When a Queens resident chooses to relocate to West Hempstead, one can think of the many ways that these two communities are similar. The World’s Borough has Flushing Meadows, with its two lakes as the largest open space within walking distance of the neighborhood. West Hempstead has Halls Pond, which is tiny in comparison to Meadow Lake, but within a five-minute drive from this pond is a much larger waterway inside a park. When my friends on Long Island ask for things to do during a week off from school, I remind them that there are scenic spots close to home, ideal for a hike during a pandemic.
Traveling east on Eagle Avenue, one leaves the capes and colonials and enters a forested landscape that hints of an earlier Long Island that existed before it was transformed by parkways and suburbanization.
Hempstead Lake State Park appears natural, but like many New York destinations, it has a functional history. The Empire State Building is topped by a radio antenna that was intended as a mooring mast for airships; the star-shaped pedestal at the base of Lady Liberty was once a fort; and Hempstead Lake also has a utilitarian past.
When Brooklyn was an independent city, the streams of Long Island’s south shore served as sources for its water supply. Nearly all streams that flowed south were dammed and channeled into a pipe that followed Sunrise Highway and Conduit Avenue to Brooklyn. One such stream was Mill River, which originated near the center of Hempstead and flowed towards Hewlett Bay. The dam on this river created Hempstead Lake and the land around it was maintained as a nature preserve to maintain the quality of the water.
As Brooklyn’s population grew, its sources of water were no longer sufficient. Its absorption by New York City in 1898 gave it access to the Croton Aqueduct that serves the five boroughs to this day. Hempstead Lake was given a new purpose in 1925 when urban planner Robert Moses designed the route of Southern State Parkway, with state parks along the way. At the time, West Hempstead was a community of small farms, gardens, and estates.
When Moses constructed the island’s highways and parks, he anticipated an urbanized future for Long Island, and the need for open space where the public can connect with nature and engage in sports. Flushing Meadows was also a product of Moses’ planning, a former fairground that contains a carousel, golf course, boat rentals, sports fields, tennis courts, picnic areas, and nature trails. At Hempstead Lake, there are also various recreational opportunities and trails for hiking close to home.
The newest attraction at Hempstead Lake is under construction, the Environmental Education and Resiliency Center that tells the story of this park while offering practical advice on managing stormwater. It is one of a handful of indoor facilities built in state parks under the Andrew Cuomo administration. At Jones Beach, the Energy and Nature Center opened last September, offering information on marine wildlife at the beach and lessons on reducing energy bills at home with solar panels, insulation, and construction materials made from recycled products. It is perhaps the best reason to visit Jones Beach in winter, when parking is free and trails across the sandy terrain appear to give the appearance of being far from New York.
Plans for the park also include a new trail entrance, dam reconstruction, and wetland restoration. It does not have the stadiums, museums, and giant globe of Flushing Meadows, but amid thousands of tract houses, Hempstead Lake State Park offers natural scenery within a half hour walk from the center of West Hempstead.