Hicksville Focus: Hamlet tells its story
(Editor's Note: Last week, in the second installment of our "Town Focus" series, community journalist T.C. McCarthy spent five days embedded in Hicksville, checking out hamlet favorites and talking to residents. The Hicksville Town Focus followed our inaugural series in Sayville, and next month community journalist Erin Geismar will spend a week in Ronkonkoma. Do you want us to spend a week in your hamlet next? Send story ideas to email@example.com.)
The area was known as the Williams Estate until 1836 when settlers and captains of industry gave it a new name, Hicksville. James Janis, 47, of Malverne, the hamlet’s historian, said the then Long Island Rail Road chief Valentine Hicks named the area after himself when the LIRR line ended in Hicksville after the railroad ran out of money to expand.
“The best way to define Hicksville is really two ways. It’s really a series of immigrations of people coming for business opportunities and later on a place for people looking for a nice place to live,” he said. Janis has been the hamlet historian for four years but studied its history for nearly a decade. “Hicksville never really figured out what it wanted to be. It always seems to be tearing itself in two directions that way.”
Over the next 175 years Hicksville saw the rise and fall of the “gold beating” form of jewelry making, the opening and closing of the Heinz pickle factory and the construction and expansion of Broadway, Hicksville’s downtown stretch.
Hicksville’s population comprises diversity and multiple generations. Sharon Holzapple, 54, of Hicksville is responsible for accounts payable at the Hicksville Public Library business office. A hamlet resident of 51 years, she remembers Hicksville before Oyster Bay officials widened Broadway and before many of the ethnic businesses opened their doors.
“Culturally it has changed. It went from the mom-and-pop stores to now it’s all over the world,” Holzapple said. “[Hicksville’s] original movie theater, it was a single-screen movie theater that we all went to. Then it was an Indian movie theater, and now it’s a school and a church.”
The 1961 widening of Broadway is a sore topic for many longtime residents. Holzapple said that the process destroyed many of the mom-and-pop shops and the “hometown feel” of Hicksville.
Firefighter, EMT and library maintenance worker Pat Dammes, 60, said her favorite chocolate malt shop was lost in the widening. She also said she’s seen the diversity in Hicksville expand very quickly.
“The other day [while working with the fire department], the dispatcher said, ‘There’s a language barrier,’" she said. One of the firefighters in the house offered their interpreter’s services, but to no avail. “The dispatcher said, ‘It’s not Spanish.’”
Hicksville has long been the landing place for new cultures, according to Janis. While it was originally an English settlement, after the Civil War many soldiers made their way out to the island and settled down in the hamlet. World War II had a similar impact taking the population from about 4,000 people in 1941 to about 8,000 in 1945, according to Janis. The fallout of the two wars brought in many Irish and German families. In the 1950s a real estate boom on newly vacant farmland helped the population jump again from 8,000 to 40,000 and began drawing in Middle Eastern cultures. Today, there are several Indian, Chinese and Thai businesses in the hamlet’s downtown, including The New Curry and Chilli Restaurant.
“I enjoy mixing the two cultures [American and Indian],” said Sanumyan Varee Pratan, one of the restaurant’s owners. She moved to Hicksville to be surrounded by friends from Thailand and India who had adopted American culture while keeping some Indian traditions.
“In India we are very loving, but there’s too much pampering. Here you are out after 21. We say, ‘Let them go but with love.’”