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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dobie: Long Islanders still wear small-town blinders

Lake Ronkonkoma.

Lake Ronkonkoma. Photo Credit: Brittany Wait

A senior at a Long Island high school says his peers going off to college are not coming back after graduation.

A Suffolk County businessman says he's moving his company to Florida because of its lower taxes and utility bills.

Families say children no longer can achieve their parents' lifestyle because of a lack of good jobs and the high cost of living.

Life today on Long Island, right? Except that those observations were made 36 years ago when Newsday published its "Long Island at the Crossroads" series.

The package of stories led off with a quote from the late Peter Goldmark Sr., an electronics whiz credited with inventing the long-playing record and astute observer of the region he called home:

"Long Island could be a paradise or Long Island could be hell. And it's all going to be decided in the next 25 years."

Goldmark was wrong on the timeline but right on our peculiar multiple personality disorder -- then and now.

The truth is Long Island always has been a bit of heaven and a bit of hell. We have large pockets of poverty abutting communities with million-dollar homes, and poor-performing schools alongside some of the best districts in the country. We have beautiful beaches, wonderful parks and the enticements of the East End. And unholy traffic, crushing taxes, environmental degradation and frayed race relations.

Whether you're an optimist or pessimist depends on your focus -- and where you live.

The "Crossroads" series was the topic of a forum Wednesday night at Farmingdale State College, and the panelists, including me, were struck by how little Long Island's problems have changed since 1978. The series lamented the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, the lack of affordable housing and the stresses on our health care sector from an aging population.

But not everything is deja vu all over again. There has been some unanticipated progress. We have a property tax cap. Some transformative projects are moving forward -- the Ronkonkoma Hub, Wyandanch Rising -- and others might follow. There are glimmers of hope on affordable housing, with some thawing of government, if not civic, opposition. Some downtowns have been re-energized. A second railroad track will be built between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma. Suffolk County is moving steadily toward more sewers and better septic systems. Attitudes on some acceptance issues -- like same-sex marriage -- are changing.

The main barrier to progress -- noted by every panelist -- is the continued lack of regional thinking and regional solutions to what really are regional problems. We're all Long Islanders, but we live in our own silos. We identify with our narrowly defined community. And we've made a god of local control.

That's reinforced by our hundreds of local governmental jurisdictions. We know as a whole the structure is crazy, but we don't want to give up our little parts of it. So . . .

We know renewable energy is in our future, but we fight the solar farm down the street. We don't care what happens in other school districts as long as ours is doing OK. We desperately need to grow new businesses and attract others to locate here, but our provincial industrial development agencies spend their time and resources poaching from each other. That helps their own fiefdoms but does nothing for Long Island as a whole.

Protecting one's turf is a basic human instinct. But we all need to start thinking of our turf as Long Island, before it really is too late.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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