n a once-desolate stretch of Main Street in Patchogue, local officials just two weeks ago joined business owners to break ground on a new YMCA, a $19.2 million anchor to the downtown’s western side.
County Executive Steve Levy said the project would make Patchogue “a destination place,” bringing energy and business downtown.
It is the latest step in Patchogue’s revitalization, a process that has seen store vacancies on Main Street shrink from about 50 percent 12 years ago to less than 20 percent today. Soon, ground could be broken on the biggest breakthrough yet: a seven-story or higher hotel on the site of the former Swezey’s department store, along with 250 housing units and tens of thousands of feet of new stores.
But in the past week, the village’s upswing was overshadowed by the killing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, 37, in what Suffolk police have labeled a hate crime.
Some members of the Spanish-speaking community, even longtime residents, have come forward to say they feel unsafe in their neighborhoods, but often are hesitant to go to the police for fear of deportation. And the village mayor has embarked on a door-to-door campaign in Hispanic districts to assure residents that the village cares about their welfare.
The Nov. 8 killing has shaken the blue-collar, bay-side community, where for decades whites and a growing Latino population have co-existed in seeming harmony.
“We are one of the few communities where the intertwining of the two communities has worked very well,” said Fernando Quinones, a deacon at St. Frances de Sales Roman Catholic Church and coordinator of the Brookhaven Hispanic Ministry. “It’s surprising to see something like this happen. It comes as such a shock.”
It is a sentiment repeated over and over in conversations with local residents, business people and officials. Unlike nearby Farmingville, which is marked by tensions between white residents and a recent influx of Mexican day laborers, in Patchogue the melding of ethnic groups seemed to be working.
“I’ve lived here 78 years and we’ve never had anything like this before,” said Abie Siegal, owner of the family-run Blum’s clothing store, where he has worked since 1951. “It’s a very diverse community that has been getting along for many years.”
Still, in the wake of Lucero’s killing, stories have emerged of Latinos who say they have been harassed, beaten, cursed or spat upon. Said Flavio Lojano, who lives near the site of the Lucero stabbing: “This is not right, fighting between Spanish and American people.”
Lori Devlin, a village trustee, said employees at Gallo Tropical, a Colombian restaurant on Main Street, have told of attacks. “We were surprised to learn how much of their employees have been beaten up,” she said. “No one should think they can’t safely walk home from work.”
Latinos started arriving in Patchogue in significant numbers with an influx of Puerto Ricans in the 1950s. They were followed in the 1980s by Central Americans fleeing civil wars in their home countries.
By the early to mid-1990s, Ecuadoreans started arriving, and today they make up the largest segment of the Latino population, said the Rev. Andrew Connolly, who used to work at St. Frances de Sales.
Census figures show Latinos have increased from 14 percent of Patchogue’s population in 1990 to 24 percent in 2000. Mayor Paul Pontieri estimates it may be 30 percent today.
Some locals note the some of alleged attackers came not from Patchogue but neighboring Medford, without a tradition of diversity and integration. But problems that some associate with the influx of Latinos – complaints of overcrowded housing, for example – anger some residents in both places.
“Main Street is like Mexico, basically,” said Nancy Tanzey, who has lived in Patchogue for 25 years. “There’s three or four families living in one house.”
Still, Quinones said Latinos and whites often mingle. He noted that St. France de Sales holds an annual bilingual Thanksgiving Day Mass, and another each year with an outdoor picnic. It’s attended by Latinos and whites, and features Spanish food along with traditional American fare.
By all accounts, the village has made great strides toward turning itself into another Huntington or Babylon with a bustling downtown and trendy restaurants. The Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, for instance, a 1920s vaudeville theater that reopened in 1998 after being closed for more than a decade, welcomed 135,000 people last year. That is twice the patronage in 2004, when Pontieri took office, he said.
Scores of affordable apartments and condos have sprung up between Main Street and the Long Island Rail Road station – the same station that was near the site of the attack on Lucero.
Pontieri, who spent the week at rallies, vigils and church services, said he believes the 115-year-old village can overcome the tragedy, although it won’t be easy. “Will it be a temporary stain?” he said. “I’m a supreme optimist.”
Greg Warrington, 26, who in September opened another of Patchogue’s new restaurants, the Pura Vida Burrito Co., agreed. “A few idiots in the high school can’t define what Patchogue is. It’s a melting pot of different cultures,” he said. “It would be a shame if this town is depicted as having a lot of underlying hatred.”