a news brief about a naked guy running across Jericho Turnpike, and another one about a man who was crushed to death by a tree.

I don’t recall ever reading about any of it.

LONG ISLAND IS DYING and dying, as Jim Russell has debunked in these pages. Being a place that’s almost literally in the shadow of Manhattan, there’s a kind of narrative insecurity that permeates the way some Long Islanders talk about Long Island. With a big city so close—one with jobs, and a nightlife, and young people, and good taste—why would anyone stay? And while a cursory look at the demographic numbers would seem to bear that out—there are less young people than there were in the past—reality suggests that it’s all just part of a cycle. (Young people aren’t leaving; they’re just no longer there.) Anyway, we’re always leaving somewhere when you really think about it, man.

A psychologist would probably tell me that I’d always been trying to leave Smithtown. In fifth grade I quit our town soccer team for one that practiced 30 minutes away. Then I opted for a high school that was a 50-minute train ride west. I went to college in Massachusetts. After those four years, I came home, restlessness abated only temporarily by a girlfriend that lived directly across the Long Island Sound in Connecticut. Eventually I moved to Brooklyn, then New Mexico, and then California.

As a kid, my parents subscribed to Newsday, I think, mostly for the high school sports coverage, so I never read the Times. Reading through the archives now, it’s pretty clear that once you zoom out enough to look through the eyes of a national paper, Smithtown really is just another place—with some nutty people, some still-un-reckoned-with darkness from the past, and an Annie Fauvell wishing we could all just go back to the way things once were.

And yet, for Fauvell, and me, and anyone who’s from anywhere, that’s obviously untrue. The place you grew up—because you grew up there—is unlike anywhere else. Clicking through what a big, nearby publication has to say about your hometown might be a strange way to get to this—but there’s the Smithtown I experienced and started to think about while listening to a song, and then there’s the Smithtown that’s always been there, the one for people to write about, for people to run through naked, and for people to never want to change. And of those two, there’s only one version we can really ever know everything about.

Back in 1985, a few months after Annie Fauvell’s piece went to press, a man named Harold M. Hamburg sent in a response, which the Times eventually published. “[O]pen your eyes, do a little research. Yes, let the facts interfere with your memories,” Hamburg wrote to Fauvell. “It will restore your faith and love in and of Smithtown.”

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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