Local Advocates Protect Historic Sag Harbor Pothole

Render of the proposed John Steinbeck Memorial Pothole - brass plaque next to pothole with car passing
Render of the proposed John Steinbeck Memorial Pothole, Photo: Christian Delbert/123RF

Hamptons Police responded to a large gathering of protestors blocking a local work crew from filling what some are calling a “historic pothole” in Sag Harbor on Monday. The Hamptons Community Action Council (CAC) group managed to push off municipal repair efforts with a similar demonstration that lasted more than three weeks in 2014, but police say the Department of South Fork Highways and Byways (DSFHB) will not give in so easily this time.

“The Hamptons Municipal Board and DSFHB will not be deterred,” Hamptons Police Department spokesman Larry Hirsch said this week. “The CAC is a powerful adversary, no doubt,” he continued, adding, “They guarded that pothole 24/7 for 23 days straight several years ago, and the Board eventually relented, but they’re now willing to deploy the full strength of our department’s resources and jurisdiction, including the option to take the street by force.”

Just as they did five years ago, CAC President Rip Winters said his organization will keep a round the clock vigil at the Madison Street pothole “until the Municipal Board and police see sense.” Winters’ late father, Merle Winters, was among the most outspoken protectors of the pothole and, the CAC president said, “It was my dad’s dying wish to see this piece of Sag Harbor history protected at all costs.”

Hoping for a more amicable and less violent solution, police have yet to forcibly remove protestors, leaving both sides in a standoff at the site. According to Hirsch, HPD lawyers are preparing a defense if injuries should occur when, inevitably, they must physically remove the pothole’s defenders, including numerous elderly participants. At the same time, a CAC team led by local historian Judith Babbage is following a line of inquiry that may prove legendary Sag Harbor author John Steinbeck actually wrote about the pothole in an early draft of his classic 1962 novel Travels with Charley.

“This pothole has been vexing local motorists for 65 years,” Babbage said. “It’s a part of Sag Harbor’s historic character, and once we prove Steinbeck put it in his most celebrated book, there’s no way anyone will allow them to fill it.” If their efforts succeed, Babbage said the CAC will commission a commemorative plaque denoting the pothole’s historic significance, to be embedded in the street alongside it.

Hirsch said the HPD and the Municipal Board are aware of what they’re calling “the Steinbeck defense,” and they, too, have a team investigating the matter. “We don’t buy it,” Hirsch explained. “But even if it is true, this is about public safety, which trumps a few words in an unpublished draft. Besides, the hole should be gone soon, well before anyone can verify these crazy claims.”

The clock is ticking.

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