History Dock: An Opportunity for a Pocket Park in the Center of Montauk

History Dock: An Opportunity for a Pocket Park in the Center of Montauk

Last week, the Town of East Hampton purchased the former Swamp nightclub, a one-acre property on the north side of the Montauk Highway in Wainscott, for about $2.1 million. The property has been abandoned for about 10 years. The building on it, which had housed the nightspot known as The Swamp, will be knocked down. The property is to be preserved as open space. Perhaps a mini-park with a bench or two will result. The commercial center of Wainscott could use a park like that. As it happens, a nonprofit environmental group, called the Friends of Georgica Pond Foundation, contributed $300,000 toward the purchase.

At the time this sale was taking place, I was visiting family in California and touring the town of Sonoma. This is a historic town, and in the center of its bustling downtown there is a mini-park where, in the back, you can visit a barracks building built when the Mexican Army kept order in this town. In the front there are photos and displays involving the history of Sonoma and how the Americans came to take over. You can walk around or sit on benches. The mini-park occupies about a half-acre, just as the one in Wainscott will.

This got me thinking about the possibility of a similar sort of facility in downtown Montauk. There is a parcel of waterfront land on Main Street that faces out onto Main Street on one side and onto Fort Pond on the other. It has a particularly checkered history—it was the site of two abandoned buildings a builder left to rot for more than a half a century—to get back at “the people of Montauk,” as the builder told me when he left town 60 years ago. He hated Montauk for what it had done to him, he said.

With this man now gone, it would be no small comfort to the town to transform this property into a waterfront mini-park for the general public. People walk by this place. And as it happens, one half of it is now the last open parcel of property on the pond where you can see, from Main Street in the center of town, through to the pond just a 150 feet away. Yet because of the foliage, no one knows this. And it remains undeveloped.

When I started Dan’s Papers in Montauk in 1960, I made a sales kit and went to every business in town that spring to try to sell them advertising. At this location, just to the west of what today is the miniature golf course called Puff ’n’ Putt, I met a man who had just completed two small buildings on this property. There was a sign. It said Montauk Taxi. He and his family would live in one building and the taxicabs would be serviced from the other. He bought an ad. Later that week, I sold an ad to a second taxi company, Windsor Taxi. The two then ran near to each other all summer.

The next spring I went back to Montauk Taxi to renew first, and he was there packing up one of his cars. He asked if I would still be selling Windsor Taxi an ad. I said I was obliged to do so, and he told me to get out. He was leaving town. People who needed cabs back then came to town by rail. For this new year, Windsor Taxi had a contract with the Long Island Rail Road to be their onsite taxi company.

When the Montauk Taxi owner had gone to get his own contract, he was told by the railroad that their contract with Windsor was exclusive. You can take the people of this town, he said to me, and shove it. Now get out. And this building will rot here. I will abandon it. For as long as I live. Let it be a message to the town to remind them of what they’ve done to me. Now get out. And I did.

You don’t forget being spoken to like that. And for the next 60 years, those two buildings sat, windows broken, roof falling in. And we all had to look at them.

Montauk grew up around them. The Puff ’n’ Putt came. A gas station came and became the 7-Eleven. All of these were to the west of the site. John’s Drive-In came to the east, and now you know where this is. People walk by it from John’s to the 7-Eleven all the time. They don’t even notice it.

That angry man died. In recent years his descendants sold the property to a local builder who patiently restored the two buildings. To get approval to occupy them, he had to agree to cut his parcel in two. The eastern half, where the old buildings were, could be built upon. The western half, which was open space, could not be built upon. And it is this western half, which remains undeveloped today, that I believe could play an important role in the further development of downtown Montauk.

From the center of downtown Montauk on the north side of Main Street, you walk west along the sidewalk past the bike rental and hardware store, past the pancake house and the Marshall’s Oil gas station and then off to John’s Drive-In and further down past this property to the Puff ’n’ Putt and the 7-Eleven. A quarter-mile away from the center of town in this direction is Kirk Park, which does face out to Fort Pond. But it is too far away from the general downtown foot traffic.

Here, as you pass John’s Drive-In and the gas station, you would come upon these two restored buildings—one for rent and the other a law office—and then there would be this pocket park.

Along one side, where it abuts Puff ’n’ Putt, the town would put up a wooden fence upon which would be photos and explanations of the remarkable history of Montauk—from the Lighthouse that George Washington ordered to the Montaukett Indians, to Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders to the dirigibles that people tried to fly across the Atlantic, to the fishing village and the Carl Fisher development that failed and the currently abandoned military facilities out of town that some believe housed a secret government time-travel project.

The wall would be sheltered from the weather with a half-roof, the walkway along it would be a wooden boardwalk eight-feet wide with benches along it going from the sidewalk to the pond, and at the end there would be a seating area to watch sunsets. It would be left wild to its east the whole way so foliage would separate it from the two buildings.

Visually, you would come upon it as you strolled west from town. You wouldn’t see it as you come east—the fence and the Puff ’n’ Putt would block it. But for strollers the other way it would serve as a preview for the pathways through Kirk Park to the wooden floating pavilion in the pond that is further on out of town. Just keep walking down the sidewalk.

As it happens, most of our visitors to Montauk are unaware of the remarkable history this town has. To know it is to respect it. Montauk is not just a place to have fun and leave.

Some of the proposed mini-park is wetlands. The boardwalk could be on pilings. It could pass above the wetlands, show it off and respect it at the same time. Of course, the owner of the buildings would have to agree to be involved. Perhaps the Town could offer to lease this unbuildable parcel for 100 years.

I have spoken to Marguerite Wolffsohn, who is the Planning Director for East Hampton Town. She thought this idea had merit and offered to speak to Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc about it.

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