Before Yvonne Rivers puts into words her take on the merits and history of the all-black fire department in Gordon Heights - where a 1920s white developer persuaded black people to buy homes he'd built expressly for black buyers only - she heaves a sigh. She closes her eyes for a few seconds and, when she opens them, holds back her tears.
"I hope I don't get too emotional," said Rivers, 72, a retired social worker whose family transported itself from the Bronx to Gordon Heights when she was 10. The firehouse itself, an institution whose very existence has come under assault in present times, was the object of her sentiments.
"This place is the heartbeat of the community," said Rivers, who has helped chronicle Gordon Heights' history, "and it has been that way from the very moment that it was formed. It was a galvanizing of human spirit and human will that created this firehouse, which was so necessary."
On its Web site, the department describes itself as "the first black fire department and fire district in New York State.'' Now, more than 60 years after its founding, that galvanizing institution may be eliminated.
Caring for their own
Blacks were recruited from churches and elsewhere in densely populated New York City to a wide-open and protractedly segregated Long Island. Some who began arriving in Gordon Heights in 1927 started out as weekenders and summer residents, breathing country air, growing their own vegetables, raising pigs and poultry for private consumption. Before they could get a job in Suffolk County - the first black schoolteacher, for example, was hired in Gordon Heights in 1951 - they commuted back to the city for work.
They learned the hard necessity of being able to care for their own, Rivers said. Several longtime residents tell how, in those early years, a neighboring fire department staffed by whites opted to let the residence of a black homesteader burn down rather than use its equipment to douse the flames.
"The existing fire departments were not obligated to come outside of their districts," said Robert Wilson, 82, the oldest active member of the Gordon Heights department. His father, who spent the week managing rooming houses in Harlem, co-founded the fire department and served as chief.
Recent years have brought cooperation among area fire districts, said Rivers and others who were a part of that eastward migration by black city dwellers. Still, the beginnings of the Gordon Heights department are not entirely forgotten.
"There were maybe, oh, a half-dozen houses when my father moved us out here from the Bronx, looking for a better place," Wilson said. "My dad bought an acre on Gray Avenue and then an adjoining acre. Back then, there were dirt roads. No electricity. Kerosene lamps, a wood stove, an outhouse. The street ended just a few hundred yards up past our house. The developer just kept on expanding."
An eighth-grader upon his arrival in Suffolk County, Wilson was in that early handful of blacks at Port Jefferson High School, seven miles away by school bus. "The bus didn't come into our community, so we had to walk that half-mile to the bus stop, even when the snow was up to here," Wilson said.
The only racial incident he recalls at the school was his sister's hurt over not being able to go on her senior class' trip to Washington, D.C. "A black couldn't get accommodations in Washington. It wasn't because of any school rules," he said.
As a fire captain, Wilson is in charge of crowd and traffic control when firefighters are battling a blaze. Steeped in the factoids of Gordon Heights and its fire department, he carefully maintains such archives as a 1977 "Golden Anniversary" journal commemorating the homesteaders. Its cover illustration depicts a black man, hoe hoisted over a shoulder, returning home to a farmyard full of chickens, a welcoming wife waving from a doorway, a boy and a girl running, open-armed, to meet him.
According to the documented history, Gordon Heights was established in 1927. The Gordon Heights Progressive Association - Wilson's father was one of its presidents - lobbied to win essential community services. The first power lines came in 1947. The association launched the fire department and bought its first truck in 1948. Petitioning the Brookhaven Town Board, the department became a taxing district in 1952. "Up to then, we were buying old engines, a hook-and-ladder, stuff that other people had discarded," Wilson said.
A community catchall
The department, which began in a building too small to house a fire truck, already was serving as a kind of communal catchall. It was a center of recreation, community organizing and what have you. "You'd pay a quarter to come hear a kid recite or sing or dance," Rivers said.
To a point, the community engagement remains. A Halloween party, winter wonderland, Santa run and programs highlighting Gordon Heights' history have been in the lineup of activities. But you can count on a couple of hands the number of residents who attend the annual open house. "There's a disconnect. There's plenty of people who go home every day, shut their door and do not know what's going on in the community," said Tawaun Weber, 30, president of the Greater Gordon Heights Civic Association and assistant director of Vision Long Island. Her father, a former volunteer firefighter, also came there as a boy. "He thought being out here was complete freedom."
"But, today, it's a different kind of community," Rivers said.
Sitting that recent day in a lounge of a firehouse that is a block wide and was built, over time, in three parts, those supporters of the fire department, which has a 55-member all-black volunteer unit and one white EMT, recounted how it has been both a public utility and a larger force.They did not, however, avoid the question of its unsettled future: As the most heavily taxed of any fire district on Long Island, the Gordon Heights department, to critics, is emblematic of what they view as high-tax fiefdoms pervading Nassau and Suffolk counties. The last two people elected to Gordon Heights' five-member board of fire commissioners ran on a tax-cutting platform.
One critic, Rosalie Hanson, a Gordon Heights resident since 1986, said the comparatively small catchment area of the fire district, given its high taxes, makes it "unsustainable in the long run. We feel that dissolution is the only solution to ending these killer fire taxes. This is not a matter of being against the volunteer firefighters or the fire district; there is a way to maintain the district."
The district could, Hanson said, follow the lead of the old Shoreham Fire District, which maintained its location, equipment and some of its personnel but now is under the umbrella of the Rocky Point Fire District.
A comparative lack of a commercial tax base is partly the reason for the roughly 2-square-mile Gordon Heights district's high taxes, officials said. Meantime, its volunteers answer fire and ambulance calls locally and aid nearby fire districts. Its supporters ask what assurance of protection there would be if the Gordon Heights district were dissolved.
"What we have here is a family. Every family, from time to time, has its problems. [The community needs] to work it out," said volunteer firefighter Carter Brown, 59, a fire commissioner, summing up the for-and-against debate over the fire district.
Reckoning with the future
Sometimes, history and modernity collide. Rivers ponders that reality. What of the past will be lost and kept? Fire Capt. Wilson's father, Tyrell Wilson, Rivers said, "would tell us our history every opportunity he had. At a certain point, I could sit there and mouth everything he was going to say because he said it so often: How we got here. How the fire department got started. How the credit union started. How people worked together. By the time I got to college, I understood it even more clearly; he who holds the history holds the power."
Apparent also is that the fire department's future is up for negotiation.
"If we can get adequate fire protection, I wouldn't care if they closed it down, I guess," said Wilson, ambivalent and not following his final sentence all the way through. "Personally, because of all we've had to do here to get fire protection, I'd like not to see it closed. If you have your own, it's always better. If you have to depend on someone else . . . "