Since its founding nearly a century ago, Gordon Heights has been a haven of hope.
The hamlet was started by a white developer as an opportunity for African Americans from New York City to buy small cottages and ''simple houses,'' according to a local historian. In stark contrast to those humble structures where heating and plumbing were optional, the community recently welcomed a new subdivision that boasts 31 homes, all towering two-story properties with large garages and spacious yards nestled in a woodsy area of the Town of Brookhaven.
The plot of land on which the subdivision sits at Granny and Mill roads — and the Gordon Heights community at large — contain a rich and fascinating history that longtime residents and others with ties to the area hope to preserve and pass along.
How it began
Technically, Gordon Heights doesn’t exist, according to Melanie Cardone-Leathers, a local history librarian at Longwood Public Library. Her family has strong connections to the Gordon Heights community — she grew up in the area, as did her parents, while her grandfather owned a funeral home there.
“There is a Gordon Heights Fire Department,” she says, which serves the new subdivision. “That does exist, but the actual town of Gordon Heights does not. It’s a community consisting of other communities.”
The borders of the communities that stretch into and make up Gordon Heights are Coram, Middle Island, Yaphank and Medford. But Cardone-Leathers and other residents would agree: In this area, no bigger than a couple square miles, there is a connection among its residents.
Gordon Heights was founded in 1927 by Louis Fife. A forward-thinker, Fife approached African American churches and communities in New York City and presented them with a chance to own homes, says Brookhaven Town historian Barbara Russell.
“He realized African Americans couldn’t get mortgages, or builders wouldn't help them at the time,” says Cardone-Leathers, 45.
Fife’s goal was to build a community from the ground up. He created a catalog of various architectural styles and amenities, allowing potential residents to choose what they wanted, Cardone-Leathers says. The houses all came with a cellar, porch, back stoop and a well, but “heating and plumbing were often optional,” she adds.
At the time, residents could pay Fife’s company, the Gordon Heights Development Corporation, directly — $10 down, then $10 a month after moving in.
This was the first area “marketed to the African American community in the Town of Brookhaven,” says Russell.
“There were plots of land, some of them were as big as an acre,” she says. “The idea was people would come buy this piece of property and settle there, and have enough property to actually have a little home and a farm, and be self-sufficient.”
Most buyers originally were from the southern United States and West Indies, she adds.
Fife sold five plots in 1927, and within five years, there were eight homes in the community, Cardone-Leathers says. She estimates that between 10 and 16 people lived there at that time. As of 2020, the population of Gordon Heights is 3,981 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A community still growing
Many residents moving into the new subdivision are first-time homebuyers from New York City, according to real estate broker Robert Merolla, who represents the development. Two of the houses were listed for just under $500,000 and another was listed for $549,000, according to posts on Realtor.com from December 2021.
The mailing addresses of the homes are Medford, one of the communities whose borders make up Gordon Heights. The subdivision is served by the Longwood School District and is within the boundaries of Gordon Heights as defined by U.S. Census data, Cardone-Leathers says.
“I think they’re ecstatic,” Merolla says of the new residents. “People want larger properties with outdoor space, and the convenience of the LIE.”
The project began in about 2019, and the first properties were listed during the coronavirus pandemic, he says. Now, all of the houses have been sold.
Darrel Callender and his family moved into the subdivision from an apartment in nearby Coram. There were many perks for Callender, who works for the Longwood School District and as a constable in Port Jefferson village. The commute is easy because of the subdivision's proximity to major roadways, and the house is "structurally beautiful," he says.
"It's very clean and quiet, and it's very fulfilling every day to drive home and see that beautiful area," says Callender, 50.
The new home has brought about adjustments "every day" for his children, ages 9 and 4.
"They're pretty happy with the space that they're in," says Callender, who's lived around this area most of his life. "They can play outside freely."
In the early 1900s, the land was a farm run by horticulturist Hunter Sekine, who came to the United States from Japan in the 1890s, says Cardone-Leathers. The farm was along Mill Road, about where the new development stands today, she says.
According to local newspaper clippings from 1936, he planted 60 types of trees. One was 150 feet high, with lavender and violet budding from its branches. Another stood at 14 feet tall, covered in cherry blossoms. Sekine also maintained 21 different varieties of the wisteria and 20,000 plants, which he started growing in 1901.
Sekine imported plants from Japan to Long Island. At one point, some of his trees were ordered by the park commission of Cincinnati and he shipped 1,400 of them there. According to news articles of the time, people would come by to visit and admire the farm.
Cardone-Leathers has seen many of the wooded areas she grew up with going away in favor of houses being built.
"Now, it looks more like a typical Long Island community,” she says, with “large houses and ranch-style houses. Ten years from now, it’s not going to look the same.''
Longtime residents say many of the characteristics that first attracted them to the community remain.
John Thomas, 57, has lived in the Middle Island section of Gordon Heights for 28 years. When he first visited in 1992, the Army veteran was reminded of his time spent in North Carolina.
“I liked the area because it gave me the feeling of when I was stationed in Fort Bragg,” he says. “The feeling of having some space on your property — it just had that southern feel to it. That’s what drew me to the area.”
He drove by horse ranches, golf courses and country clubs, enjoying the scenery. Another draw was his house: a three-bedroom high ranch on an acre. The price back then was $143,000, he says.
“I have a lot of wildlife, which just added to everything,” he says.
Progress and pride
E. James Freeman, 56, has been living in Gordon Heights for 17 years. While there, he's served as the president of the Greater Gordon Heights Civic Association — this year is his final term.
“Gordon Heights has always been a place that welcomes everyone,” he says. “When you drive through it now, you’ll see a wide variety of different nationalities that are a part of the community.”
Granny Road Park in Medford has become a place for the Gordon Heights community to come together. It's been revitalized in recent years, with a baseball field and spray station for children.
Every year in August, Freeman and the civic association throw a celebration in the park called Gordon Heights Day, to recognize the community’s birthday. The organization works to maintain a good quality of life in Gordon Heights, and he hopes that the children raised there will choose to stay.
“We’re also very protective over our seniors, and make sure they have everything they need,” Freeman says.
The best way to get a sense of the community is to immerse yourself in it, whether by exploring or seeking out the civic association meetings, Thomas says.
“Just get out and drive around,” he says, “and kind of get lost so you know your way around and see what’s happening. There are great campsites around this area that me and my wife walk to during the warmer months. There’s a great feeling of community and all the nationalities in it, especially when we do that.”
The civic association meetings offer a space for new residents to "voice their concerns and dispel any negative rumors they may have heard," Freeman says. Callender has been familiar with a negative connotation ascribed to the community, but he and Freeman both note that the quality of life in Gordon Heights, a community that has been through difficult times, has improved in the past decade.
"Hopefully this subdivision will enhance the preexisting neighborhood," Callender says. "It's important that the public knows not to always judge a book by its cover."
Once Thomas learned about how Gordon Heights came to be, he felt an even stronger connection to it.
“I think without knowing, I was drawn to this area,” he says. “Learning the history and how minorities were not allowed to live in certain areas — when I found that out, I became even more intrigued and in love with where I was.”
And there’s a sense of pride among the residents, Cardone-Leathers says. Even though she now lives in Ridge, she still feels it herself.
“Long before Levittown and other Long Island developments, Gordon Heights was an oasis for African Americans and their families. They created a tight-knit community,” she says.
"It might not be as widely known as Levittown. Levittown is the pride and joy of Long Island. But Gordon Heights was founded two decades before that, and still exists today.”