I was 13 and a hard-core child of suburbia when they opened the Nassau Coliseum in 1972. Long Island was not my suburb -- I grew up in one of NYC's other doglegs -- but as a young sports fanatic it still seemed like a pivotal moment when the New York Islanders started playing in the NHL that same year. It was the first major pro sports franchise that was unabashedly suburban --playing in this symmetrical concrete structure, surrounded by a gigantic parking lot. right off a major highway but not especially convenient to mass transit.
It was the future.
In the 1970s, any team looking to re-locate looked at the suburbs first. Just like the fans -- they'd been leaving the city and moving to places like Long Island in great numbers since the late 1940s (ever hear of Levittown, the original one?) and that really accelerated after the riots and unrest of the 1960s. In 1980, I was a summer intern at Long Island's Newsday mostly covering murders and the like, and so I encountered waves of refugees from Brooklyn, who'd thought they'd gotten away from crime, who valued their small green lawns but especially their privacy. Still, they were living the Dream -- especially when their Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups and when offices and malls came to Long Island and there was really no need to go into the Big Apple at all
Still, for American Dreamers, Long Island always struick me as a bizarrely angry place -- as if folks could never let go of the various things that drove them out of Brooklyn and Queens in the first place. Decay -- which was supposed to only happen in the big city -- came to the suburbs with a vengeance. The Nassau Coliseum began to fall apart, and the angry, quarreling taxpayers of Long Island refused to spend one thin dime to fix it, or replace it. The first suburban franchise in the NHL eventually had the worst attendance in the league most years, and a last-ditch $400 million arena rescue plan was voted down by the citizens of this now aging suburb.
And so in 2015 the Islanders are going to be moving.
To Brooklyn, and an arena with little parking but trainloads of mass transit.
For better or worse, it feels like they'll be taking the last remnants of the suburban dream with them.