As youngsters growing up in the southeast corner of Mineola, we were always fascinated by and attracted to the little gatehouses standing at the entrances to our streets. Each one at Berkley Road is topped off with a small birdhouse while the entire roof sections of the Weybridge Road versions contain bird condominiums. We always referred to these structures as “the birdhouses”, so please bear with me as I continue to do so.
They still look the same as I remember them from my childhood, but the view they offer has changed considerably. In place of the residential community now seen directly to the south in Garden City, there was a small pond surrounded by vast remnants of the Hempstead Plains. Looking to the southeast, we had an unobstructed view of the checkerboard trim along the top of a huge gas storage tank a mile away on Stewart Avenue.
Our corner meeting-place was not without intrigue. One evening, we discovered a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and a book of matches carefully hidden in the rafters. Those of us who smoked had no need to be so sneaky about it. After the supply was gradually depleted, it would be replaced. Although this was an ongoing ritual, we never learned the age or identity of the clandestine Marlboro Man.
Since these birdhouses sit partially on private property yet cover a public sidewalk, it is understandable that there is presently some debate, confusion and delay regarding repairs. Years ago, we probably had the luxury of being less encumbered by such issues as permit fees, building codes and liability. I cannot attest as to how these structures were maintained on the other streets, but whenever any sprucing up or repairs were needed at Berkley Road, the process was a simple one: after everyone on the street chipped in for materials, the hardiest and handiest of the residents would team up to wield the hammers and paint brushes.
This was especially evident when, in 1954, a motorist making a left turn onto Berkley Road misjudged oncoming traffic and took a shortcut. Fortunately, there was no one near the birdhouse at the time (don’t know about the birds), but the car demolished one of the walls and severed the entire roof. It took only two weekends for the Berkley Road Task Force to restore the corner to its pre-accident appearance.
For years, we always understood that we could “meet at the birdhouse” to catch up on local gossip, plan our next activity, or just sit and relax. Since we had no phones to stare at, we were content to silently watch the routine of the passing traffic.
Occasionally the traffic was anything but routine. In 1950, Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town. Back then, in addition to large arenas, many of their performances were “under the big top.” The circus trains parked on the old freight spur abeam Main Street. From the birdhouse we watched the entire production pass our street. The huge tent, attractions and equipment rolled by in a wide assortment of vehicles while many of the personnel – including the elephants – made the three-mile journey on foot to their venue, a vacant lot on Maple Avenue in Westbury. Perhaps the elephants were heralding the future visit of a Republican; in 1968, we saw Richard Nixon pass by on his way to a campaign appearance at Roosevelt Raceway.
These little structures have played many roles for my friends and me throughout the years. When we were nine they were our jungle gym; when we were 16 they were our hangouts. Today, they remain as icons representing the wonderful times we had in the old neighborhood.
In 1934, when Mott Builders transformed a potato farm into homes on those four British-named streets, they probably did not foresee the joy and the fond memories that would be associated with those post and beam creations—possibly thrown together as an afterthought using leftover materials. I would like to think that current residents of all ages still take that short walk down to the birdhouses to watch the traffic, engage in neighborly conversation, and perhaps create some new memories. Just keep your hands off the Marlboros.