August 10, 1997

Blurry Boundaries Lead to Confusion on Long Island


Nassau County's designated county seat is Mineola. Government agencies and their official documents all dutifully list it on their addresses.

But they're wrong. The court, legislative and executive buildings are actually in Garden City. Which, despite its name, is a not a city but an incorporated village.

Nassau's premier shopping mall, Roosevelt Field, is nowhere near the community of Roosevelt. Neither was the old Roosevelt Raceway.

Neighboring Suffolk County is just as illogical. Most of its so-called Riverhead County Center is actually in Southampton. And the North Fork is largely occupied by the town of Southold.

Welcome to the state of confusion called Long Island, where things are often neither what they seem nor where their names suggest.

For visitors -- like the tourist throngs now on their summer pilgrimages to the beaches, marinas and East End resorts -- the Island can be a blur of anonymous expressway exit numbers and exotic stations rattled off by a Long Island Rail Road conductor. But even native islanders are bewildered by the quirks that can confound 911 dispatchers, mail carriers and map makers. For many residents, their own community identity suffers split personalities.

''It's crazy,'' said Donald Kehoe, a Nassau County off-track betting executive. ''You go to some places, and people don't even know where they live. I used to be in Plainedge -- actually there is no Plainedge, but they call it the Plainedge School District -- where we had a Bethpage postal address but were also in the North Massapequa fire district and South Farmingdale water district. Bethpage used to be called Central Park. They renamed it because the mail kept going to Manhattan.''

The dyslexic gazetteer here has many bewildering quirks. Leonard's of Great Neck, a popular catering hall, is actually in University Gardens. The State University of New York at Farmingdale is about a mile from its namesake. Five Towns College is not now, and never has been, in the Five Towns, though it originally planned to be. None of the so-called Five Towns, by the way, are really towns. Even the pioneering suburb Levittown -- its name notwithstanding -- is not officially a town. But Smithtown is.

Nassau Point is in eastern Suffolk County, far from Nassau. The L.I.R.R.'s Sea Cliff station is actually in Glen Cove. East Islip is in the western half of Islip Town and is south of Central Islip.

Is Oceanside on the ocean? Surely you jest.

''You could do this endlessly,'' said Dr. Roger Wunderlik, the editor of the Long Island Historical Journal. ''It's one of my pet subjects.''

In New York City, the Bronx is clearly up, and the Battery is definitely down. But Long Island seems to have cast a peculiar magnetic spell over the compass.

The South Fork is home to North Sea, North Harbor, North Haven, North Side Hills and Northwest Harbor. Part of Southampton is actually north of East Hampton. East Northport is mostly south of Northport. ''Nothing really east about it,'' said Bradford W. O'Hearn, a public relations consultant. ''It's one of the great puzzles of Long Island I've always wondered about.''

Such oddities can have consequences. The Nassau and Suffolk police monitor address and phone changes on their border to keep people in the right 911 system. Three years ago, people in Inwood, next to Queens, won a campaign changing their ZIP code to thwart errant city tax bills and jury duty notices. ''Long Island has a lot of abnormalities, and even the Census Bureau has made mistakes,'' said Nassau's county planner, Roy A. Fedelem.

As if things were not muddled enough, some wealthy homeowners on the North Shore and East End shun numbered addresses, for privacy, security and status. Frustrated Southampton officials recently issued hundreds of summonses for unmarked homes.

''They want to stay quaint, but we have to have the numbers for emergencies,'' said Police Sgt. William Zurol of Suffolk's 911 system. His Nassau counterpart, Lieut. Edward Truglio, said that irregular numbering and ''wannabes who add a north or south to some town when there is no such thing'' keep his staff busy correcting records.

Directions are a challenge for visitors ''and even for Long Islanders outside their own area,'' said Nassau's historian, Edward V. Smits. ''The biggest confusion is there is no coordination between postal areas, school districts and municipal boundaries.''

Walter Greenspan, a ZIP code buff, is lobbying to revamp the island's postal system. Among his complaints, he contends that the Westbury Music Fair is really in Jericho and that the Jericho Cider Mill is in Muttontown, which is not a town but a village.

''While driving my son to school today, he asked where Long Island City Hall is,'' said J. Lance Mallamo, Suffolk's historian. ''I tried to explain there is no Long Island City Hall. There are counties, towns and villages. That's why Westhampton Beach, a village, can be in Southampton, a town. There is also the Village of Southampton, and Bridgehampton and East Hampton, which is both a town and village. He asked about North Hampton, and I told him there isn't one.''

Grown-ups can be equally baffled. A case in point: Hempstead Village, the state's most populous village, is within Hempstead Town, the nation's most populous town. Town Hall and Village Hall are both in the village. West Hempstead and South Hempstead are neighborhoods adjacent to the village and in the town, but not in its western and southern parts.

''We get a lot of phone calls and walk-ins from people trying to do village business at Town Hall,'' said Marlene Kastleman, a town spokeswoman. ''Fortunately, Village Hall is only three blocks away.'' And the village Mayor, James A. Garner, gets town inquiries. ''People get it confused quite often,'' he said, ''thinking I'm Mayor of the town.''

Long Island's mixups are rooted in politics and history.

Modern Long Island is an artificial construct of suburban and rural Nassau and Suffolk, ignoring the adjacent urban boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn that share the same island.

The original Indian names include spelling bee stumpers like Apaquogue, Connetquot, Hauppauge, Marratooka, Nissequogue and Ponquogue. The Colonial era introduced the Hempsteads and Hamptons. Farm villages emerged in the early 1900's. In the post-World War II suburban explosion, developers and politicians superimposed myriad names and overlapping balkanized boundaries.

Change has homogenized some colorful names. Great Neck used to be Madman's Neck. Residents of Bay Shore are grateful it is no longer called Sodom. Time has rendered some names obsolete. Old Country Road is anything but that. Much of Green Acres is paved over by the Green Acres shopping center.

Addresses are notoriously erratic. In the middle of Freeport, odd and even numbers switch sides on Merrick Road. In Lido Beach, adjacent homes on Fairway Road are numbered: 22, 208, 30, 224 and 38. More than 300 streets have Oak in their name. ''Isn't it amazing we ever get the mail delivered?'' said a Post Office spokesman, Tom Gaynor, adding that his agency usually overcame the Island's hurdles.

When a major artery like Northern Boulevard or Sunrise Highway crosses a border, villages delight in changing its name or addresses, despite the pleas of police and postal officials. A classic example is Route 27A, also designated as 80 and 85 and eventually merging with 27. The Hagstrom map shows that starting in Nassau as Merrick Road, it changes name 29 times going east.

''You find issues like these everywhere, but Suffolk is more complicated than other counties,'' said Vera Benson, chief cartographer for Hagstrom maps. Her staff has to resolve conflicting name and border claims but does not try to sort out block numbers, because ''we would never catch up.''

Sound-alike places are the bane of the uninitiated. Bayville, Bayview, Bay Point, Bayport, Bay Park, Bayside Park and Bay Shore are scattered across the Island, unrelated except in the minds of befuddled motorists. Miles separate pseudo twins like Lloyd Harbor/Floyd Harbor, Bayville/Sayville, Bellmore/ Bellport, Farmingdale/Farmingville, Freeport/Freetown, Laurel/ Laurel Hollow, and Wheatley Hills/ Wheatley Heights.

Some places were named by accident or chance. A clerical error turned Seaville into Sayville. And Lynbrook was named by homesick settlers from Brooklyn who transposed its syllables. A lucky thing they weren't from the Bronx.