After most busy summer seasons where Sag Harbor feels more like Times Square than a sleepy, historic whaling village, it’s always the week after Labor Day, on HarborFest, when locals come out to remember exactly why they live here year-round in the first place.
While Sag Harbor Village has evolved tremendously — for better and for worse — in the last decade, HarborFest remains an event where the local, year-round community gathers, eats, drinks and enjoys a weekend rooted in tradition, tradition that becomes all the more important in the face of change.
Interestingly enough, HarborFest came on the heels of a renewed debate in the Municipal Building about how to engage local, working families, many who are being forced out of Sag Harbor by the high cost of living, in long range planning for the village’s future. Despite the fact that it is increasingly harder to afford to live in Sag Harbor, and also in East Hampton and Southampton, any notion that the demographic represented by the moniker “old school Sag Harbor” has somehow disappeared was proven false over HarborFest weekend, where 19 separate whaleboat teams and their families and friends lined the grassy knoll in front of Windmill Beach and battled for a trophy with 55 years of history.
That said, Trustee Thomas Gardella was not wrong when he said the ability to afford to live here is hurting our year round population. At the most recent planning session in the Municipal Building, that demographic was nowhere to be found and may have different priorities in mind when considering Sag Harbor’s future. Trustee Jim Larocca said the village has to “fully engage the rest of Sag Harbor in this, and be very careful that we are not making elitist assumptions about what’s best for the place we have only come to in recent times.” The comments prompted Village Attorney Denise Schoen, a native of East Hampton, to say she doubted her children would be able to afford living in Sag Harbor after college.
“The reason that [local] people aren’t in the room now,” she said, “is not because they don’t care or for lack of advertising. It’s because they gave up a long time ago thinking they had a say.”
That disheartening statement is a harsh reality for many families living in Sag Harbor and across the East End. The cost of housing has skyrocketed, and unless you own your own business, finding the kind of work that can support a life here is increasingly more difficult.
And while that struggle is real — and it remains incumbent on the village board to work with neighboring municipalities to develop affordable housing options, including incentives for affordable apartments — it does not mean there is not a seat at the table for year-round residents or those members of the community coming from “old school Sag Harbor.” New Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy has shown a willingness and a desire to include all residents in the work the village board is tackling. Longtime residents of Sag Harbor should get involved and have their voices heard, but they will have to be proactive and take a seat at table in order to be a part of the process just like everyone else.
Sag Harbor is a diverse community, filled with families that date back generations now joined by what Mr. Larocca termed as “ex-pats,” families and couples that have adopted the village as their home over the last two decades. And it is as a whole community, not one divided, that Sag Harbor is at its best. That kind of camaraderie was on full view during HarborFest weekend and it was heartfelt. There is no reason it cannot exist in the long term planning for Sag Harbor’s future as well.