By Stephen J. Kotz
The nascent effort to obtain landmark status for three traditionally African-American communities in Sag Harbor received a boost on Friday when about 100 people jammed into the parish hall at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church to hear about the effort and plot strategy.
The first step, organizers agreed, is to raise funds to hire a consultant who would help the communities undertake a cultural survey that would state the case for preserving the scale and character of the neighborhoods, which were settled in the post-World War II era as summer enclaves for African-Americans, who were unable to obtain mortgages or even move into white communities, at that time.
“It’s about preserving what we all came here for whether it’s the sands of the beach, whether it’s the sense of community, whether it’s the sense of belonging, or the sense of ‘I know someone down the block so I am not alone,’” said Georgette Grier-Key, the executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society.
Friday’s meeting was moderated by Renee V.H. Simons, a resident of Sag Harbor Hills, and comes on the heels of petition drives in that community as well as in Nineveh and Azurest to request that the village begin the landmarking process.
“We would love to have the village on board to help us write the application,” she said on Tuesday, adding that the group was pursing grant money as well.
Ms. Simons said she was gratified to see the large turnout, which included residents of many other Sag Harbor neighborhoods. “I think this is a broad issue. And although the precedent is in our area, it will affect all areas in Sag Harbor,” she said.
The movement to protect the three bayfront neighborhoods off Route 114 from what residents say is a quiet hostile takeover has been gaining ground in recent months on the heels of the news that a number of properties have been snapped up by a number of limited liability corporations, or LLCs, represented by an attorney, Bruce Bronster.
Residents, who have objected to a number of larger houses that have replaced the more modest houses that were commonplace in the neighborhoods, have raised the alert about Mr. Bronster’s plans to build a 5,300-square-foot house on a 1-acre lot on Lincoln Street in Nineveh. It will be the subject of a hearing before the village Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review on Thursday, September 8, at 5 p.m.
Although a revamped village code, adopted earlier this year, limits house sizes to 4,000 square feet, it allows property owners to ask the village board for permission to build larger ones, provided the ARB signs off.
And while residents have said they are uneasy about the changes coming to their neighborhoods, they remain unclear about just what steps they can take to protect their communities.
“We know something is happening and that we’re unhappy with it and there’s some confusion around it,” said Dr. Grier-Key at Friday’s meeting. “Maybe we can demystify it.”
Ms. Grier-Key said Zach Studenroth, the village’s historic preservation consultant, had cautioned her that seeking a historic district designation based solely on historic architecture in the neighborhoods would be a steep hill to climb.
“There may not be this classical, Egyptian, Greek Revival, and all these things that most of the other historic districts have,” she said. But the neighborhoods have played an important role in African-American cultural history, she added.
Ms. Simons and Dr. Grier-Key reminded the audience that in the not-too-distant past, African-Americans were restricted to segregated beaches and unable to obtain mortgages. “Can you imagine the excitement and pride when we discovered Sag Harbor?” Ms. Simons asked. Now, she said residents want to protect it from being turned into another Hilton Head, which was overdeveloped and commercialized.
“It is part of the Americana story. You can’t just tell one part of the Americana story,” she said of the neighborhoods’ history. “You have to tell the whole rainbow of Americana. We have a wealth of stories that need to be heard and passed down.”
Sarah Kautz, the preservation director for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA), also spoke Friday, and said part of the survey process would be to collect oral histories and look into other culturally significant stories.
As an example, she recounted the story of Amaza Lee Meredith, an African-American woman who was a self-taught architect and founder of the art department at Virginia State University. Working with her sister, Maude Terry, and Daniel Gale, Ms. Meredith helped develop Azurest, the oldest of the three communities. “This is a wonderful story that means something,” she said.
Not everyone at the meeting was sold on the notion of moving forward with some time of landmark designation.
“If my house was designated as one of the historical ones… how does that affect the value?” asked Lance Wilson. “I’m trying to get a handle on what would be the net effect of this road we intend to go down.”
Dr. Grier-Key and Ms. Kautz tried to assure him that many of his concerns were unfounded and that it was too early in the process to worry about restrictions. Landmark or historic district status “usually increases property values,” added Tony Brandt, the chairman of the village ARB, who attended the meeting on his own behalf. Plus, he added, the Sag Harbor code requires ARB review of most building projects already.
Others, including Camille Clark of Sag Harbor Hills, encouraged the group to press ahead. She told the story of the late Roscoe Brown, a resident of the neighborhood who had been a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous African-American fighter pilots who fought in a segregated unit during World War II.
“Levittown and SANS were developed around the same time,” Ms. Clark said, using the acronym for Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Nineveh Subdivisions, the name the group has adopted. “He could not live in Levittown because there were covenants that stopped him from living there as an African-American but he could come to Sag Harbor Hills.”