Sag Harbor Beach Portraits
Breakout time past, time present and time future. Include the benches.
These pictures tell a story- a story about a community, about a history, and, importantly, about a slice of American history as experienced by African and Native Americans from the 1800’s to the present day.
Close your eyes and imagine: a blue sky and a bluer stretch of water. Imagine a pristine crescent beach forming the southern border of that water and add sunbeams sparkling as they reflect off the gentle waves lapping at the shoreline.
You’ve just imagined what the adults who began the communities of Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, Ninevah Beach and Lighthouse Lane saw in Sag Harbor.
But why these communities? What the newcomers saw in the post World War II in the late 1940s was an extension of past history. The history here goes back to the communities of Eastville in Sag Harbor and Freetown in East Hampton. Eastville dates back to the early 1800s, when Sag Harbor was a port and whaling community; it was a working class community in the pre-Civil War era and it was a multiethnic community that included free Blacks, Montauketts and Shinnecocks and European immigrants who worked in the whaling business. More importantly, Eastville represented an example of free black labor, land ownership and religious practice despite the segregation to the Eastville area. It is where the St. David A.M.E. Zion Church was founded in 1840 by Lewis Cuffee and others. At the time African Americans and Native Americans who attended the Methodist Church in downtown Sag Harbor were segregated to the balconies and the rear of the church for services. The church was also, reputedly, a terminus for the Underground Railroad.
When the whaling industry declined the men of Eastville sought employment as boatmen and clammers while the women were employed as domestic workers in the homes of wealthy white folks who lived in downtown Sag Harbor.
Then, in the late 19thcentury, a new wave of economically advantaged African Americans arrived, renting summer homes in Eastville; many became full-time residents. As an indicator, my parents rented in the Eastville community on Hempstead Street beginning in 1949 before they built a summer home in Sag Harbor Hills in 1951.
So, fast forward, it’s 1951. The community of Sag Harbor Hills consisted of: Parker, North, Parks, Jones, Pickens, Cuyjet, Sinclair, King, Granger, Letcher, Bannister, Williams and Norman. These were folks who had the means to have gone anywhere but were restricted by the boundaries of segregation. These were folks who formed social clubs and entertained at home because they had to. So, there was a history of folks who had gone before to Eastville and they followed the history.
The houses were built for summer use. The beach was the anchor for the community, the communal lynchpin, the edge of center. It’s where families went and socialized; where we, as children, learned to swim and fish and scallop and clam. It was the lifespring from which we drank to revitalize our spirits after a fall and winter and spring of isolation in disparate and separated communities. It was, in the truest sense, regeneration.
Now move inland from the beach, past the beach grass and scrubpine and beachplums. Enter a community of dirt roads and party lines and houses where every adult was an aunt or uncle, a special designation symbolic of the true sense of community and bonding among the members and, perhaps, an acknowledgement that it takes a village to raise a child. It was a designation of honor and respect. It was a community where you respected and honored the house rules in whichever house you were in. And it was a community where you couldn’t wait for Aunt Barbara to make fried chicken and biscuits or Aunt Cynthia to make clam chowder.
Enter a land where you went next door to borrow a cup of sugar or flour — or whatever else it was you might need. Enter a place where each house had a ship’s bell, each with a distinctive tone and rung when we were summoned back to the homestead. Enter a place where we, as children, were released in the morning as a skittering horde to imagine our day — off to the beach to swim or clam or waterski, or the creek to explore, or the woods to hunt. Imagine a place where we were released to the universe of our imaginations to create a reality for the day — until that bell rang.
As children we had a freedom that is unimaginable today. Who today has Daisy BB guns with the license to stalk through the woods? And who leaps from sandcliffs as a member of the Vikings? When did you last see children riding from the back of a station wagon sitting on the open flap? When did you last pick beachplums from the front of the house and help your grandmother make beachplum jam or turn the crank to make peach ice cream from fresh peaches? And when did you last drive a car at 12?
The benches — perched on a small bluff above the beach — are another story. A gathering place in the evening, a place to congregate and close the day — before that bell rang. Where some romances started and others ended.
It’s now 2015. Skinny Hill is now Harbor Avenue; the roads are paved; most of the ship bells are gone and forgotten (but not all). Families have come and gone but each is woven into the fabric of the community — Pinderhughes, Rhoden, Gibbs, Lopez, Segre, Giscombe and many more. And the beach, that lifespring, is still there — still a communal resource where lifelong friendships are made. So, in these pictures my wife and I see our daughter, a fourth generation Sag Harborite, clasping a bluefish that she just caught. But I also see first kisses like a memory; and I see generations walking the beach together; and I see folks simply enjoying, unstressed, the sun and sand. I see what our parents saw in 1951 and what the early Eastville settlers saw before, now shaped by the prism of 64 years. What I see is folks who are relaxed; folks who are smiling; folks who are, for the moment, free to be themselves.
And then I wonder what the young lady in the last photo, arms akimbo, is thinking as she stares westward, perhaps wondering how our sun will set.
Dr. Aloysius Cuyjet
Ban the Blowers
Thank you for the great Karl Grossman article on leaf-blowers, the most useless, annoying machine ever made. It makes more mess than it cleans up and deafens everyone in the neighborhood. Ban them forever. They are an aggravating health hazard, and not good for the soil. Find some quiet way to deal with leaves. How about a rake?
Thanks for all the good work you do.
87. It’s ironic that in the week prior to March 22, World Water Day, Suffolk County Water Authority advises customers that it plans to spend over $1 billion to treat its water, passing on the costs to East End residents. 87. Only one week later, on the eve of World Water Day, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announces that it extends Sand Land’s permit to continue operations for an additional 8 years and allowing them to dig an additional 40’ lower, approaching the water table. 87. DEC Commissioner, Basil Seggos, goes on to state that the Agency will continue aggressive on-the-ground oversight to ensure Sand Land complies with all rules and regulations ensuring its operations do not threaten the environment. 87. Just hear me out; Sand Land pollutes our drinking water, SCWA drills new wells within a half-mile of Sand Land and the DEC has the gall to purport they will continue aggressive oversight!
Are we stupid? Per the Sag Harbor Express’ reporting, the water under Sand Land has elevated levels of Manganese, Iron, Thallium, Sodium, Ammonia and other unhealthy contaminates. Also, Sand Land is not in compliance with New York State Environmental Law. EIGHTY-SEVEN times the State’s maximum threshold for Manganese! 87!Not twice the level or, say, four times the level. EIGHTY-SEVEN! Suppose I drove 87 times the speed limit or drove a car while impaired at 87 times the maximum blood alcohol level. Try as hard as you may, it is inconceivable getting to 87times a maximum of anything. But Sand Land has!
The only thing more ridiculous than granting a demonstrably egregious polluter an extended permit to operate, is to believe the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation is going to aggressively monitor them. Where were they in the first place? It took local politicians to force the DEC to even look in to Sand Land’s operations. The DEC is required to monitor water quality. Didn’t 87 times permitted levelscatch their attention!
It may well be that the way to get the DEC’s attention is to threaten to vote-out the political leaders they report to. So, here I go; Andrew Cuomo, the NYC DEC reports to you. If you ever seek another political office, I will not vote for you. To Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand and Lee Zeldin, you represent New Yorker’s interest nationally. I’ll not vote for your reelection if you don’t bring power to bear and shut down Sand Land. Fred Theile, I truly applaud your anger at the DEC’s inconceivable decision. But, if you can’t cause the DEC to reverse their decision, sorry, I won’t again vote for you. Jay Schneiderman, sorry too, but you’ll never get my vote if that operation continues. To all, even though you have tried, you haven’t done your jobs. If you can’t shut down Sand Land now, I’m going to vote for someone who may.
Last year, right about this time, my husband Scott, who had been doing some yard work, called to me and showed me a turtle trapped by our fence. S/he was facing the bay across the street, yet obviously blocked from accessing it. Scott cut a hole in the bottom of the fence as the turtle watched. We left for a couple of hours of errands, and upon our return the turtle was nowhere in sight. We’re assuming a happy ending.
It got me to thinking, however, about how, growing up, no one had fences. We were all able to access our neighbors’ yards to retrieve an overthrown ball or simply to take a short cut. Looking around Sag Harbor and pretty much all of the Hamptons, I realized that almost everyone has a fence, whether it’s by ordinance to prevent those from falling into a swimming pool, or to protect our precious hydrangeas from deer.
I remembered, a week earlier, seeing my neighbor’s cat stalking a rabbit, and realized with horror, that a rabbit, while running from a cat, could certainly be stopped by a fence, with no escape. I called Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons and discussed the situation with a representative who expressed her exasperation over the many ways in which our wildlife is imperiled by civilization, particularly at times of migration, like now. A suggestion she made is that if you are installing a fence, do so with the bottom a few inches off the ground. If you already have a fence in place, cut an opening in the bottom on each side of your property (she advised animals will walk along the fence until they find an opening.) I realize those of you with cats or small dogs may not wish to take the chance of losing your pet. Perhaps other solutions exist. I figured this was worth sharing.