“You’ve been out here how long? The Hamptons must have really changed since then.”
Boy has it. Many times.
In the 1950s the Hamptons was a very peaceful rural area. There were local people—fishermen and farmers—a reclusive summer enclave of wealthy New Yorkers with old money, a few famous people, mostly artists and writers, seeking peace and quiet off the beaten path. A dog could sleep on the white line in the middle of the road. And all the stores were closed on Sundays. But there were also tourists. Many of them were headed not for the Hamptons but for Montauk where the motels had just been built and there was a considerable bar scene. Young people caroused into the wee hours on weekends in the summertime. I was among them. (I moved as a teenager from Millburn, New Jersey to Montauk with my mom and dad when my dad bought White’s Pharmacy).
In the 1960s, wealthy people with “new” money began to appear in the Hamptons. Many of them “discovered” Sag Harbor, which was falling apart and filled with historic old cottages now abandoned that they could fix up. None were welcome behind the hedgerows. Also, a huge “grouper” bar scene appeared in Amagansett and Westhampton Beach. Young people crammed into private homes, with a landlord selling “summer shares.” The scene in Amagansett was Fromm’s for breakfast, Asparagus Beach (now Atlantic), so named because everyone on the beach stood up as if they were at a mixer, Martell’s at night. Montauk continued to thrive as a motel resort community with a busy nightlife. As for those behind the hedgerows, the wealthy people with old money: They hated the tourists, the new money people and the groupers and wished they would go away.
In the 1970s, crowds of cars for the first time sat in traffic jams coming out to the Hamptons and Montauk on Friday nights and going back to the city on Sunday night. In them were tourists, groupers, fishermen, old money and new money people. There also now began to be people from the film and theater industry. Montauk was in its heyday in the 1970s. The “grouper” scene in Amagansett thrived. Hippies were seen on Jobs Lane in Southampton in that decade, a shocking thing. The North Fork wine industry began. And the environmental movement sprang up.
In the 1980s, the wealthy old money people behind the hedgerows began to think they might have to make peace with all the newcomers, since, in fact, none of them were taking the hint and going away. Draconian laws in East Hampton drove out all the “groupers” from their share houses. Families returned. Other East Hampton laws, affecting Montauk, resulted in the reining in of motel development in that community. Paparazzi and gossip columnists were now trailing around anybody who was a celebrity. The farms began to give way to residential development, which, because of four-acre zoning, were being built largely as giant McMansions to be purchased by people with “new” money. Westhampton Beach, beginning now to rein in the “grouper” scene, found themselves being overrun by Hell’s Angels and other rough types. There was real fear that Westhampton Beach would fall into decay. The “new” money people began to outbid the “old” money people for many of the mansions behind the hedgerows. Integration between these two groups proceeded, along with polite apologies for prior behavior. Montauk began to fall into decline.
In the 1990s, waves of Hispanic immigrants began arriving, easing a labor shortage and adding a spice to the scene. The Hamptons now was beginning to look stunning, with highly manicured gardens, clipped and beautified lawns and fields. It was now rising into the upper echelons of world class resorts. The Hampton Classic horse show became known around the world. Hampton Polo began. The Hamptons International Film Festival came into existence. The North Fork wine industry thrived. Much open space was saved. Dozens of fundraisers held under white tents filled weekend nights all summer. Helicopters began to become a problem. Tourism declined, as those wishing to tour here found they couldn’t afford it. And Westhampton righted itself with culture, the arts, hanging planters and flowers.
In the 2000s, the real estate market went through the roof, taking the price of homes to where no man had ever gone before. Then it all went south. With the beginning of the recession, stores began to close during the off-season. East Hampton suffered the worst of that. Downtown was a ghost town in January. Sag Harbor, however, thrived with mom-and-pop stores as tourism picked up there. Then, surprisingly, the Hamptons discovered Montauk, with a youth scene livening up the place. The Hamptons celebrity tent scene went into decline, with smaller and fewer events. And large corporations began renting houses for the summer and making them available to clients and staff. The Shinnecock Indian Reservation came alive, and Riverhead, of all places, began to stir.
And now we come to today, which can be called the “Post Sandy” era. The Hamptons stands tall as a major world-class resort in three seasons of the year. Montauk is reborn, a delightful bar scene on weekend nights and a sportsmen’s paradise of surfing, hang-gliding, fishing, running, tennis, golf and all manner of other athletic activity at all other times. Sag Harbor, dressed to the nines in its historic splendor, is filled with tourists. And “old” and “new” money mingle. But there’s a new disturbing development.
This year, the tourists are back, in force. It appears that all those who used to go to the Jersey Shore, my teenage stomping grounds, have taken a deep breath and said, “well because of Sandy there’s no Jersey Shore anymore. And if we can’t afford the Hamptons, we are going there anyway.” And they are here. Many beaches are jammed. Nightspots are overrun. Bad manners abound. People are having all-night parties in their homes. There was the report of one man in the Hamptons, with no permits and loud parties all night, greeting the police with a $15,000 check if they would go away. They didn’t. Thousands come like lemmings to rock concerts in open fields. And through it all, Old Money and New, arm in arm, say, “Something has to be done.” Let us see to it the Jersey Shore is built back up, quick.
Last Saturday afternoon, carrying grocery bags in a crosswalk at a red light on North Main Street in East Hampton, I was almost run over by a man driving a small white Mercedes convertible coming around the bend from a side street. I stopped in that crosswalk right in front of him, a deer in the headlights holding groceries, and he screeched to a halt just a few feet from hitting me. Then, stopped and irritated, he extended his arm, and dismissively waved me across in front of him. Make it fast, it said. And as I got out of his way, he looked over at the blond girl sitting next to him, hit the gas, and peeled away down the street.
I watched him go. Yup. Jersey plates. Ohmigod! These are MY people.