Since an article entitled "New York Is in a Billy Joel State of Mind" appeared in the June 11 edition of the Hicksville Illustrated News, there have been numerous letters to the editor questioning Joel's frequent references to Levittown, and not Hicksville, as his childhood home.
In response to this, Joel defended the references in a recent interview, and described an indelible connection to both Hicksville and Levittown. According to Joel, the ambiguity about where his roots lie can be found in the story of Hicksville's suburban development.
The Hicksville of Joel's youth was set in the late 1950s and 1960s, a time when suburbanization was making inroads into its historically pastoral setting. The Joel family had moved from the Bronx into their small house on Meeting Lane, Hicksville in 1950. It was part of the Levittown housing development being built over the potato farms that had previously dominated the landscape. The affordable housing brought a large influx of families from New York City into the area. As Joel grew up, the farming communities that had once characterized towns like Hicksville slowly began to fade away, leaving only remnants of a time past. Billy described the meshing of the two worlds as a dichotomy. As part of the new order, he found himself replacing the very world he was falling in love with.
"Here you had this brand new housing develoment butting up right next to the farm. As a little boy I had direct access to a farm from a housing development. I think right off the bat it gave me a yearning for more of what was the traditional Long Island, which is what I think of as Hicksville."
Joel remembered how he and his neighbors would go onto the potato field where Holy Trinity High School now stands with paper bags and pick up the potatos that were left over after the harvest. "For these people that grew up in the boroughs of New York this was real country stuff. It was very romantic and it brought people together."
He also recalled the family trips into the Hicksville downtown area and termed the weekly trip as a "big deal." Coming from the structured environment of the suburban development, he described it as visiting a completely different place.
"There was a nice old bank building, a sweet shop, shoe store, a couple of churches, the Hicksville theater, a lunceonette. It was a real American small town. It could have been any small town on Long Island. It was very picturesque."
Despite the fact that Billy was growing up in Hicksville, a historically rural community, he still felt, in many ways, like an outsider. The Levitt community that he lived in was comprised mostly of people attracted to the island from the city by attractive low cost housing, whereas many of the Hicksville locals had been rooted inHicksville for generations.
"There was a big difference between the old Hicksville and the Levittown section of Hicksville. . . If I walked north of Holy Family Church, the terrain, landscape and architecture were completely different," said Joel. "There was definitely a difference between the Levittown section of Hicksville and the old Hicksville and I guess this is what I am trying to clarify when I refer to the fact that I grew up in a place called Levittown.
Throughout his youth Joel would always tell people from other villages that he was from Hicksville, but when asked where in Hicksville the reply was always the Levittown area of Hicksville.
"That is what everyone called it. My parents called it that. My friends called it that. Even the teachers called it that."
He continued, "Now the mailing address is Hicksville, the town is Hicksville, but the neighborhood we lived in was Levittown. It was distinctly different from old Hicksville. I vastly preferred old Hicksville. I much preferred making believe I didn't come from Levittown when I was a little kid because there was a stigma to it. But at this point of my life I do not have to do that."
He explained that the stigma he describes was not an overtly conscience attitude against people
"It is not that people lorded it over you. It just I think meant something like you had a nicer house. You had maybe more money, a little more land, you were more a part of the history of the place than these newcomers. Which is what we were. We were newcomers," he said
As Joel grew older he gained a greater appreciation for what Levittown really meant and what it had offered his family.
"Levittown for my parents was a blessing from heaven. They could not have moved to Hicksville if it had not been for Levittown," said Joel. "It was not Hicksville town doing this, it was Levittown that was doing it and made it possible for many, many families to move to Long Island."
According to Joel, he started referring to Levittown, which is widely known as one of the country's first suburban developments, as the place of his childhood "when I realized that Levittown had a meaning beyond just a place.
"It was a social experiment. There were a number of Levittowns built. There is a Levittown in Pennsylvania. So if I say Hicksville to someone in Pennsylvania they will not really understand what kind of place I grew up in. But if I say Levittown they understand it. I am not saying it to be politically correct, I am saying to impart a flavor of a place. Because there was a Levittown in Westbury, there was a Levittown in Island Trees, and there was a Levittown in East Meadow. In point of fact, all the Levittowns were much more similar than the towns they were in."
The recent letters inferring that he is in some way too embarrassed to say he is from Hicksville has caught him a little off guard. He recalls getting into fights as a teenager with kids from other areas who were saying insulting things about the name Hicksville. "Nobody could insult my hometown. So why would I ever deny that I am from there."
Joel admits that in referring to Levittown as the place of his childhood, he is probably not encompassing everyone from his hometown.
"I guess by saying Levittown and not saying Hicksville sort of leaves them out in the cold because they did not come from the Levittown section. That was not my intention in saying Levittown. I did not mean to cut out people from Hicksville, people I went to school with and people I knew.
"Am I in some way avoiding the fact that I grew up in Hicksville? I am not at all. I never intended to make them feel left out. I did grow up in Hicksville, I just happened to grow up in the Levittown section of Hicksville and by no means did I intend to cast any aspersions on the town of Hicksville which is where I grew up."