Pride of Patchogue

My hometown is famous for a hate crime, and ten years after that murder, it’s not clear much progress has been made.

Alicia Kennedy is a Long Island–born, Brooklyn-based food writer and recipe developer. Her...

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No one walks in Patchogue. To walk in this town on the south shore of Long Island is to draw unwanted attention. Why doesn’t that person have a car? a driver might think of a pedestrian as they pass. What has gone wrong in their life? Some sidewalks abruptly end, making it clear pedestrians are unwanted. Here, we walk only to the edges of our property. Those with dogs are granted special dispensation, of course.

Conformity is key in this village and its surrounding town. Main Street is marked on its western and eastern edges by the massive new location of Blue Point Brewery and the long-standing post office, renamed in 2005 for Navy SEAL Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy who died at age twenty-nine in the War in Afghanistan. Not far away, there’s a military recruitment office. A few years ago, the library was the only destination. Now, restaurants, bars, and a theater line what was once a strip of shuttered storefronts, a jarring change for all of us who moved away in search of those things. Even the library has changed, with a seed catalogue and programming for queer teens.

A few blocks to the south, you’ll find the Catholic parish, a middle school, the village hall, the train station that takes you to the city or to Montauk, a gentrifying beach destination. The bay is nearby; the ferry to Fire Island always accessible. Patchogue is a small, suburban area marked by its proximity to water. There’s a gift shop now where you can buy sweatshirts with the town’s name in a cute font, its latitude and longitude beneath; I have one and don’t know whether I wear it ironically, whether my hometown is a place I can proudly represent.

Mayor Paul Pontieri, who’s presided over the village since 2004, tells me just how important conformity is when we meet at town hall on the day of the school district’s high school graduation. I’ll be there: My sister will be walking in a red cap and gown, class of 2018.

“Once you move into a neighborhood, there are two things you do immediately,” he tells me. “The first thing you do is you look up and down the block. If everyone mows their lawn every week, you mow your lawn every week. If people painted their houses so they’re nice, paint your house. Whatever it is: Don’t stand out. Be part of the neighborhood. Don’t stand out,” he repeats. “The second thing you do, 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock at night, sit on your front steps and listen to the neighborhood. If it’s quiet, you’re quiet. If people are out and they’re playing volleyball—whatever they’re doing. Don’t stand out.” Don’t stand out, the suburban mantra. Certainly don’t ride a bike. Never walk.

This is where I spent the first twenty-three years of my life, right on the outskirts of the village lines: picking up gallons of milk for my mother from the market, going to the library as a teenager to take out The Andy Warhol Diaries, being dragged to 7:30 mass on Sunday mornings, and going to my first yoga classes. The neighbourhood was never wealthy; Starbucks would never want to open a store there. While the county, Suffolk, regularly pops up on the list of the richest in the country, the median household income in Patchogue is about $70,000 a year. In Patchogue, the working class reigns.

At my sister’s graduation, the kids are seated in the center of the school’s football field with the onlookers on metal bleachers in hot sun. The principal and superintendent give discouraging speeches masked as motivation; the principal defines adulthood as “working full-time and handing someone else your paycheck.” He repeats this again and again, the way the mayor did, thinking it wise, telling the audience we can feel free to quote him.  

* 

Marcelo Lucero didn’t have to walk. The thirty-seven-year-old had a car, one he used to get to his job at a dry cleaners in Riverhead, twenty-five miles away. Lucero grew up in Gualaceo, Ecuador, like many residents of Patchogue, and moved to the States in 1992 to work and send money back to his family. He had been building a house there, to share with his mother and siblings.

The night of November 8, 2008, he and his friend Angel Loja decided to walk around the village. They went out drinking, like anyone might on a Friday, like I was doing that same night thirty miles away in Huntington, celebrating my 23rd birthday.

Lucero’s nonconformity didn’t end with his occasionally walking. He was an Ecuadorian man, an undocumented resident in a downtrodden town filled with Irish and Italian Catholics.

This man, Catholic but undocumented, with a car but walking, was surrounded that night on Railroad Avenue by seven teenagers; they were seniors at the same local high school from which my sister would eventually graduate. The boys attacked, and one, Kevin Shea, threw a punch. Lucero removed his belt and whipped one of them in the head; another, Jeffrey Conroy, retaliated by stabbing Lucero in the right collarbone. Lucero’s friend, Loja, had run to an alley for safety. When Lucero finally made it over to his friend, he left a trail of blood along the pavement and collapsed. He was pronounced dead an hour and a half later, the official cause listed as a four-inch-deep stab wound to the chest. “A Killing In a Town Where Latinos Sense Hate,” read a New York Times headline five days after Lucero’s murder.

Between 1990 and 2000, the Latin population of Patchogue jumped from fourteen percent to twenty-four percent. While the population of the town changed, the demographics of its governing bodies did not. By effectively ignoring the existence of what was a quarter of the population, two Patchogues came to exist: One in the mainstream, with representation on the village council, the other simply trying to survive in an openly hostile environment. In her book about Lucero’s death, Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town, journalist Mirta Ojito suggests this area so seemingly close to New York City could be another country entirely. When Donald Trump decided to campaign in the village during the 2016 election, The Guardian called the venue where he rallied “lowbrow.” It’s a town famous for a hate crime—and while the last few years have led to cosmetic changes, ten years after Lucero’s murder, it’s not clear much other progress has been made.

* 

The village of Patchogue once had hotels; it was a destination for people looking for a reprieve from the city. It held onto some of its mom-and-pop-ness through the ’80s, despite the rise of malls (strip and otherwise) taking people away from Main Street.

But by the ‘90s, “Patchogue was a little bit of a rough town,” says Jessica Valentin, now forty, who just opened a gallery called Muñeca Arthouse in the village. She grew up in the town to the north, Medford; the neighboring suburbs share a high school. She remembers Swezey’s, a family-owned department store that once served as the linchpin of local commerce. It closed in 2003 after over a century in business and a decade of village decline. I’m seven years younger than Valentin; the dilapidation and depression are all I can remember from my childhood.

“My mom would say, ‘Just don’t get off Main Street.’ It stayed that way for a while.” She remembers hearing the rumor as a kid that Hitler’s grandson lived nearby. In reality, it was his nephew; a fitting myth for a town that would become famous in the future for the murder of an undocumented immigrant.

After Swezey’s closed, some businesses held on: BrickHouse Brewery, Gino’s Pizza, Blum’s for bathing suits, the Colony Shop for Communion and baptism outfits. These were spread down the block, dotting the otherwise bleak landscape.

But the aughts brought some renewal. What the growth in the Latin population in the early 2000s meant to me and many others was that there were businesses starting up again on Main Street, like Gallo, a Colombian restaurant that advertises Mojito Mondays and Tequila Tuesdays. Where once there was a party store there is now a supermarket where you can buy conchas and Goya’s entire product line. Twenty percent of economic output on Long Island is due to immigrants, said David Kallick, Director of the Immigration Research Initiative at the Fiscal Policy Institute, in 2017.

But it seemed that then-County Executive Steve Levy saw, in those recent arrivals, a threat. During his time in office, his rhetoric was openly anti-immigrant; he was a more polished proto-Trump, throwing around the word illegal and accusing women of coming to the U.S. to have “anchor babies,” born-citizen children. County Legislator Jack Eddington gained notoriety for breaking up the volleyball games commonly played among immigrant communities in nearby Farmingville, where a common site of day laborer pickup had become a hotbed of controversy in the county.  

In June of 2006, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s massive report of hate crime violence in Suffolk County, Levy mocked activists who were protesting what they saw as racist enforcement of zoning laws targeting Latin communities. The report, titled “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.,” went on to state that he referred to activists as “this one percent lunatic fringe” and said he was “not intimidated by their politically correct histrionics.”

This local rhetoric was further emboldened by Fox News personalities like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly, who featured Levy on his show. In the days following Lucero’s murder, Levy would tell Newsday that the slaying would be a “one day story” if not for the ongoing furor over his bombast.

The town was changing in lots of ways. Not long after Pontieri took on the role of mayor, money began to move back into the village. Before him, the job was part-time. “I quickly realized that if you were going to get anything done, you had to commit to the job,” he tells me. In 2006, Bobbique, a barbecue restaurant, opened. New housing developments, the first named Copper Beach, began to pop up, thanks to an infusion of $3.7 million from Levy.

The residents who were displaced, Pontieri says, were relocated and young professionals moved in, if they could afford a $156,000 apartment. He believes a teacher making $42,000 could, and perhaps he was right: The median age in the village is now thirty-four, he says.

An arts council was established in 2008 with the addition of ArtSpace, a low-income residence and studio building, thanks to another infusion of money from Steve Levy—$3.5 million this time. Rapid changes to the village created restaurants and a sheen of culture. There’s now an independent record shop, a store selling goth and rockabilly tchotchkes, and Valentin’s gallery. Starbucks never moved in, but there are two local coffee shops. 

Valentin, who, like my father, is Puerto Rican, now serves as the first Latin person on the arts council. The board of village trustees remains all white despite a third of the residents now being Latin. 

As the town changed, old prejudices continued to flare. Attacks on immigrants in the area had been consistent and ongoing since the late ‘90s. A construction worker from Honduras had been assaulted by teenagers in October of 1999; a month later, a Mexican man was beaten by his employer and several fellow employees. There are thirtysomething incidents like this documented in the Southern Poverty Law Center report—severe and disgusting, focused and hateful—that occurred before Lucero’s murder. The growth of these crimes in Suffolk County and Patchogue mirrored that of the country: According to the report, FBI statistics showed a forty percent increase in anti-Latino hate crimes from 2003 to 2007 and a fifty percent increase in hate groups from 2000 to 2008. The violence was consistently escalating and many saw no repercussions, as the undocumented local community was too fearful of law enforcement.

*

In a short video series, reporter Ana P. Gutierrez tries to answer the question, “Who Was Marcelo Lucero?” From Ojito’s book, we know he took pride in his clothing and was a brother to not just his own siblings, but Loja. Gutierrez talked to a childhood friend who recounted their happy years in Gualaceo, noting that in the early ‘90s, most of their peers were moving to the U.S. for economic opportunity not available in Ecuador. She shows a grade-school class where almost every child has a parent in the States; a boy cries asking for his father to return. In the final installment, Marcelo’s mother, Rosario, talks about the poverty in which he and his siblings spent their youth. “I’m not missing the economic help, but the person,” she says. “Because thank God, I have my hands to continue to work.”

There is a facelessness to the conversation around immigration from countries in Central and South America in the United States, a focus on economic impact and claims of violence. In Patchogue, and on Long Island more broadly, we have Marcelo; his memory itself a permanent monument to the effects of racist rhetoric. Yet Suffolk County is Trump country, according to Politico, the numbers, and the stickers I see on pickup trucks. In 2017, the county welcomed the president; he addressed a crowd of mostly uniformed police at Suffolk County Community College, where he told them not to be afraid to get “rough.”

The sketch of Marcelo Lucero’s life has been drawn for us; his mother, sister, and brother have all wept in grief on the streets of our village. Yet de facto segregation remains, emboldened by openly anti-immigrant sentiment from the highest office in our land. What has changed in Patchogue in these ten years? There are places to go out.

*

It was Anthony Hartford’s idea to go “fuck up some Mexicans” that night in 2008, according to Ojito’s book. The group of friends did this often, apparently—went “beaner hopping.” They referred to all Latin people as Mexican, to them a slur, though one of the seven, José Pacheco, was Puerto Rican and black.

While this was happening about a mile from the house where I grew up and still lived at the time, I was drunk on sangria with friends. A brother of one of the boys involved sat at my table at a pricey Mexican restaurant; he smiles in a Polaroid from that night. No one in that photo yet knows there are sirens blaring on the village streets, that high school boys are being interrogated on a corner, that the one who easily turns over the knife won’t know he’s killed someone for hours.

The next morning, I woke up twenty-three, the resident of a town redefined forever by a trail of blood.

In the wake of Lucero’s murder, Patchogue would change drastically. Ten years on, and the village streets where the seven boys were arrested are almost unrecognizable. But the wound opened by Lucero’s death is still wide open, and the pattern of harassment it drew attention to continues. In many ways, his blood—long ago wiped away—still stains the streets.

*

“I would never call Long Island ‘all-American,’” my partner from Houston, Texas, tells me, when I ask him for an outsider perspective on why the place where I grew up might be such a hotbed for anti-immigrant sentiment. And maybe he’s right. We didn’t go to Friday night football games. There were no casseroles being served. We ate pizza and bagels; we went to the Greek diner. Everything we could call a culture came from those who had once been marked as “non-white,” as “ethnic,” as “immigrant.” When we went to the city to catch a game or a show, we were “bridge and tunnel”—garbage, a disruption to the urban landscape with our mall-bought clothes.

My mother told me recently that women at our church would comment negatively on the town’s growing Latin population. “My children are Puerto Rican,” she would tell them. My brother and I happily stopped going to mass when she stopped waking us up for it, never asking why. When I worked at a Starbucks off the highway, a man came in who couldn’t speak English, just asking for some water. The manager refused him. Here we were, generations descended from immigrants, greeting new arrivals with metaphorical pitchforks and literal knives, with the slur “illegal.” Not all-American, but playing at the characterization in all its violence. 

Mayor Pontieri likes to bring people into his office to show them the image of his grandfather paving the roads that would create the village of Patchogue. He points to his tan skin and short stature, comparing that Italian man with the more recent arrivals from Gualaceo, Ecuador.

*

I’ve admired the brick Congregational Church on Patchogue’s Main Street from afar for my entire life, envying its ornate stained glass windows. (My Catholic parish nearby was made from wood and wasn’t as regal; the pastor when I was in school would refer to it as his “ark,” as though it was a capsized boat in which we were all stuck.) But I only stepped inside the Congregational Church for the first time this summer, to talk to Reverend Dwight Wolter, who presided over Lucero’s funeral.

There are people on the lawn and on the stairs; people with nowhere else to be. I am visibly confused about how to get in. They tell me to ring the bell. “No, the other one.” They’re very familiar with the church; I find out later many of them call this lawn, these steps, home.

Finally, Reverend Wolter opens up the door. He is on the phone but eager to show me his current project, a collection of donated toilet paper with which he hopes to build the world’s largest ever pyramid of bathroom tissue across the street in the plaza of the military recruitment office. It will bring attention to the fact that necessities like this, as well as women’s sanitary napkins, are taxed and not covered by grant funding. He has me take his photo with some of it before leading me on a tour and pointing out where Marcelo Lucero’s body lay in a coffin one day in 2008 and where, weeks later, the reverend hosted what the New York Times called a “hate-crime circus” in which immigrants were able to give private recorded testimony of their experiences living in Suffolk.

The reverend had only been in Patchogue for about a year before the murder. Yet, Wolter tells me in his office, he knew it was coming. “And people who might read this, and some of the elected officials would say, ‘Here we go again.’ Marcelo Lucero was almost written into the script.”

We are two people in an office and he’s preaching to me about the place where I grew up but there’s logic in what he’s saying. “When I came here, the first word that came to mind when I toured Patchogue was ‘blight,’” he says. “The second word was ‘promise.’”  

Coverage of Lucero’s murder focused on that “blight” and what, to outsiders, seemed like a jarring disparity of cultures in the suburb shadowed by the world’s greatest metropolis. In Hunting Season, Ojito refers to the Medford train station where the seven teens spent an earlier portion of the night as belonging “to a world so different from the city that it almost seems located in another country.” Reporters working on the story saw us and our landscape as foreign, which was jarring yet telling at the time. The writers were trying to both distance themselves from and make sense of how something so heinous could happen: Clearly, this place must be evil. Believing it wasn’t, though, that this event was an anomaly, has allowed the town to forgive itself, to simply add restaurants and boutiques and call it change.  

* 

Jeffrey Conroy was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime for the slaying of Lucero, which he’s still serving now. He’s twenty-seven and has been incarcerated since the age of seventeen. The other attackers have all since been released. 

At his sentencing, Conroy told the judge, “I’m really sorry for what happened to Mr. Lucero.” That passive voice. From jail in 2010, he told a reporter about not being able to look at Joselo, Marcelo’s brother. “I feel bad for him. I got a brother, too. I couldn’t imagine him dying.” There’s a child’s lack of understanding here, of his own culpability.

The boy who threw the first punch is now a construction worker. Another posts anti-black memes publicly on Facebook. One seems particularly enamored of the American flag and another moved to Oakland, California. One of them seems to have disappeared, but a sixth was recently arrested for cocaine possession. I have Facebook friends in common with all of them.

They are, for the most part, living the normal lives of twentysomethings from working-class Suffolk. The boys who were walked from the sixth precinct in white jumpsuits are now men. Nothing about them is as interesting or significant as the conversation they began with their cruelty, their rage, their boredom, their stupidity. Patchogue may forever be marked, but with the exception of Conroy, their involvement in Lucero’s murder is a footnote on their lives, seemingly regarded as a youthful mistake.

I send one of them a message on Facebook, saying I’m a reporter working on a story about the ten-year anniversary of Lucero’s death. He writes back that he won’t talk about the event and I should never message him again. For days afterwards, I’m shaken, worried word will spread, that someone will find my family’s home and try to hurt them.

* 

Unlike my sister, I did not graduate from the local public high school but a private Catholic school about forty-five minutes away. I always felt like I had one foot in Patchogue and one foot out. When local emo was popular, I was listening to Radiohead, reading imported British music magazines, and watching French movies on Sundance Channel. It was only when I left the town that I discovered that, by urban standards, I was a dilettante. I thought I’d leave that place and slip easily into some artistic milieu. Instead, I found my own class-based resentment; it just focused upwards.

But as a teenager I did seek, and find, local magic. When there was a massive blackout in the summer of 2003, we ran around in sprinklers in darkened backyards. We packed seven people into cars built for only five to go see shitty ska bands. There was always the water, the diner. There was minigolf, laser tag, Borders Books and Music. At a venue miles and miles away, my friends and I saw bands that I read about in those British magazines, like Starsailor. It was all so “Soco Amaretto Lime”—the song by Brand New, a band from Merrick, another town on Long Island: Young, in love, with the low fuel light on for days, and a foreboding sense that in this place you could get stuck pretending to be eighteen forever. Some, though, not content to play minigolf or without money, spent their Soco Amaretto Lime years hunting men with brown skin.  

* 

Patchogue, once empty, is now a place people tweet about hanging out. Restaurant opening after restaurant opening has created a new destination on Long Island. “Told myself when I turn twenty-one, this summer I was gonna go to Patchogue every chance I got,” a woman writes. “Purgatory is being in Patchogue, in between drunk and sober with no timeline as to when you’ll be home,” writes a man.

After all the growth that Pontieri’s policies have spurred, there’s now a focus on maintenance. “We’re beginning now to transition from a growth perspective,” he says. “Now we have to begin with the unintended consequences of the things you do.” That includes lack of parking, consistent public drunkenness, a new homeless population, and opiate addiction in a county that’s been one of the hardest hit by overdose deaths in New York State.

There might be more truth to Ojito’s assertion than I want to admit, that out there, we are far enough from the city to be considered another country. Patchogue has focused on beer, on its summer festival Alive After Five, when Main Street shuts down on select Thursdays for a massive block party. But when, amid all the fun, does the drug use, the boredom, the homelessness get addressed?

*
 

Despite or maybe because of the area’s newfound success, the town seems inclined to think of Lucero’s murder as just a sad moment in its history. It hosted Trump in 2016 as he ran for election to the nation’s highest office on a platform of anti-Mexican rhetoric, his desire to “build a wall.” Media coverage of the Lucero murder had long since quieted, but this got The New Yorker’s attention. They gave their story a blunt title, the now-president’s name metonymy for hate and our town a symbol of anti-immigrant violence: “Donald Trump in Patchogue.”

“The chickens came home to roost when Donald Trump was coming to speak at the Emporium, which is about one thousand feet from the site of the murder of Marcelo Lucero,” Reverend Wolter says. 

Wolter and other townspeople put up a fight, but Trump spoke anyway, and Wolter went to see the crowd there to hear him. “They were young—not all young, but younger than I thought—they were good-looking, they were prosperous, and they were pissed. Pissed,” he says. “I took out my phone and videotaped because the power was immense.”  

At a different venue in town that day, Lucero’s brother Joselo was hosting a party called “Make America Love Again.” Wolter went there afterwards to find a small, quiet gathering of folks with “one fifth” the energy of the Trump rally. He worried then about how the election would turn out, having seen the stark contrast of both sides in one night within one mile of each other. If love doesn’t counter hate, what does?

There will soon be two memorials to 9/11 in the village, but no permanent marker of the place where Lucero bled to death. “It’s easier to memorialize foreigners attacking our soil than when our children murdered someone,” a friend who grew up nearby says when I pass on this information over a drink. To mark the ten-year anniversary, there will be a memorial featuring Joselo, who’s become an activist. It will take place at Stony Brook University, twelve miles away from Patchogue’s center.

*

Angel Zahcay owns Express Amazonas, a small shop that handles shipping between Gualaceo and Patchogue, and sells various Ecuadorian candies and sodas. When I’ve stopped in lately to try to talk to him, he’s sweetly blown me off, and I thought he was trying to avoid me completely. Many others in town have. “I’m busy,” he told me, when I showed up with a reporter’s notebook. “It’s very hot.” That was true.

Finally, though, he gives me a few minutes of his time, with someone in the background quietly translating many of my questions into Spanish; they sound like a child. Zahcay has lived in the town for almost thirty years now. He says many people have moved back to Ecuador. “When they killed him, our whole life changed.” They stopped playing volleyball and drinking beers. “That wasn’t an accident,” he says of Lucero’s death.

What is it like now? “In the nighttime, it’s very busy here. Two weeks ago, a friend of mine comes to my place. He was working in the restaurant and walking through Main Street, and a couple of people stole his money and his phone. They kicked him.”

No one walks in Patchogue. That remains the same. Bad things happen to those who stand out.

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