There are numerous laws on the books of villages in the Hamptons that are from bygone eras that make little sense today. But they remain in place. And are almost never enforced. They are considered charming. They give a place character.
For example, there’s a law in Westhampton Beach that requires surfers to buy surfing permits and attach an identification badge to their bathing suits before going out to the ocean in that town. This law was put on the books nearly half a century ago, when surfing there was new and likely some overzealous mayor thought it would open up a source of revenue. It was discovered on the books last summer and, though never enforced, became the subject of a village board meeting to consider repealing it. But it failed. Too charming?
Another charming law in Southampton is even older. Because the prudish church-going people of the Victorian era became alarmed that beachgoers in bathing attire were to be seen walking the streets of downtown, they saw to the passing of a law requiring that on public streets people were ordered to cover their bodies with opaque clothing between the top of the nipple and down to halfway between the hip and the knee. An exemption to the law was allowed within 100 yards of the sea. But beyond that, keep it covered. What can I say. It was 1890. Though the law is no longer enforced, there are signs downtown on poles that read, “obey our proper apparel laws.” And it’s just fine that they are there.
In East Hampton, beginning about 1905, a group called the Ladies Village Improvement Society, when not fighting for laws to prohibit serving alcohol or giving women the vote, took it upon themselves to police Main Street and Newtown Lane, keeping these streets festooned with flowers and street furniture, and prohibiting large signs in stores that said SALE or 40% OFF or otherwise promoted stores placing wares in front of their shops, thus interfering with the beauty of the neighborhood. Their methods included sending blue-haired ladies into shops to demand that offensive material be removed or boycotts would follow. But they also got a law put on the books that made it illegal to place anything intended “to attract attention of the public” outside their storefronts. And the law is still there.
Just before Thanksgiving, code enforcement officer Robert Jahoda issued a pair of summonses to Colleen Moeller, the owner of the baby store Petit Bleu on Park Place in East Hampton, for placing a sign reading WELCOME around the neck of one of the two stuffed golden retrievers, about three feet tall, next to her front door. She contested the summons in court in mid-December.
At the trial last week, The East Hampton Star reported, her lawyer said the code was too confusing to be enforceable, so he placed a green WELCOME mat on the floor and said that because of its bright colors, it could be ripe for a summons, which could lead to a fine up to $1,000 and 15 days in jail.
The ordinance reads, “No signs…used to advertise or attract the attention of the public shall be displayed out of doors.”
Judge Lisa Rana reserved decision.
I’ve been involved with two instances of Taste Police activity in East Hampton over the years.
One took place around 1970. The Supreme Court had ruled that pornography could be art. And so barriers were falling everywhere. One day, on Main Street, a giant wall poster appeared in a souvenir store three doors down from the movie theater. It was a poster of a life-size, extremely overweight naked woman, full frontal, taped inside the window, facing the street. A card next to it declared it was intended for refrigerator doors. Go down for a midnight snack from the fridge and see if you really wanted that ice cream after seeing this poster. The LVIS went crazy. The owner of the store never backed down. He wanted a trial. But before the trial happened a year later, he passed away. Struck down, perhaps, by the lord, some said.
The other incident I saw personally. It was the first summer of the Hamptons International Film Festival, in 1992, and out front of the theater you could see, coming down Main Street from the west, a beautiful young woman wearing a spangled, skin-hugging costume on a bicycle. She had giant diaphanous wings sticking out above and alongside, four feet in each direction. Every time she pedaled, wooden sticks attached to her boots at one end and her wings at the other would make the wings flap. An elderly woman in front of the theater stepped out into the street to block her path.
“What is this?” she asked.
“I’m promoting a movie,” the young woman said. “Its playing today at the festival.”
“Well, young lady,” the elderly woman said, “you just turn your little self around and pedal right back to where you came from.”
And she did.