Words by Alexandria Harvey*
If I were leading a seminar about Elmont, I would probably begin with the following inquiry:
When you tell people that you are from Elmont, what is their reaction?
If you are like me, you are all too familiar with the widened eyes, raised brows, and gaping mouths. Some recipients of our news try to hide their disdain although we lucidly see through the disguise. For those individuals who choose to speak, we all know what comes next: Oh, so how do you like it there? What’s that area like? So . . . how is it over there? I heard that area is a little rough.
I spent most of my first 24 years living in the adjacent Valley Stream. Not knowing too much about Elmont or any neighboring community, my perceptions of the hamlet were thin. My parents and I went to Elmont to visit the defunct Flowertime (defunct to the point that I cannot confirm whether the spelling is “Flowertime” or “Flower Time”), to take Nan to Western Beef (a shop that is alive, thriving, and clearly two words), or to dine at Gino’s with friends when Blessed Sacrament School allocated its students half days.
Just shy of seven years ago, I found myself purchasing a house in Elmont with my now husband, then fiancé, and herein my experience with raised eyebrows and gaping mouths began.
At first, I fell prey to the perceptions; virtually everyone around me marginalized Elmont, so I felt some pressure to believe their visions. Despite a lifelong proclivity toward and support of individual thought, I am, fortunately, my parents’ child in some ways. Mom, gone like Flowertime/Flower Time, and Dad, alive and thriving like Western Beef, did not subscribe to the marginalizing language that governs Long Island’s definitions of “good” and “bad.” In other words, I did not grow up surrounded by the denotations of these words that, as I later discovered, so many supported.
Several years ago, I began asking myself why Elmont received this “bad” reputation.
My early and continued research into this inquiry yielded few fruits. The school districts have high ratings; Neighborhood Scout has reported a steadily decreasing crime rate over the past several years; the community has active associations; Elmont Memorial Library is brilliant; the hamlet is home to longtime staples: King Umberto’s, Teddy’s, Stop 20, Sapienza, and Barney’s Hardware, just to name a few; beautiful and capacious new homes are popping up in multiple places. Aren’t these features the hallmarks of a “good” community?
My passion for and intrigue in writing and words eventually led me to a reason: rhetoric.
While rhetoric is broad in meaning and scope, its definition certainly encompasses words themselves. Words are enigmatic as they are both powerless and powerful. Words, as Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, demonstrated, cannot properly capture the true essence of anything.
Saussure is famous for his “signifier” and “signified.” Take the word “bird.” The word “bird” is the signifier; the actual bird is the signified. The word “bird” has nothing to do with the true nature of the bird. It is the word “bird” that provides us with the image. However, it is also the word “bird” that limits our understanding of what the bird actually is. We cannot understand the true essence of a bird; therefore, we invent words to invent meanings.
Since we cannot access absolute reality, we must use words to create reality.
Maybe at one time, Elmont schools did not have the same ratings that they do now; maybe at one time, crime was increasing in the area. Maybe at one time, housing and businesses were stagnant. If that was ever the truth, that is not the truth now. If we never changed the words we use to describe a place, we would still call this hamlet a bucolic farmland.
And that is precisely why we must change the language that we use to describe the Elmont of today.
It is not okay to say “Elmont is bad.” Not only is it inaccurate, but these words come with real meaning. Saussure shows us that words are not simply vacant devices; words allow our creation of reality. When you use negative words to describe a place, you are making the place negative.
The language must change.
When I look at Elmont, I do not see “bad.”
I see a hamlet that needs a community center.
I see a neighborhood that needs more restaurants that serve high-quality food.
I see a space that needs more events and programs for its residents.
I see an area that has too many empty storefronts.
I see brilliant young people with ambition.
I see beautiful diversity that is unmatched in many, many other places.
I see families who have lived here for generations.
I see a phenomenal library, ready to nurture the minds of all who enter.
I see charm and character in houses that reflect individual style.
I see businesses that have stayed put for decades.
I see a cultural infusion of food.
I see schools where the teachers and administrators care about their students.
I see a community filled with magic.
I never said Elmont was perfect; no place is, but you must allow Elmont to have its positives and negatives, as other communities do. We must use words to describe the benefits of living here; we must use words to encourage change to obtain more of what our community craves.
Language defines reality. Language is used to marginalize because we use words to exclude others. Change the language that you use so that your words are inclusive and motivational. When you change your language, you change perceptions. When you change perceptions, you change reality.
To every resident of Long Island, Elmont is part of you. We are part of you. I am part of you. A team cannot function properly when many of its players scorn one member.
To the readers of this piece whom I know personally, please grant me this favor: The next time you hear people degrade Elmont—whether they blame us for crime in a neighboring community, shame our schools, or shame us in another way—explain the inaccuracy of these words. If you catch yourself using negative rhetoric to describe my home, please remember my words here.
To my neighbors, Franklin Square, Cambria Heights, Floral Park, Bellerose, Valley Stream, Rosedale, Stewart Manor, New Hyde Park, Lynbrook, Malverne, West Hempstead, Garden City, and all others who compose this corridor of the welcome area to Long Island, I support you. I support your businesses; I support your success. Support Elmont. It is in our diverse offerings that we all work together to build this intersection of Nassau and Queens. Give Elmont a chance.
To residents of hamlets that are also marginalized, don’t let people spew negativity about your community either. When you hear people describe your neighborhood as “bad,” avoid internalizing that language. Ask yourself the following: “Do I want to let other people use language to define my neighborhood as ‘bad,’ or do I want to use my language to define it as ‘good’ and to build a community that I love even more?”
To people seeking homes on Long Island, don’t scratch Elmont off your list immediately simply because it is Elmont. Evaluate it with the same criteria that you would any other community. Giving Elmont a chance on your list is giving Elmont a voice. Most of us want to experience some magic in our lives, whether it is of an ethereal or a corporeal nature; give yourself the opportunity to play a part in the blossoming magic that is today’s Elmont.
To my fellow Elmont residents, stop shaming your own neighborhood. We must stop apologizing for living in Elmont! Tell your relatives and friends about your visit to a local spot without the caveat that it’s in Elmont. Shop at our local stores and proudly verbalize your experience. Write reviews on Yelp as you would for any other restaurant and praise the fact that local business is thriving. Encourage your children to stay in this sparkling neighborhood when they search for their own homes. Elmont in 2017 and in the future is “the better” that you want them to seek.
Let’s use positive language to describe the positive experiences I listed above; let’s use positive language to fill in the gaps that I listed above. If you have a restaurant or store you’d like to see in the community, research the contact point and write a letter or email. If you are debating whether to open your own restaurant or business in Elmont or elsewhere, choose Elmont; play a role in that magic. Look at the success of new places, such as Red Snapper Seafood Kitchen, Target, and the Starbucks at Target; these spots are busy. The demand is here. Elmont residents want these changes. We must use our language to show we appreciate the additions and that we want more.
To my fellow Elmont supporters, Long Island is well-known for residents in one hamlet looking down upon residents in another. We know what it is like to have the worm’s eye view, so let’s not use that rhetoric to define other communities. You may feel that our school districts have better programs than some others. You may feel that Elmont’s streets are safer to walk than roads in other communities. You may feel that we have more to offer in terms of both growing ambition and current services than other hamlets. If your answer is yes, we do not need to vocalize those answers in the denigration of other communities. Instead of describing them as lesser, call to mind the Dalai Lama’s words and find a way to follow the concept expressed in the first sentence:
“Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”
Alexandria Harvey is a pseudonym.
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