Ulysses Spicer can't even begin to count the number of meetings he has attended about Matinecock Court, the East Northport affordable housing project 43 years in the making.
As the longtime president of Housing Help, Inc. and past president of Huntington’s NAACP chapter, Spicer has been involved with the project proposed for a 14.5-acre plot at the intersection of Elwood and Pulaski roads — now as close to a reality as ever — since its early days.
"It got at one point to where they really hated to see any of us coming into town hall," Spicer remembers.
But Spicer, who is Black, also recalls some discussions about Matinecock Court that he did not attend.
"It was suggested to me — and I readily accepted — that I should not attend certain meetings, because of what we already knew," Spicer said. "I did not want the conversation to be centered on me — or my race — period. Because it already was."
Others might have made the Matinecock Court saga about traffic or zoning or the size of units. But Spicer won't ever forget the truth: that underneath it all was an ugly layer of racism, a desire by the Town of Huntington and some area residents to keep such housing — and the minority, low-income residents who might occupy it — segregated in Huntington Station, the "urban renewal" area of town. The town fought to the Supreme Court, which sided with Housing Help in 1988.
More legal fights, civic opposition, and ugliness ensued. The town and Housing Help reached a federal fair housing settlement in 2000, but since then, the developer and number and style of units have changed.
Spicer, now 82, grew up in Georgia, moving to the Bronx in 1963, then to Huntington in 1975. He joined Housing Help shortly thereafter. Little did he know what he was getting himself into. Over time, Housing Help could have backed out, sold the property, or ended the effort. Some staff or board members have died, while others have joined, learning about Matinecock from Spicer. Through it all, Spicer said, one word described why he stuck with it.
"Determined … It has been an uphill battle of determination, of pure grit, to stay in this fight," said Spicer, a retired elementary school teacher, grandfather of nine and great-grandfather of five.
This month, the town board approved revised court settlement language, which would allow the project to become 146 limited-equity cooperatives, in which residents pay a monthly fee while building some equity. But comments by some residents and incoming Town Supervisor Ed Smyth indicated Huntington still doesn't fully embrace alternatives to homeownership, as they incorrectly likened the new model to traditional rentals, with negative connotations. Even after the successful vote, there are "serious steps to be taken," Spicer noted. And he recalled how there have been dashed hopes before — so he’s not ready to celebrate.
"Years ago, I thought there might be a time when we could go over there, and have the property cleared of all the excess growth and debris, and take photos, and celebrate moving forward," Spicer recalled. "But it never really got to a comfortable state to do that."
But with a new developer, game plan, and timetable, another moment of hope awaits.
If all goes well, that developer, Peter G. Florey, hopes to break ground this summer.
Perhaps by then, Spicer might be ready to take that celebratory photograph.
Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.