I’d like to apologize to the people of Montauk for articles I wrote two years ago about protests against the Army Corps of Engineers on the beach downtown. I stuck close to the facts, but you could not miss that I felt the appearance of the protesters was a waste of time. Surely the Army Corps knew what they were doing.
The protests were, as it turned out, a waste of time. The Corps went ahead with their beach restoration project even as protesters stood in front of their bulldozers and backhoes. The Corps had the backing of the local and federal government. But that I should essentially side with the Corps in the pages of this newspaper was wrong. My whole attitude was wrong.
Montauk’s downtown beach was for centuries a wonderful mile long apron of sand to be appreciated by all who came to town.
Developer Carl Fisher bought Montauk in 1925, almost every acre of it, and personally decided that this is where the town should be. There was no town before 1925. There was a fishermen’s shantytown down by the railroad station on Fort Pond Bay, but for what Fisher had in mind, it wouldn’t do. Fisher thought Montauk’s rolling hills would make a wonderful resort, and he proceeded with that in mind. For the center of the resort’s town he chose the valley between two hills hard by the white sandy ocean beach.
There was no global warming then, no rising seas. At the western end, you’d approach Montauk from the new Montauk Parkway that he built, looking down as you came down the hill from Hither Woods to see, especially in the morning, this glittering oceanfront village on the beach. To leave town and head for the lighthouse, you’d drive up the hill where he built his two churches, the Catholic church and the Protestant church, and then you’d be off into the woods and out to the lighthouse six miles away.
Fisher laid out the town’s roads. He ordered pink sidewalks (some remain). He built the town plaza with the flagpole in the center. And he built the tall skyscraper at the north end of the plaza, a copy of the building he had lived in as a boy in Indianapolis, Indiana. And all along South Edgemere, the road he built parallel to the beach on the landside of the tall sand dunes, he left it natural. He did not envision oceanfront beachfront motels.
You can’t blame what happened to Montauk since the advent of global warming on Carl Fisher, and you can’t blame it on the motels that got built right on the dunes a generation later. Again, there was no global warming.
But there is global warming now. And even before Sandy came five years ago to challenge downtown Montauk, the owners of beachfront motels struggled with the steady loss of beach in front of their establishments. At one point, the owners of the Royal Atlantic, I believe it was, buried several concrete cesspool rings in the sand in front of their property in the hopes of stopping things. Soon these ugly things got exposed too.
I think how I felt about it when the Army Corps came to build an artificial dune out of sandbags on the beachfront, was that they could somehow do this and Montauk would look like it looked before.
That seemed to be their promise. The sandbags would be covered with sand, and they are, and the contours would protect the town from the rising waters—which had alarmed everyone a few years before when Sandy breached the dunes, and only through heroic town fire department and highway department effort was the downtown saved from flooding.
I saw the plans. Yes the dune would be high. But it had been high before. It would look the same. Well, it doesn’t. There used to be breaks in the dunes where you could walk to the soft beach. Now there are wooden ladders that go over the dunes—they were supposed to be just inches above the top of the dunes, but now they are like flying bridges, yards above. The dunes don’t rise to the specified height. And there is no soft sandy beach.
Welcome to downtown Montauk: hard by the sea wall. Want to sit on the sand? Go to Umbrella Beach to the west.