Great Neck South High School Junior Rajin Mitra created a historical walking tour of Great Neck Plaza. With help from the Great Neck Historical Society and the Great Neck Library’s local history archives, Mitra has made a 10-minute video detailing the Great Neck Plaza Historical Walking Tour.
Mitra has had the idea to create a historical walking tour of Great Neck for about a year. Mitra began assembling resources and dug into research in the summer of 2022. In January of this year, Mitra finished the walking tour video.
“[The idea] stemmed from me just being aware for many years that Great Neck’s a really old town,” said Mitra. “From looking at local signs and landmarks, it’s really clear that there’s a rich history. I think it’s something people don’t really appreciate.”
Learning about the North Shore and Great Neck through literary works like The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald also piqued Mitra’s interest in local history. The fact that Great Neck was such a prosperous town, and became what is now more of a suburban area with families, inspired Mitra’s research.
“It’s very interesting how Great Neck’s developed over time,” said Mitra. “I think that was always something that fascinated me; it wasn’t always just this one community; it had many individual segments throughout time.”
Mitra’s video begins with a brief history of Great Neck, stemming back to the 1600s when the Matinecock people first settled in the Great Neck area. He emphasizes Great Neck’s deep history of farming and grist mills and explains Great Neck’s part in the American Revolution. Mitra leads watchers through the history of Great Neck’s villages during the 19th century to the community we now know.
The video guides viewers on a tour throughout Great Neck Plaza that hits seven historical buildings and spots that make up Great Neck’s rich history. While watching the video alone imparts some great historical facts, Mitra estimates the walk to be about a mile long if one decides to take the walking tour through the Plaza area.
“I mainly focused on Great Neck Plaza because that’s where a lot of the sites are really close to each other,” said Mitra.
Some notable spots walkers will be guided to include the post office on Welwyn Road, Great Neck LIRR station, and the Squire Theater. Mitra picked out these important spots from looking at old records with the Great Neck Libraries archivist Christy Orquera, viewing materials from the Great Neck Historical Society and reading publications by the League of Women Voters of Great Neck.
Mitra feels one of the most important parts of the walking tour is the two theaters, the Squire and the Playhouse, both located on Middle Neck Road.
“The Playhouse Theater is just completely demolished, and the Squire Theater is kind of fading away and being converted [into something else],” said Mitra. “I thought it was really important to include those sites because people in 10 or 20 years might not even know what was once there. They might think it was always just shops or apartments, whatever ends up there.”
According to Mitra’s video, the Playhouse Theater opened in 1922, and the Squire Movie Theater opened in 1941. In the early days of the Playhouse, plays and comedy acts were shown, while the Squire Movie Theater only played movies. Eventually, the Playhouse moved on to only movies. Both theaters are a large part of Great Neck’s history, as they drew movie stars, comedians, sports players and many other celebrities to see movie premiers and spend a night in town. The Playhouse Theater closed in 1983, while the Squire theater held on till the COVID-19 pandemic, shutting down in 2020.
While the theater’s history in Great Neck is more recent and known, Village history is less generally available among residents.
“I think people now are aware that Great Neck was once a rich community with like a lot of estates; they sometimes are not aware of the extent,” said Mitra. “The Village of Saddle Rock in Great Neck has a population of around 800 to a thousand people, but it was once owned by like just one family. It was just their estate really, which I thought was pretty cool.”
In the intro of Mitra’s walking tour video, he discusses the Eldridge family, that owned the entirety of Saddle Rock, and other notable families and famous residents.
As a junior in high school, Mitra has time to think about the next steps of his academic career. While the future, professionally speaking, is an open book for Mitra, he knows the importance of local history will remain in his life.
“[This project] awoke me to the importance of preserving sites,” said Mitra. “Because as I was doing research, I encountered that some of these sites were not really taken care of about like the local government or demolished or converted. And I think that’s kind of sad.”
To watch Mitra’s video and map out your historical walking tour, visit the Great Neck Library’s local history page (greatnecklibrary.org/great-neck-local-history/) or visit the Great Neck Historical Society website (greatneckhistorical.org).