I am writing a history of the Village of Hempstead, which is on Long Island, New York. It is one of the oldest English settlements in the area, dating back to 1643.
From the late 1800s until about 1960, the village became the commerce and education hub of Nassau County. By 1960, however, trouble began: villages, hamlets, and cities all over the United States saw their businesses drained by shopping malls. The malls could never have existed if car ownership had not proliferated, but it did, and people stopped doing business in the downtowns of the nation, where the parking was difficult.
Hit both by the competition from malls and by the closing of Mitchel Field airbase in 1962, Hempstead Village saw its major businesses gradually die off. When a large retail store, Abraham and Strauss, at last closed its doors in 1992, three decades of recurrent efforts to redevelop Hempstead as The Hub ended with frustration.
But why? Are the malls to blame? The changing demographics of the village? I don't think so.
I think that once the economic raison d'etre of a community disappears, it becomes vulnerable because it is in need of help to sustain itself. Once a place is perceived as vulnerable, it is subjected to misuse at all levels of the socioeconomic scale. Petty criminals and street-drug dealers as well as rapacious developers and unscrupulous savings and loan institutions have used the Village of Hempstead. The Guardian Bank, for example, arose in the 1980s, was subjected to egregiously risky practices by its owner, and finally failed completely in 1989. The result: loss of about 425 jobs and a huge financial loss to the village.
This type of problem is what has undermined strenuous efforts to revitalize the Village of Hempstead.
What IS the solution? I'm convinced the solution does not look like the problem: the solution does not lie in trying to make the village what it once was, nor in adding more and more apartment buildings (as is the current revitalization plan). The solution will come from inside the Village of Hempstead, from its own people. More on that in a future post.