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Preserving Sea Cliff’s history, one path at a time

Leslie Guerci is the Herald's 2019 Person of the Year

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Even on an overcast December afternoon, the view from Leslie Guerci’s home is spectacular. Through a large second-story window, she can see boats moving through Hempstead Harbor, which, surrounded by bluffs, is one of the most picturesque places on Long Island.

What makes the village truly lovely, though, doesn’t require watercraft or a picture window to see, according to Guerci. It is discovered by anyone willing to take a walk: the town’s architecture and history, which she seeks to preserve as president of the Sea Cliff Landmarks Association and chairwoman of the village’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Guerci took over those volunteer positions in 2011, after the death of her predecessor, Eve Haim. Now in her mid-60s, Guerci has worked hard to ensure that Sea Cliff’s heritage remains intact through lectures, tours and other special events. And her most notable contribution was even more tangible.

In August, she published a map of Sea Cliff’s pathways and landmarks, the first of its kind in the village, with funding from the Landmarks Association. In it, she not only identified these places, but also wrote about their significance in the town’s history. This labor of love took two years of careful research, and is full of insight into Sea Cliff’s rich and colorful past. For her dedication, the Herald Gazette is proud to name Guerci its 2019 Person of the Year.

 

The things that were

Guerci spent most of her life in rural upstate New York and Baltimore, but in 1999, she, her husband, Alan, and their son, John, moved to Sea Cliff. Alan said they were drawn to the village by his wife’s love of Victorian architecture, which is found up and down its streets. Leslie began working as a design consultant, helping contractors create and renovate the interiors of local homes and businesses.

Her passion for classic architecture prompted her to get involved in local volunteer preservation organizations, which didn’t surprise her family. “Leslie is a compulsive community volunteer,” Alan said. “Wherever we’ve lived, she’s gotten involved in the community.”

Much of her volunteer work has focused on maintaining Sea Cliff’s status as the historical landmark capital of Nassau County. It has more state-designated landmarks than any other village in the county. Guerci has worked tirelessly to make state officials understand why so many places in Sea Cliff have historic or artistic value.

“Leslie Guerci epitomizes the beauty of Sea Cliff with her long-term approach to keeping our village landmark status intact for future generations,” Mayor Edward Lieberman said. “This is an endearing individual whose first love is Sea Cliff.”

“Leslie is a friendly, smart, outgoing woman who never asks anybody to do anything she wouldn’t do herself,” Village Administrator Bruce Kennedy added. “She has made landmarks preservation a fun, valuable thing that has gotten a lot of buy-in from the community.”

The preservation of landmarks is important to many residents because of Sea Cliff’s unique history. The village appears distinctly old compared with other places on Long Island. Not long after the Civil War, the Metropolitan Campground Association of the Methodist Church bought much of Sea Cliff and set up small tent settlements throughout the village. Roads were built to accommodate the camps, and they predated cars, which is why many of the surviving streets are so narrow. Most of them don’t have sidewalks, in stark contrast with much of the rest of Long Island.

“It’s an interesting story of how the village developed and grew from its beginnings,” said Sara Reres, former director of the Village Museum. “I think as far as Long Island is concerned, it’s a very interesting history and unique to the Island.”

 

The things that are

One of Guerci’s more consistent efforts as the head of the Landmarks Association and the Landmarks Commission has been restoring the town’s oldest walkways. She has partnered with the Sea Cliff Department of Public Works on restoration as well as maintenance of the walkways’ infrastructure. Some of them date back to the 1870s, and residents rarely use them today.

“The previous push in Landmarks for a number of years had been to give people grants to work on their houses,” Guerci explained, “and I just didn’t think that was a good use of nonprofit money, because it only really benefited those people. I wanted to do something that benefited the village at large.”

However, as more and more walkways were restored, she realized that she couldn’t find many of them on village maps. Many weren’t marked at all, and even Google Maps wasn’t entirely correct. In 2017, she sought to change all that.

Guerci began walking the pathways every day, noting every staircase, boardwalk, trail and street she saw, while also taking in Sea Cliff’s natural beauty. Realizing how much history there was in these places, she decided that she didn’t want her map to be simply a collection of lines and names on paper. Instead, it became something of a Sea Cliff encyclopedia, with more than 40 identified locations, most of them accompanied by detailed explanations of their histories.

Guerci pored over copies of digitized old newspapers, some dating back to the 1870s. She scoured issue after issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle; the Sea Cliff News — a weekly newspaper that was published from 1918 to 1951 — and old Sea Cliff postcards, as well as old maps and other resources in the Village Museum. She compiled details of nearly everything she had mapped out on her own.

Reres, who retired from the museum in April, said she was impressed by Guerci’s extensive knowledge of Sea Cliff’s history, as well as her dedication to preserving it.

After gathering all the information, Guerci worked with a graphic designer to create a colorful, easy-to-read map. She sent them to every household in Sea Cliff at no charge, and has sold copies to visitors through several retailers in the village.

 

The things yet to come

Even though this two-year labor of love is complete, Guerci isn’t even close to finishing her work of preserving Sea Cliff’s history. She continues to host walking tours and lectures for hundreds of people every year, and wants to create a similar map of all of the village’s landmarks.

As active as she is, she shows no signs of slowing down, which is greatly appreciated by her fellow local historians. “[Guerci’s leadership is] crucial, because she’s a torchbearer,” said William Bryant, vice chair of the Landmarks Commission. “She keeps people showing up; she gets people to volunteer. She got me to volunteer — and continues to get me to volunteer — in ways that I’m not always inclined to do naturally, but there’s something about her persistence and her ability to bring people into the fold that makes a big difference.”

Alan Guerci said that he and his wife think Sea Cliff is a wonderful community. “There are people from all different backgrounds and professions, and [Leslie’s] just in love with the town and in love with the people,” he said. “It’s in her nature to try to establish communities.”

Despite how highly so many of her peers speak of her impact on preserving Sea Cliff’s history, Guerci is reluctant to take much credit. “It’s not a solitary endeavor,” she said. “It takes a lot of volunteer effort to do any of these things for Landmarks . . . I didn’t want it to be just about me.”