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Mastic Beach wants to reclaim its destiny

A homeowner displays a sign supporting an initiative

A homeowner displays a sign supporting an initiative that would create the Incorporated Village of Mastic Beach. (Jan. 20, 2010) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

For Edward Hughes, Mastic Beach is the place the 68-year-old former steelworker took his grandchildren crabbing last summer.

Ken Spooner remembers seeing bands like the Ronettes and the Coasters play the old Beach Comber tavern in the '50s and '60s.

To Christopher Ricciardi, Mastic Beach is history - the William Floyd Estate was home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence - and water.

"You jump out of your house, you turn the key, and you're in the water," Ricciardi said. "We have the same water as Westhampton. We have the same wind as Westhampton."

Others know the hamlet for mostly unpleasant reasons - absentee landlords, neglected and abandoned housing, a foreclosure rate nearly four times worse than Suffolk County's overall, a disproportionate concentration of sex offenders and some highly publicized violent crimes, such as a 2006 murder of a 27-year-old man with a 3-foot razor-tipped arrow.

Mastic Beach's rich history, troubled present and uncertain future are part of an ongoing debate in the blue-collar community, where some local activists are pushing for the hamlet to become the 31st incorporated village in Suffolk County.

Proponents of a Mastic Beach Village say incorporating would give its 11,500 residents more control over code enforcement and housing issues, but opponents say the move would add new taxes and distance the community from its history by adding streets from neighboring areas.

"We need to get back control of our own destiny," said Hughes, who, like many Mastic Beach residents, grew up in Brooklyn. "There are problems here with slumlords and drugs."

Bob DeBona, a 60-year resident of the hamlet and president of the 82-year-old Mastic Beach Property Owners Association, disagrees. He says Mastic Beach can erase its negative image by working with Brookhaven Town to crack down on absentee landlords whose dilapidated houses plague the community.

But DeBona and Hughes do agree that there's nowhere else on Long Island they'd rather live.

"You have to look at Mastic Beach through the eyes of a child," said DeBona, 63, thinking back to his own childhood. "Mastic Beach is fishing, clamming, your summertime sweetheart."

Mastic Beach - nestled between the Forge River and Mastic Road - was developed in the 1920s as a beachfront getaway for working-class people in Brooklyn and Queens. But the area's recorded history dates to the mid-17th century, when English settlers began buying land from Native Americans living there.

The area was the site of several Revolutionary War-era estates, such as the Floyd Estate and the partially preserved Manor of St. George. Many estates were later carved up by developers and sold as lots in the 1920s, some through advertisements in the Brooklyn Citizen newspaper touting Mastic Beach as a "dream spot."

Dozens of the bungalows that became Mastic Beach's earliest housing stock still stand, rows of them on the blocks stretching south on either side of Pattersquash Creek down to Moriches Bay.

Modest business district

What passes for a downtown radiates out from what locals call the Five Corners, an extended intersection centered on Neighborhood and Mastic roads. A modest business district features the Handy Pantry grocery, a pizza shop and St. Jude's Church - named for the Roman Catholic patron of hopeless causes - mixed in with other small businesses, some boarded up.

Hard times descended in the recessionary 1970s, when many residents defaulted on mortgages and absentee landlords began buying the homes, said Spooner, who is working on a book called "The Mastics: From Blue Blood to Blue Collar."

Many landlords rented homes to people outside the area on government assistance programs, creating a lasting impression that Mastic Beach has been "dumped upon," Spooner said.

Today, Mastic Beach's ZIP code has more registered Level 2 and 3 sex offenders - 16 - than any of the five nearest ZIP codes, state records show. Mastic Beach Property Owners' Association leaders said at least a quarter of the nearly 4,400 homes in the hamlet are not owner-occupied.

An incorporated village would have greater code enforcement powers and tougher housing standards and help get derelict houses into the hands of new homeowners, said Ricciardi, a 24-year resident.

A vote could happen this spring, after the town holds a public hearing and approves the activists' petition.

Some feel slighted

"It seems like we were slighted over the years," Ricciardi said, adding that an incorporated village "changes the whole character of who's going to want to live here."

But Maura Spery, a painting contractor who bought a home in Mastic Beach in 2002, is unconvinced, and wants to see more evidence that a village is worth extra taxes.

"They've grabbed on to the idea that if they formed a village, they could deal with the problems here," she said. "What is your plan of action?"

Paul Breschard, chairman of the village exploratory committee, believes Mastic Beach can incorporate "without any kind of increase," and adds that "we're not trying to turn this into some highfalutin community."

DeBona's opposition is partly out of pride: The proposed village boundaries, he said, include some streets that have been considered part of Shirley. DeBona bristles, "after all those years of hearing people from Shirley bad-mouth Mastic Beach."

For Spooner, who now lives in Tennessee and runs a Web site dedicated to Mastic Beach history, it's all about memories.

"We weren't millionaires, growing up," he said, "but we wouldn't trade it for anything."

Population: 11,500.
Size: 5.3 sq. mi. (1.1 of which is water).
Median income per household: $44,937 (county average is $65,288).
Per person income: $17,046 (county average is $26,577).
Population density: 2,727.9 per square mile (county average is 1,556).
Racial/ethnic breakdown:
88.2 percent white
5.0 percent black
0.5 percent Native American
0.9 percent Asian
10.6 percent Hispanic
Housing units: 4,375
School district: William Floyd

PHOTOS: Click here to see photos of Mastic Beach

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