I am waiting for the blow, braced for the inevitable. Every morning, as I pass by, I check out the shingled four-square with the real estate sale sign out in front. It is still there—but probably not for long. The other day, a broker showing the house forgot his keys. But no matter, he told his clients: “It’s a teardown.”
I know this because my friend, who lives next door to the house, had wandered over out of curiosity and joined the group on the lawn. Chatting with the prospective buyers after the broker had left, she learned that they actually had been interested in the house. With a few improvements, they had been thinking, it would make a pleasant weekend retreat.
Slim chance. Its fate almost certainly will be the same as that of so many other houses in Southampton that have been reduced to rubble to free up a rare and nearly priceless piece of property for a giant, high-end spec house that likely will remain vacant 10 months of the year.
As someone who grew up in Southampton, I can remember when what haunted us was the fear that our historic and picturesque East End villages would be devoured by suburban sprawl creeping east from Nassau County and covering our farm fields and open spaces with cookie-cutter tract houses and ugly strip malls.
Instead, the opposite is happening. Despite the hard work and some real successes among environmental groups and governmental bodies concerned with preservation and sustainability, the village as we knew it is disappearing. And the transformation is being wrought not with tract houses and tasteless commercialization but with the loss, one by one, of so many houses that once spoke to us of our history, houses of various eras and architectural styles that stood comfortably together in a village that was a year-round community for many, and a summer/weekend retreat for some.
That balance has been increasingly eroded as the longer-term goal of preserving the beauty and historic character of the village—the very assets that charm newcomers and longtime residents alike—is losing ground to a short-term mindset that sees only the dollar value of the land beneath the building.
From that vantage point, the house is a teardown that must be replaced with something newer, bigger and potentially more profitable.
It seems obvious that as long as short-term monetary interests continue to drive the destruction of perfectly livable houses, and to influence the design of new construction, we will be beset not by the tacky tract houses we once feared but by a plot-by-plot parade of oversized, inappropriate houses and the loss of our cultural identity.
Southampton will begin to look like any number of other undistinguished villages that lack our storied history and unique environment. It will become a less desirable choice for either a first or second home, and the long-term economy will suffer.
Some consequences of the trend are already being felt. To be sure, ours is undeniably a second-home economy, one that works well for service people and for our outsize real estate enterprise. But as multimillion-dollar behemoths rise within the village, there are fewer families, fewer children. Residential streets, once alive with neighborhood kids getting their outdoor time after school, are eerily hushed and empty now, particularly in the off-season.
The super rich who can afford the big, new houses tend to use them for only a brief period of residency and have a limited presence in our schools, restaurants and Main Street stores. Come fall, many of those stores are shuttered with “See You Next Summer” signs in their windows—if, indeed, they plan to return for another high-rent, short season. The village, which had a stable population of roughly 4,000 for nearly 17 years, according to data collected for the most recent Master Plan, is now unofficially estimated at less than 3,000—and we continue to lose people.
Some studies support the idea that living in a small village like Southampton tends to make people happy. This has certainly been the case for me. Descended from an original family who settled here in the 1640s, I have always been interested in local history.
Growing up, I spent my summers in my grandfather’s house on Toylesome Lane, which had originated as a farmhouse, became a boardinghouse at the dawn of the resort, and, later, a summer house for our family, with some 40-odd dilapidated but fascinating rooms to explore. In the winter, we were back at our home on Little Plains Road, where village life meant being part of a neighborhood gang (in the most innocent sense) and interacting with people I knew almost everywhere I went.
Money in itself is not evil. The problem resides in a mindset that regards the village as a commodity to be sold rather than a place to be preserved and enjoyed for its unique history, its human-scale beauty, and the daily pleasures of living in such an environment. We can’t go back to what was, but re-balancing the scale between commodity and community is possible. Preservationists in Nantucket, for example, have succeeded in inspiring residents to take pride in their island’s historic identity and to protect it.
Southampton is not Nantucket, and we will have to find our own path toward becoming a place where history and the buildings that speak to us of that history are appreciated and preserved. If we fail, those of us who remain will live in a ghost town 10 months of the year.
If we succeed, we will have the vibrant historic village we all want—one that is fun to live in, fun to visit and—in the long term—one that enjoys a robust local economy.
Ms. Cummings is an author, a former associate editor of The Southampton Press and currently the manager of the Research Center at the Southampton History Museum—Ed.
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