One measure of how the summer goes in these parts is the parking. If you can’t find a place to park downtown, it’s a good summer. If you can, it’s a bad summer and the merchants go crying.
When I first came out here many years ago, summer parking was no big deal. It was more difficult than winter, but not by much. You still could, for the most part, park in front of the store you wanted to go into.
By the 1980s, however, summer parking was pretty difficult and there were tie-ups on the road. As the years went by, the summer “season” spilled over into the spring and fall. The hope was this might become a year-round economy. And eventually, by the mid-2000s, it pretty much was. Only January and February were quiet. Otherwise, the dreaded parking and traffic jam problem was everywhere.
As we all know, the Wall Street collapse and big recession hit in 2007, and, shockingly, the economy of the Hamptons went down with everything else. I would say that it was a parking space delight from 2008 to 2012.
It’s now apparent that the summer frenzy is back, almost to how it was in 2006. Honestly, I think this is not going to carry over into the offseason as it did in the early 2000s. We’re living in a land of pop-up stores that pop up for July 4 and pop down and go away at Labor Day. So it’s going to be feast and famine. Or, as someone put it to me, a result of the rising gap between rich and poor.
Consider this a predicament if you want. For me, it’s a prediction. And in many ways, it’s also a hope. Unlike many of the other people here who yearn for a year-round economy, I want the opposite. I love the contrast. I have stayed here these last 50 years because of the contrast. If I didn’t want the contrast, I would have long ago moved to California, where every month is like every other.
I love that we have snow and sleigh-riding in the winter and swimming and surfing in the summer. I love bundling up in cold weather, and stripping down in the hot. And I love the contrast of the Hamptons—the chic shops and the 17th century downtowns, the high fashion and the windmills, the rolling hills and sand dunes and the flat beaches and seas for as far as the eye can see. Mostly, though, I really, really like that there are swarms of people out in one season and practically nobody out the next. It does give you time to think, and then it gives you time to act.
This morning I heard an interview on NPR with a young guy in Boston who decided that instead of planning for retirement in his old age, he would chop up his old-age retirement and use it piecemeal during his working life. And so, after 10 years with a software company, he moved his wife and kids to an island in Alaska for a year to catch up on his reading and get close to his kids. He’ll work another 10 years now that he is back, and then take another one year off to go somewhere else.
They interviewed his wife. “The hardest thing,” she said, “were the long nights in the wintertime.” But they got through it.
I thought, this is what I do, and what my father before me did, and what a whole lot of other local people do out here. But we don’t take a one-year retirement, we take a two-month retirement, or, in my father’s case, a four-month retirement.
Growing up, I lived in the one community where the normal commercial changes in the Hamptons do not apply. This was Montauk. We had the usual busy craziness in the summertime. Then, after Labor Day, we had practically no commerce whatsoever in the wintertime. Indeed, my mother and father, when I was off in college, began going away to Mexico, or Puerto Rico, or, ultimately, Pompano Beach for the winter. They’d stay four months. And my father would hire a pharmacist to run his store, White’s Montauk Pharmacy, for those months so he could be away.
I started Dan’s Papers in those years in Montauk, between my sophomore and junior year of college. It worked fine as a summer job. I had the contrast. There was three months of fun and surfing, and then snowball fights in winter first at the University of Rochester and then in grad school at Harvard in Cambridge. After graduation, I thought, well, now it’s nose to the grindstone for me. Late that autumn, I spent a few weeks in St. Thomas.
“There’s a business for sale down there I could buy,” I told dad when I got back. “This guy has a big launch. He takes tourists in from the cruise ships to Charlotte Amalie all winter. He offered it to me. I could work down there in the winter and then do the newspaper in Montauk in the summer.”
“Why do you want to work all year?” my dad asked. “I don’t. Why don’t you just work summers, expand the newspaper into the Hamptons, and then take the winters off and see the world?”
I had no answer. And so, off I went in the winters, and I did that every winter for 10 years, living in Aix en Provence, the Canary Islands, Maui, Luquillo Beach, St. Croix, New Zealand, Guatemala. After that, as the paper expanded first through the Hamptons and then to more year-round in the 1980s, I continued to go away in the wintertime but now for shorter visits, visiting East Germany, Moscow, South Africa, Japan, Greece, Turkey, Paris, Venice, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Quebec, Palm Beach and dozens of other places.
And I saw that there were tourist towns that did very well, thank you very much, for half the year, and then pretty much shut down the rest of the year.
So yes—I want the Hamptons to be a constant surprise. Let it snow, have heat waves, bring out crowds, leave us to our own devices, let us park in front of the stores we want to go to for half the year and then struggle in the summertime.
For me, these changes are what life is all about. My hope is for this kind of economy, and so, after much thought, I predict it in order to help make it happen.
Bring it on.