It happened to me again today (that’s today as I’m writing this, not today as I’m posting it). It’s been happening to me fairly regularly since I was seventeen years old. (No, not that. Get your mind out of the gutter.)
Ever since I left home to go to college, back during the Coolidge administration, the pattern has been the same. Someone says, “Where are you from?” (Now that I’m in my dotage, the question is more likely to be, “Where did you grow up?”) I say, “Long Island.” And the other person responds, “Oh, you mean Lawn Guyland,” to which I reply, “I didn’t say that.” (Sometimes they just say, “You don’t sound like you’re from Long Island,” in which case my response is, “Thank you.”)
Here’s the thing. I don’t have a Long Island accent because I’m from the North Shore of Long Island. The Long Island accent is found only on the South Shore.
Why? Well, I’ll explain.
The North Shore
From the second half of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th, the North Shore was sort of a resort area. Wealthy New Yorkers, from J.P. Morgan, F.W Woolworth, and various Vanderbilts and Roosevelts, to your run-of-the-mill doctors and lawyers, had summer homes on the North Shore. Basically, the north coast of Nassau County and western Suffolk County were the Hamptons before the Hamptons ever dreamed of being the Hamptons.
Of course, there were normal, non-rich people who lived there, too, and not just during the summer—tradespeople, shopkeepers, and all the other folks who make up a community.
The South Shore
The South Shore, meanwhile, was almost entirely farmland. Much more open space, many fewer people.
After World War II, there was a tremendous housing shortage in this country. Millions of servicemen returned home and wanted places to live. I don’t know this for sure, but my guess is that many of them were living at home when they were drafted at age 18, and now that they had basically saved the world, they didn’t want to go back to living with Mom and Dad. Sort of a “They left as boys but came home men” kind of thing.
The problem was that for fifteen years, through both the Great Depression and the war, not a lot of new houses had been built. The solution came from a real estate developer named William Levitt. He bought up a bunch of land on the South Shore of Long Island, named it Levittown, and built a slew of houses on it quickly and cheaply. Levitt built other Levittowns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and other developers bought up South Shore farmland and built affordable houses on it.
By the early 1950s, returning servicemen had all been housed, but the economy was booming, and there was still a demand for affordable houses in suburbia. The pattern had gone something like this:
Around the turn of the century, huge numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe had arrived in the United States. Many of them had settled in Manhattan, mostly in Little Italy and the Lower East Side. They worked hard to make a better life for their children.
As a result, their children had the wherewithal to move out of the tenements and into the relative luxury of the outer boroughs. Most of them went to the Bronx and Brooklyn. They worked hard to make a better life for their children.
As a result, their children had the wherewithal to move out of the city altogether and into these brand new suburbs.
Now remember, these new Long Island suburbs had all been built on the South Shore, because that was where the open land was. So most of the children growing up on the South Shore in the fifties and sixties were surrounded by adults who had grown up in Brooklyn and the Bronx. The Long Island accent is an amalgamation and variation of Bronx and Brooklyn accents, both of which are related to the standard Noo Yawk accent of “toity-toid and toid” fame. (I once had a New York barber tell me I had “early hair.” When I asked him what he meant, he said, “You got a lot of earl in your hair.”)
Not incidentally, many of the second generation who didn’t move to Long Island moved to New Jersey instead. So the Long Island accent isn’t all that different from the accent you used to hear on The Sopranos.
Meanwhile, back on the North Shore, we were growing up surrounded by adults who had grown up on the North Shore of Long Island. (OK, my dad grew up in upstate New York. Still, what little accent he had was pretty benign.) There was hardly anybody in my home town who had anything close to what might be considered a Long Island accent.
So the next time you ask someone where they’re from and they say, “Uy grew up on Lawn Guyland,” you can say, “Oh really? Where on the South Shore?”