Sag Harbor Neighborhoods Look to Albany Model for Landmark Designation

Renee Simons gives opening remarks to attendees during the SANS meeting held at St. Andrew Church parish on Monday, July 3. Michael Heller photo
Renee Simons gives opening remarks to attendees during the SANS meeting held at St. Andrew Church parish on Monday, July 3. Michael Heller photo

By Christine Sampson

In New York State’s capitol city of Albany, an approximately 28-acre subdivision called Rapp Road that has received a culturally significant landmark designation from the state holds clues and cues for residents of three historically African American neighborhoods in Sag Harbor who are looking for some type of landmark designation of their own.

Rapp Road began as a 14-acre community founded in 1930 by an African American pastor, Louis Parson, who brought sharecroppers up from his native Shubuta, Mississippi, to escape poverty and racism. As the Great Migration brought many African American citizens north, Rapp Road expanded from 14 to 28 acres, although it has recently shrunk in size due to commercial development.

In Sag Harbor, Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah themselves arose from a similar culture of racism and exclusion, in which many could not obtain mortgages or were barred from purchasing houses in postwar suburbs like Levittown. From family connections and neighborly networking, African American families were able to come to Sag Harbor and enjoy amenities they couldn’t elsewhere.

Last September, representatives of Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah subdivisions — collectively known as SANS — kicked off an effort to pursue landmark status for their neighborhoods based on their cultural significance in mid-20th century African American history. On Monday, about 50 residents packed into the parish hall of St. Andrew Catholic Church to hear updates on the process.

Notable among them was that SANS as a neighborhood organization is in full swing with a cultural and historic resources survey that it hopes will yield some form of landmark designation on the New York State Register of Historic Places. The Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees in January adopted a resolution formally endorsing this survey, and SANS received a grant from the organization Preserve New York to pursue it. Renee Simons, a Sag Harbor Hills resident who is helping steer the process, said the group has raised about $20,000 from community members to hire a consultant and pay for the survey.

“Since September, we have collected information about houses. We have collected oral histories,” Ms. Simons said. “We want to get to the 300 owners who are in the developments to archive houses and individuals. The state is saying they want everyone, every house. Our time is now.”

The results so far “are very encouraging, but we don’t know what we don’t know,” she said.

But the process will continue to cost money right through its anticipated completion date this fall, she said. To that end, SANS unveiled new “Historic SANS 11963” hats, selling for $20 apiece as a fundraiser. A GoFundMe crowd-funding web page has been established to help achieve a goal of raising another $20,000.

Ms. Simons said she and other SANS representatives are looking toward the completion of the survey to provide more information on the specific type of landmark designation the communities should pursue. A range of possibilities exist within the New York State Department of Parks and Historic Preservation, such as designation as an historic district based on architecture, designation as a culturally significant district, and designation as a neighborhood conservation district.

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. has been involved in the process, helping to guide the SANS organizers’ efforts with the unique perspective of being a former Sag Harbor Village attorney. During Monday’s meeting, he explained that just being listed on the state or national register of historic places does not hold any local land use implications unless the village board decides to create a special district in which it would apply restrictions similar to what is already in place in its historic district.

Some residents at the meeting asked if obtaining landmark status would help preserve the existing character and quality of life in the SANS neighborhoods, which some feel is threatened by out-of-town developers who come in to buy up properties, knock down the original houses and build bigger ones.

“It is too early to tell what the outcome of this survey will be,” Mr. Thiele said. “With the information garnered by this process, the village government may look at it and say, ‘We see something that we want to protect.’”