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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Shutdown of Coliseum marks end of an era in Nassau

Doors at Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum are

Doors at Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum are locked after the Aug. 4, 2015, Billy Joel concert. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Plastic cups, lifted by a strong breeze, tumbled noisily across the vast acres of empty parking lot at the Nassau Coliseum yesterday morning.

Blue ones, red ones, clear ones, white ones, all rolling against the asphalt and sounding like a delicate wind chime.

A truck began to move portable toilets. In time, five or six men emerged from the arena with brooms, dustpans and wheeled garbage bins to begin clearing away the plentiful debris left in the parking lots after Tuesday's sold-out Billy Joel concert, the last act to appear in the venerable Coliseum.

The scene was lively, and beautiful, yet sad.

And properly so. Because Tuesday's shutdown of the Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum marks the end of an era for one of the most ambitious and successful suburbs in these United States.

That's not to say Nassau is dead. But the county will never be what it was in the heady days after soldiers returning from World War II transformed potato fields into a suburb that grew into a political and economic juggernaut.

Nassau was one of the first counties to fashion itself as a commuter suburb, and one of the first to welcome development of grand-scale retailing centers, such as Roosevelt Field mall, which opened almost six decades ago.

Nassau was one of the first to harness the county level of government -- which, heretofore, had the primary function of passing through state and financial aid to smaller municipalities -- and turn it into what one local historian called "a distinctly suburban form of government."

And from that base, Nassau grew, innovated, and kept growing. The county formed its own bus service; built its own hospital and a nursing home for elderly residents; built out its own sewage plant; carved out an impressive number of recreation areas, including what is now Eisenhower Park, which, at 930 acres, is larger than Central Park.

And the feather in the cap, one that would both serve residents and transform Nassau into a destination area? Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which, after its opening in 1971, hosted everything from major league hockey and basketball to circuses, ice-skating shows, Elvis and, yes, Billy Joel.

"Nassau Coliseum put the suburbs in the major leagues," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "Its shuttering symbolizes the end of suburbia's Golden Era."

Like many other vintage suburbs, Nassau stopped growing by leaps and bounds decades ago. And the county -- as reports released by the county comptroller and legislative office of budget review on Monday show clearly -- continues to have financial problems, despite the oversight of a state control board.

The county spun off control of its hospital and senior home more than a decade ago; portions of its parks have been licensed to private operators. Officials have turned over operation of the Bay Park Sewage Treatment plant, and are considering leasing the entire sewage system to a private investor.

But the end of an era doesn't have to be the end of Nassau -- or of Long Island and other suburbs spread across the nation.

The potato fields are gone; and the typically suburban fragmentation of government makes it difficult, but not impossible, to tackle regional issues from poverty to transportation to housing.

"Suburbs need to retool, rethink, re-innovate," Levy said.

In short, it's time for a refit -- like the one Nassau Coliseum is about to go through at the hands of developer Bruce Ratner, who plans to overhaul the building.

But Wednesday, in the parking lots surrounding the arena, there was mostly stillness and silence.


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