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'Gardens of Eden': A tour of Long Island's early neighborhoods

The boat basin at Brightwaters on Long Island,

The boat basin at Brightwaters on Long Island, around 1910. From "Gardens of Eden," edited by Robert B. MacKay (Norton, Sept. 2015) Credit: Bay Shore Historical Society

GARDENS OF EDEN: Long Island's Early Twentieth-Century Planned Communities, edited by Robert B. MacKay. W.W. Norton & Company, 304 pp., $65.

A transitional period in early 20th century Long Island history is recaptured in this handsome volume, which collects 21 essays profiling the residential parks that first enticed city dwellers to sample the joys of country living, supported by modern conveniences and an easy commute to their Manhattan offices. Set in bucolic landscapes festooned with buildings in a dizzying variety of architectural styles -- Dutch Colonial, Arts & Craft, Italian Renaissance, English Tudor -- these parks looked nothing like the homogeneous mass suburbs that later sprang up after World War II, yet they set the pattern for subsequent development.

Residential parks "popularize[d] the model of the well-located, readily accessible . . . curvilinear suburb," writes Robert B. MacKay, the book's editor and author of five chapters. Developers designed them to appeal to the newly prosperous class of urban professionals, who couldn't afford a Gold Coast mansion but nonetheless aspired to live in "exclusive" enclaves among other "refined, educated people," as a 1908 ad for Great Neck Estates put it. At the same time, marketing stressed the properties' affordability, and residential parks such as Brightwaters on the South Shore and Beacon Hill on the North offered monthly payment options for buyers unable to manage the era's high-rate, short-term mortgages.

Brightwaters and Beacon Hill today still maintain the careful landscaping and cohesive architecture that distinguished residential parks a hundred years ago, but others like Jamaica Estates and Kensington have been battered by postwar overdevelopment, their buildings disfigured by ill-considered modernization or simply torn down. Boom and bust has defined Long Island real estate since it surged after New York City incorporated all five boroughs in 1898, then tanked following the Panic of 1907. It took "Men of Large Ideas," The New York Times opined -- not to mention nerves of steel -- to stomach the risks involved. (Helen Marsh, founder of Bellerose, is the only female developer mentioned.) A good many of them ended up bankrupt; some, like New York State Senator William H. Reynolds, builder of Long Beach (and the Coney Island amusement park Dreamland), found themselves under indictment.

Among these larger-than-life figures, only swashbuckling 1920s party boy Carl Fisher (Montauk Beach) and Progressive Era idealist Robert Weeks de Forest (Munsey Park) come across vividly here. The authors, mostly historians and preservationists, convey much information but little personality in serviceable prose. And the information is occasionally repetitious, for example in multiple references to such development-boosting transportation improvements as the Queensboro Bridge and East River railroad tunnels that editor MacKay could profitably have eliminated.

These flaws will not matter to someone paging through the evocative vintage photographs or savoring a chapter on their favorite historic Long Island community. As a coffee-table book for the preservation-minded, "Gardens of Eden" works very nicely.

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