The Small Town at the End of a Long Island East of the Big City
“Vivo en Long Island, una isla este de la ciudad,” I tell my Argentine host family. “I live on Long Island, an island east of the city.”
I continue, “La verdad que es una isla muy larga. Es la isla con la mayor población de Los Estados Unidos,” I say with pride. I tell them I live ALL the way out in a town called Sag Harbor.
In instances like that, it’s easier to just say, “I live in New York.” Like the kids at college orientation who live in the suburbs 40 minutes from Philadelphia and say, “I’m from Philly.” But since I live on the East End, I’d certainly be giving them the wrong idea about where I live if I told them I lived in New York City.
More than that, I’m tired of having to speak about Long Island in relation to the city. In fact, two of the boroughs – and the majority of the landmass – of New York City are on Long Island.
I’m equally tired of having to talk about the East End as a vacation destination. Of hearing the Hamptons called “The Playground for the Rich.” As if East Enders are at best witnesses to the fun that the rich enjoy when they rush the playground.
I tell a friend I live in the Hamptons and they reply, “People live there?”
I’m tired of those questions, those responses. That Long Island exists as the long island east of New York City, that the Hamptons exist for the whims of the rich.
It was interesting to think about in Buenos Aires, to describe where I live to people who have heard so much and imagined so much about New York, but knew nothing of the island to its left.
That I live in a small town on the most populous island in the United States in the most desired vacation spot in the country. In a town that isn’t like the other nearby vacation towns but is becoming more and more like them each summer.
How should I describe Sag Harbor, a town that has changed a lot since I moved here fifteen years ago? I’m told it changed quite a bit before then too.
I moved to Sag Harbor when I was five years old. My relationship to and perception of the town has changed since I’ve gone and come back between six university semesters. And it has been called into question since I’ve returned from a semester abroad for what may be my last summer here during my “youth”.
Sag Harbor is a small town. There are about 65 students per grade in the schools and the population is not quite 3,000. Physically speaking, it isn’t that small if North Haven and Noyac are included. And if the populations of Noyac, North Haven, and Sag Harbor during the summer months are summed, the population isn’t small either. Still, there’s no denying it’s a small town.
Sag Harbor is in between East Hampton and Southampton, north of Bridgehampton. Technically North of Saggaponack, the wealthiest zip code in the United States. Wealth that has increasingly crept north.
North of Sag Harbor is North Haven. My first job when I was 14 was as a tour guide on the American Beauty doing harbor cruises. When we rode along North Haven I’d point and tell people, “that’s “Richard Gere’s house,” and “Mariah Carey lived there.” Needless to say, there’s plenty of wealth there as well.
More endearingly I can say that John Steinbeck, one of America’s most celebrated authors, wrote in a little house in Sag Harbor. And that Colson Whitehead, who last year won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, spent his summers growing up in Sag Harbor.
Explaining Sag Harbor’s history is really cool, for me at least. It was the first port that ships entered before going to New York in colonial times. During the War of 1812, cannons were fired and the remnants can be seen on the brick building that is now Cavaniola’s Wine Cellar.
Sag Harbor is famous for being a whaling town and is mentioned eight times in Moby Dick. If I didn’t grow up in Sag Harbor, I certainly wouldn’t know what scrimshaw was. The first American ship – a whaling ship of course – ever to Tokyo left from Sag Harbor.
Sag Harbor’s history is truly “rich,” something that locals are not allowed to forget.
Another friend tells me, “The Hamptons aren’t country dude, their definitely suburbs.” I explain that I pass by five farms and a vineyard on my bike ride to the beach. Sag Harbor may not be fully rural, but it certainly isn’t suburban like the rest of Long Island, home to the first ever suburb.
So how can I describe Sag Harbor to people who have never seen it? Certainly it wasn’t easy in Buenos Aires, trying to explain in Spanish to people who had never heard of Long Island. Nor is it easy explaining to my friends at college in the city who speak English and have heard of Long Island. I can describe the town geographically, but the social dynamic is not as easy to explain.
Most of the social dynamic is based on the question of whether or not you’re a local. It’s something that has always been in the back of my mind having been raised in Sag Harbor, but not born and raised in Sag Harbor.
If you graduated from Pierson High School or are currently enrolled in the Sag Harbor School District, you’re a true local. If you have lived here for over a decade, most will consider you local. If you live in Sag Harbor but don’t meet these criteria, you’re kind of in an undefined purgatory between local status and tourist status. If you’re a tourist who is visiting, well you’re a tourist. If you’re a tourist who gets lost easily or condescends (or both), you’re a “citiot,” the worst type of tourist.
I’ve been at college in the city for three years and I’ll likely continue living there after I graduate. Still, I don’t love to see city folk in Sag Harbor.
Maybe it was one encounter in a sporting goods store that turned me off to city people, at least when thinking about them in relation to Sag Harbor. I was in Paragon Sports and a woman told the sales associate she was doing a triathlon in Sag Harbor. I was surprised she knew Sag Harbor and didn’t just say “The Hamptons”.
I gestured to the woman and said, “You said you were doing a triathlon in Sag Harbor?” She looked at me confused. “I live in Sag Harbor.” She didn’t respond.
I’m used to people not knowing Sag Harbor, as it being the Hamptons’ hidden gem. For this woman, Sag Harbor was a place that everybody knew, and who cared that I was from there?
My love for the city notwithstanding, it is how tourists, primarily those from the city, approach Sag Harbor as up-for-grabs. We know it’s ours, but we’ll always get defensive if we sense somebody else thinks it’s theirs.
I’ve grown fonder of tourists, certainly as I’ve realized I wouldn’t make money like I do in the summer without them, and I’ve grown less quick to use the term “citiot”. But I will always lay the horn on extra if I think it’s a city person who did an illegal U-turn or cut me off. I don’t think that will change.
Sag Harbor’s charm emanates from, or reaches a crescendo, at its namesake, its harbor. The beauty of the harbor itself is not describable. The only way to see all of it at once is by flying over it. To the far left of the harbor are the Upper and Lower Coves. To the immediate left is North Haven, connected by bridge. To the right are Haven’s Beach and Barcelona Neck. Sunset and sunrise are equally beautiful in the harbor. The town ends at the long wharf that sticks out into the water, where an ironic “DEAD END” sign is set against a picturesque expanse.
One thing I can say for sure, and that I’ve never doubted as I’ve left and returned, is that the town will captivate you. No matter how crowded or exclusive it may become, its charm will never die. It’s clear why people don’t want to leave and keep coming back.
Sag Harbor is a small town at the end of a long island east of the big city. It is a place not quite suburb but not quite country, part of the Hamptons but certainly with its own charm and certainly without “Hampton” in its name, was the first port of entry before New York in colonial times, and where, like any other place, your perception of it may change as you leave and come back. Odds are you’ll come back.