A Cultural Heritage Q&A with Sag Harbor’s Bill Pickens

William Pickens III is a longtime resident of Sag Harbor. Stephen J. Kotz photo
William Pickens III is a longtime resident of Sag Harbor. Stephen J. Kotz photo

By Stephen J. Kotz

William Pickens III, who first visited Sag Harbor 70 years ago, will discuss the history and significance of the historically African-American neighborhoods of Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah — now known as SANS — as they come under increasing speculative pressure that threatens a cherished way of life, at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at the John Jermain Memorial Library.

What’s the nature of the threat facing these communities today?

My talk is titled, “Is This a Community or a Commodity?” In the 70 years that I have come out here there has been a sense of family and that’s all being compromised and fractured.

This has always been a community. Everybody knew everybody’s family. You could walk through anyone’s yard with no problem because they knew your father and mother. All that sense of camaraderie and togetherness is being compromised by real estate values. Are we just a pass-through, an economic entity, or are we going to continue to be a community?

The newcomers have vast wealth, and that’s fine. That’s part of the American system. But they are coming in and building very large houses next to very modest middle class homes. The juxtaposition is rather jarring when you get a 5,000-square-foot home next to the average, which is about 1,375 square feet.

Is it just that people are building bigger and bigger houses?

No, it’s more than that. I built my house on Ninevah Place and I raised my kids here in the summer. They learned to swim and ride their bikes here. They loved it out here. We did not look at this for its economic value, but for its social value. This was our safe haven. Here you could find surgeons, lawyers, firemen and bus drivers — people from all walks of life — and they were all friends. That’s how we grew up here.

Blacks who grew up in the south couldn’t go to the beachfront, but here, we owned the beach, and what a blessing that was. So we cherish this property and this community, and we see it eroding around us.

With these new neighbors, nobody’s cutting through their yard. Nobody’s parking in their driveway for even a minute. Some of the new people don’t even want to join the homeowners association, which has been responsible for making sure the beach is kept clean, the roads are kept up. This place is a life for me and an investment to them, and there’s a big difference.

But hasn’t this type of gentrification occurred in other typically white neighborhoods in Sag Harbor like Mount Misery, where ranch houses are being torn down and replaced with much bigger ones?

Except the people who live in those neighbors have had choices we never had. If you were white in America, you could go practically anywhere.

You know there’s approximately 5,000 miles of ocean coastline in America, if you start in Maine and make your way down to Florida and all the way across the south and up the west coast. And we have this half-mile of beachfront and that’s it.

What can be done to reverse the trend?

I’m going to suggest that the village fathers take another look at what’s happening here and

make some modifications in the zoning laws, in the way variances are given — you can get a variance and build a bigger house with all the bells and whistles.

Can we slow this down and make this onrushing train come to a more appropriate speed, so we can think our way through this? Otherwise, this could be gone in five years.

For us — for me since I’ve been here my whole life — this would be a great loss. My grave concern is the community sense here is evaporating before my eyes, and we are becoming just another corporate venture rather than an adventure.