Meeting Montauk: The Summer Trade [MTK 1]

Aug 03 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science]

Let's leave the city today and head east--to the point where the sun rises. We're going to stand on what feels like the edge of the world, away from the skyscrapers and the horns of impatient cab drivers. We're going to Montauk, a small fishing hamlet and tourist destination set well away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday.

Summer visitors stroll by shops on a sunny day.

It's a  Saturday morning in July and the hamlet is just beginning to stir. The sun comes up early here--after all, we're at the eastern most point in New York State. Still, it's Saturday morning during the summer months and the folks who are up are mostly armed with fishing gear. Fishing has long been a part of life here at the very edge of East Hampton, but we'll follow the fishermen to the marina and out to sea another day. We'll leave them to chase the monsters who populate the waters nearby. Let's cast our eyes back on the slowly waking village. We're interested in those who are passing through--those who will come: the day-trippers, the weekenders, these sorts of  transients. At the moment, the staff at MTK Cafe and The Gigshack are prepping: There are no clouds in the sky, the day promises to be bright and welcoming, and soon Route 27 will be filled with cars bringing the summer trade.

I've had more than a few opportunities to spend time in Montauk this summer in the company of some of the best fishermen I know (and no, that's not an objective assessment, although the fish they catch may convince more than a few others). It is without doubt one of my favorite places in New York. I love the lights of the city, but I love the relative calm of the ocean and the feeling of being so far away from everything. It was a passing conversation in the bank that sparked my interest in life in a place like Montauk. Known in part for it's amazing shoreline, what is there to do out here in the winter? Is it like Spielberg's depiction of Amity? Does all rest on the arrival of the "summer folks"?

It may sound callous to speak of summertime visitors to Montauk in this way, but both parties in this play understand their roles.  Prior to the 1900s, the easternmost end of Long Island was a wilderness: the land was undeveloped, used as the summer pasture for livestock. With the art show setting up in the town plaza, it's a little hard to imagine grazing herds but traces of the region's cattle drives and ranching history echo in some of the architecture that remains. But today is not then--small utilitarian SUVs vie for parking along the lone stretch of road that runs through the center of the hamlet, and the line for coffee and bagels extends out the door at the Montauk Bake Shoppe. The summer trade pulses. Visitors stroll along the streets perusing the wares of beachy-shops selling surfer t-shirts, beach toys and towels, and faux shark-tooth necklaces. The hamlet seems to expand.

On one of the sweltering hot days we've had this year, I was playing the part of tourist, browsing knick-knack shops and  wandering between the booths set up for an art fair. I dipped into the bank on one of the hot, hazy days bypassing the line at the ATM. I was standing in line with a few summer folks who didn't seem to have ATM cards, and group of what appeared to be business owners and workers in the nearby shops who needs to make large deposits or get change. The conversation I was privy to was rather telling:

Shop owner 1: How are things over at the [name withheld]?

Shop owner 2: [Sighs.] Better. Better this year.

1:Oh, yeah. So much better this year. It's good. The weather has helped--

2. Yeah, sun. Lots of sun. Last year at this time it was still cold--

1. And rainy!

2. The people don't come when it's rainy.

1. It's been easier to pay the bills this year.

Both chuckled somewhat uneasily as if suddenly aware that a few of the "people who come" were among them, dressed in their swimwear and loose summer clothing. It's easy to tell them apart from the "regulars," the folks who keep the businesses open. But everyone else in line was busy minding their own affairs.

The vision for developing Montauk included a sense of this summer trade. When Brooklyn Gas Light founder Arthur Benson purchased the 32,000 acres of Montauk from the ranchers, "he dreamed of a sportsman's paradise, where a select few could hunt and fish in nearly pristine land," and international ships would be able to dock and bypass New York Harbor when possible. He began construction on cottages and persuaded the Long Island Rail Road to extend services to the outpost. As intended, he attracted fishermen and hunters. The central tenet of his plan--the docking of ships--was derailed when he found that his designated waterway was too shallow and rocky for ocean faring ships. And while the area remained popular with fishermen, the development of Montauk stalled. In the 20th century, city planner Robert Moses seized Benson land to form two state parks, and Carl Fisher, an American entrepreneur purchased the rest of the land with the intent of creating the Miami Beach of the north. He worked hard at this venture until the stock market crashed, and he was left with nothing. But the seed had been planted and the LIRR granted access to more than just sportsmen. And people came.

Art show in The Plaza.

So Montauk's residents know that from April to November, there are services to be filled. And the summer drifters understand that there are services in place to accommodate their visit. Winters in Montauk are a time for hunkering down, and the income from this period is important. And while this may seem apparent, one doesn't have a sense for how important until you're actually there, meeting the friendly faces of shopkeepers. The sleepiness that the town suggests disappears and the business acumen of proprietors moves to the forefront. Everything suggests a lazy, summer welcome but the displays seem strategically planned even in their presented disarray. A large container of beach toys over spills, the brightly colored pails catching your eye as you pass; the beach chairs strewn on the sidewalk suggest you may have forgotten something. It's practiced.

To answer my original question, it doesn't all rest on the summer visitors, but a great deal of the lifestyle here does. The other part is made up by the fishing industry. In the coming weeks, I have a few posts planned to delve deeper into life in this eastern coastal town. We'll trace the expansion of the hamlet in the summer, and the gradual exhalation as the place winds down in the fall.

Welcome to Montauk.

2 responses so far

  • Neil says:

    Krystal - nice vignette of Montauk. I'm not a resident, but have been visiting and staying there over the last dozen or so years. I'm out now, as a matter of fact.

    The difference between off season and high season is incredible, and of course the inevitable comment to the effect of "its not the same as when I first came here" stands true (when doesn't it?). I too enjoy how far away the town feels from New York, or Brooklyn for me. I'm still floored by the accents I hear in the bakery or at St. Peter's - nothing like the rest of L.I., the city or the boroughs. For some reason, I really enjoy it (speaking as a non-native New Yorker). It sounds like I've really travelled to New England.

    • kdcosta says:

      Thanks, Neil. I am a fairly regular visitor throughout the year thanks in particular to one avid fisherman. My intro to Montauk was initially fishing, and the history that I've uncovered out there is truly something. It seems to exist on its own terms--even with regard to the high season. I'd love to hear about some of the changes you must have noted firsthand given your time in The End.

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