The nine villages and several unincorporated communities that make up the city of Great Neck are steeped in history. F. Scott Fitzgerald chose Great Neck as the setting for his famous novel, The Great Gatsby, and even though the area has gone through many changes since Fitzgerald’s time, one trip to Great Neck makes it clear why the community is one of Long Island’s gems.
“There’s always been something about Great Neck,” says Carol Kopelman, a Great Neck resident and real estate agent for Coldwell Banker. “It’s the quality of life,” she says. “One of the secrets of this area is how wonderful the community is. There’s so much to do—we’ve got a senior citizens’ center, many temples and churches, adult education classes, art classes. And people take advantage of all of it.”
Great Neck History
Occupying only 1.4 square miles on what is considered the Great Neck Peninsula of Long Island, Great Neck is the first suburb one encounters when entering Nassau County. Due to its proximity to New York City, the Great Neck area has always been a hotspot of economic and real estate growth, especially over the past 60 years. According to the 2000 Census report, the population of Great Neck is nearly 10,000. That number shows just how much growth has occurred since the few Dutch and English settlers made the area their home in 1644.
Founded as an agricultural community, farmland and orchards made up much of the landscape around Great Neck. When older residents or history buffs refer to “the village,” they usually are referring to a specific section of the main drag, Middle Neck Road. This road was the first center of commerce in the agricultural village and still serves that purpose today, though streets like Bond Street have grown to fit the demand for commerce as well.
After the Civil War ended, Great Neck enjoyed the first of many development booms. Schools, churches and the first post office were built and shortly thereafter, the real estate wave followed.
Starting in the 1800’s, Great Neck became something of a magnet for the rich and famous. Among the first fire department’s patrons were George Dodge and Walter Chrysler and finance maven J.P. Morgan. With the advent of the telephone and the construction of the Long Island Railroad in 1925, Great Neck became a hotbed of real estate activity. New Yorkers looking for a way to get out of the city found the charm and distance they wanted in Great Neck, and the new technology allowed them to stay connected to the Big Apple.
“It’s a 24-minute commute from here to Penn Station,” says John Dominsky, clerk and treasurer for Great Neck Village, though he says that number comes from railroad officials and might not be on the money every time. Even if that figure’s a few minutes off, it’s not a long trip. It’s that proximity to the city that has made Great Neck the destination spot that it has always been.
And access isn’t limited to just the LIRR. In the second half of the 19th century, the Flushing Northside Railroad was extended to Great Neck, and soon after, Queens Boulevard was widened and paved. Once the roads were finished, the investors flooded in.
Development and Preservation
With improved access came development on a larger scale than ever before. Numerous estates were erected both in and around the community, and high-end construction was booming. In order for the wealthy builders to maintain their homes, however, immigrants from Europe and African American laborers were brought in to the area. Modern-day streets like Pearce and Walnut were soon lined with the workers’ more modest homes.
While the English-style houses built by such developers as former New York Mayor William R. Gracie were replete with wide fireplaces, ornate windows and elaborate gardens, most of the working class settled for simple one- and two-story houses. Numerous single-family homes were raised, most of them very close together. Some of these homes have remained, but as Edna Mashaal of Edna Mashaal Realty says, “There’s a lot of new construction right now, mostly single family homes. New homes and condos are constantly going up—people are knocking down the old and building the new.”
Many of the older buildings in Great Neck are considered historical landmarks. Dominsky notes, “It’s up to each individual municipality to designate their own historical sites. The past is there for us to reflect upon—there’s something to be said for modernization, but we shouldn’t bury the past.” Dominsky says that Great Neck Village offers tax breaks to those buildings that have landmark status and that historical commissions exist in several of the municipalities, including his own, that help ensure the historical longevity of the area.
Buildings like 8 Bond Street or the old New York Telephone Company building are excellent examples of the impressive architecture found in Great Neck. Eight Bond Street characterizes the dominant Colonial style in certain areas of Great Neck with its gabled roofs, red brick and showroom and oculus windows. In the years that followed the construction of 8 Bond Street, more highbrow homes were built, such as the Kenwood Apartments and the venerable Wynchwood Apartments. Built in the French and English Renaissance style, the pricey homes boasted hardwood floors, huge mantels, sun porches, gardens, elevators and servant’s quarters.
When the Depression came, however, many plans for more ornate buildings were abandoned or postponed. Great Neck Plaza, more or less the “center of Great Neck,” was incorporated officially in 1930, but it would sit quietly for several years before much development started.
To help give the area a boost, the FHA provided low-cost loans for apartments and housing in 1936. The Callan brothers, an enterprising pair of New Yorkers, launched the Wyngate residential complex in 1936, advertising what would now be seen as a modern-day condo. The ads for this new dwelling persuaded homebuyers to enjoy the convenience of apartment living and helped them afford it. Units at the Wyngate started at $12,000 and went as high as $18,000. The Callan brothers’ idea of “accessible” housing had limits, however—they refused to allow Jewish or black people to purchase units.
The advances in building technology as well as the affordability (and necessity) of multiple-dwelling housing were the catalysts for the last major real estate boom in Great Neck. But much has changed since the Callan brothers decreed who could and who couldn’t buy an apartment in Great Neck. Property values are on the rise, and diversity has made the area more colorful than ever.
“Great Neck has always had an arc, financially speaking,” says Kopelman. “There’s always been a nice economic mix. These days, we get school teachers from Queens, for example, because of the choices in apartments.” Kopelman notes that Great Neck Plaza has the most to offer in terms of apartment rentals and some of the other areas are “more upscale.”
Risha Rosner is Great Neck’s town reference librarian and a board president in her own co-op. She has lived in Great Neck since 1966, and says that “Great Neck is sort of an extended suburb that actually consists of nine villages. Most of the co-ops and condos are in Great Neck Plaza—the downtown area—and Great Neck Estates.
“We moved here because it was a very good commute to the city—about 25 minutes,” says Rosner. “We have all the advantages of suburban living, like good schools, docks, boats. The library system is excellent. All of these amenities are unusual for a community our size.”
“We have a lot of families in Great Neck,” adds Mashaal. “Young families, growing families. That hasn’t changed.” Mashaal says with a chuckle that there have always been families in Great Neck but these days, “there aren’t as many movie stars.” Indeed, Great Neck has been adopted by the mainstream—while prices in the area still outbid most, more people than ever before have found access to various parts of the community.
According to Mashaal, a one-bedroom apartment rental will run the tenant around $2,000 a month. Two-bedrooms can jump up to $2,800, though Mashaal says it can certainly go higher. If you’re looking to rent a whole house for a month in Great Neck, you can expect to pay around $2,800.
“There’s a big difference between co-ops and condos in Great Neck,” says Kopelman. “The condos are going to be newer, with close proximity to town. Most of the condos have more ‘Euro’ style kitchens—they’re not necessarily larger than the co-ops are going to be.”
Kopelman says while a few one-bedroom co-ops can be found for around $250,000, most are significantly higher. “You might find a unit at $250,000, but that’s in an older building that might not have parking and is most likely a walkup. Really, you’ll find co-ops in the $350,000 and up range.”
Both Mashaal and Kopelman agree that for a single family home in Great Neck, buyers should brace themselves for some degree of sticker-shock. Both agents said most homes start at least $600,000 and can easily reach $10 million.
Residents of the town’s co-op and condo buildings and developments constitute a community unto themselves as well. Stu Hochron, a 12-and-a-half-year Great Neck resident, lives in a condominium in Great Neck in the Plaza area. He is the president of the Great Neck Co-op & Condo Council (GNCCC), which consists of close to 100 co-ops and condos in Great Neck and the surrounding area, including Garden City, Mineola and Woodbury.
He was one of a group of Long Islanders who recently attended The Cooperator’s 19th Annual Co-op and Condo Expo at the New York Hilton in Midtown Manhattan. “The Expo was terrific. It truly helped me to try to formulate plans for upcoming meetings.”
According to Hochron, the GNCCC meets about once a month, and speakers are brought in for informal discussions. “We only allow members of the board to attend meetings,” says Hochron. “We exclude residents, because we don’t want to get bogged down by minutiae, like ‘My upstairs neighbor is making too much noise,’ and so forth. We do this by bringing in guest speakers to discuss topics of interest to help these boards in running their meetings. We have a very active membership. They look to the GNCCC to be their voice, not only in Great Neck but in Nassau County.”
Hochron says he eventually hopes to expand the council to not only represent Great Neck but also all of Long Island.
Great Neck, Great Life
One trip to Great Neck and it’s easy to see why the area is so pricey—and so popular. “Great Neck has a number of things going for it,” says Dominsky. “We stick out into the Long Island Sound, so we’ve got beautiful waterfront views and waterfront access. There’s a lot of recreation in Great Neck Village like sailing and tennis. Our school district is highly reputable, and in Great Neck Village alone, there are 14 religious institutions of various denominations.”
“Great Neck is just a phenomenal area,” says Hochron. “I love living in a condominium—not that I didn’t like living in a house, but when I lived in my house out in Dix Hills, if my wife wanted ice cream I had to get in the car to get it. If I wanted a bagel I had to get in the car to get it; now we walk across the street or around the corner. My condominium is located one block from the Long Island Rail Road, so I can be in the city in 24 minutes on an express train. The school, the parks, the library, all add to the benefits of living in Great Neck. It’s like living in Manhattan but not paying Manhattan prices.”
Drawn to the quality of life in Great Neck, lots of people are moving in. “Everyone wants the good life,” laughs Kopelman. “Everyone wants to move here.”
Mary Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.