In the 1950s, when I came here as a teenager, the Hamptons was charming, quiet little villages with mom-and-pop stores downtown and a few writers and artists tucked away in houses in the woods. On Sunday, the stores were closed. It was a day of rest. Whatever you might need to buy could wait until Monday.
Today is a whole other matter. We are a world of $100 million mansions, movie stars and hedge fund billionaires. And I think where we are now began with one particular event, namely the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s movie Jaws.
Spielberg had just moved in here (to an estate tucked away in the woods of Georgica). This was in 1975. I recall standing in front of the East Hampton Five and Ten and looking across Main Street at the East Hampton movie theater to see limousines, a red carpet, paparazzi, celebrities and swooning tourists in front of that theater. The great and near-great arrived, got out of their limos, waved and, as flashbulbs popped, went inside.
Until this, far away, there was Broadway and Hollywood, but now all that glitter was here in the Hamptons.
Then, yesterday, I remembered an incident in 1985 that I believe marked the beginning of when real estate prices started to go through the roof here. Before this time, the cost of buying a home could be fairly determined by multiplying what it might rent for a year times ten. This was affordable for average people, if they had good credit and some cash in the bank for 15% down.
Around 1985, however, the local towns here passed laws requiring that all new residential construction include, where the driveway met the street, a rough patch made of Belgian block so that if a man drove a car down the driveway but came too fast, he would not skid out into the traffic. The patch would be the full driveway width and about 10 feet in length. It seemed like a good idea. It still does.
Here’s the story that went around the Hamptons that year. Sometime in March, the owner of a particular mansion in the Hamptons decided he wanted to have one of these Belgian block patches in by Memorial Day. He called around. There were plenty of builders who could do that. But even in March, all the builders were booked up. Finally he found one and got a promise that it would be done by Memorial Day. The cost would be about $5,000.
A week later, however, the builder called the man back and told him he could not get it done. He could only do one more, and now he had been offered much more money by someone else to do it.
“How much more?” the man asked.
“He’s paying me $10,000.”
“I’ll pay you $20,000,” the man said.
Thus began what was one of the strangest bidding wars ever. One man would have a Belgian block driveway entry. The other would not. The price went up to $30,000, then $50,000 and then finally, at $65,000, one of the two bidders had had enough and dropped out. A loser, a man with no Belgian block at the end of his driveway for summer.
In recent years, we’ve had Russian oligarch ex-wives renting homes for $400,000 a month. We’ve had estates selling for $147,000,000.
The Hamptons has gone from mom-and-pop stores, farming, fishing and small-town life to a wealthy and exclusive enclave where cost is no object, the wealthy live behind hedges, many have gated entries with intercom systems to afford permission to enter and real estate prices are astronomic.
Locals can afford winter rentals, but in the summer many double up or rent their homes and live elsewhere.
I say it’s all because we’ve gone from The Hamptons to “The Hamptons.”