The realization that development has hit the last possible tract of land at the end of an island is like finishing an eight ball at 4am and coming to grips with the fact that there’s no more left, no hope of getting any more, nowhere to go, and the sun’s coming up. Montauk, or The End, might just be earning its nickname at last.
The locals and longtime summer regulars are bitter about interlopers turning Montauk into an eastern expansion of East Hampton. The arrivistes — Kelly Bensimon, Amanda Hearst, Andre Saffir, and legions of others who only a few years ago, never would have ventured West of the canal or East of Napeague Stretch — are there for the very thing the locals fear they’ll destroy. The newcomers want to outrun the development they wrought. The barbarians are at the gate, and they’re wearing Givenchy jeans and Ed Hardy T-shirts. They love the light, the air, the natural beauty, but they bring with them the market for trendy shops and, eventually, Starbucks, Blockbusters and CVS. When the chain stores arrive, stalwarts and recent arrivals alike will decry that the place isn’t what it used to be together, and wish they could move further east, to find some place more pure, more authentic, that doesn’t have a Coach store next to a Gucci store next to an Elie Tahari. The problem is, after Montauk, there’s nowhere further east to flee.
With this most recent wave of vacationers, “Montauk has allowed to occur what a lot of people hoped would never happen,” says David Lion Rattiner, editor of the Montauk Pioneer and the son of Dan’s Papers founder Dan Rattiner.
This isn’t the first time Montauk’s seen this sort of invasion. Corey Dolgon, a sociologist who wrote The End of the Hamptons, points out that the East End has a long and glorious history of one group pushing out another, even as the “native” population bemoans the incursion — from the Shinnecocks to the Bonackers to the old-money aristocracy.
In the early 1900s, Carl Fisher, a self-made millionaire, transformed Miami Beach from an unwanted and unused tract of mangroves and muck into a money-making machine, a playground for the rich, and the leading edge of the resort boom. Montauk, at that time, was still largely untouched. The few moneyed New Yorkers who ventured there came to hunt, fish, and get lost in the private wilderness, not luxuriate in spas and fancy hotels. In the early 1920s, now worth more than $50 million, Fisher turned to Montauk to repeat his Miami success.
In 1925, he purchased 10,0000 acres for $2.5 million and soon was repeating the refrain, “Miami in the winter, Montauk in the summer.” He built a casino and speakeasy and, in1929, the Montauk Yacht Club was founded.
And then the Great Depression hit. The burgeoning resort community deflated just as quickly as it had sprung up, with one major change: the area was no longer the undeveloped primitive wilderness it had been before. But on some level Montauk isn’t exactly and never was the anti-Hampton it is cracked up to be.
After all, Bernie Madoff had his summer home here, perched atop bluffs at the terminus of Old Montauk Highway. “These idiot townies don’t get it,” says Artie Schneider, the owner of the Memory Motel, who has proposed a grand plan to stage a summer concert series featuring the likes of Kid Rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelsen, Don Henley, and Billie Joel at Rita’s Stables off West Lake Drive. “Ditch Plains is lined with $2 million houses. This isn’t a working-class or even middle-class community.”
“Why would Montauk have been able to maintain this image of a quaint fishing village way past when it really was?” asks Dolgon.
A blonde girl serving coffee and muffins one morning out of the Ditch Witch, a food truck in the parking lot at the entrance to Ditch Plains, tells of a man in his late fifties who drives up nearly every morning in his Benz and unstraps his surfboard from the roof. You can bet by Monday morning he’s in some Midtown boardroom with a view of Central Park, but on Saturday morning he’s probably wearing flip-flops.
It’s a different sort of shitshow from the rest of the Hamptons, but a shitshow nonetheless. Case in point: designated party-chronicler and Guest of a Guest editrix Rachelle Hruska has noticed a big difference between her first summer in Montauk and this one. “There were a lot more parties and people out this year,” she says. “Last year felt a little more intimate.”
The eye of the storm is the triangle formed between Solé East and the Surf Lodge on Fort Pond, Montauk Yacht Club to the east, and the center of town to the north. Cabs race back and forth along the water all night, dumping shrieking carloads at the nexus of Main Street and the northern tip of Fort Pond, where they stumble into the Memory Motel or The Point flushing some cash into the local economy. It is, after all, on the way back to East Hampton. “We see them come in around 1,” says Schneider. “You can tell because of the way they are dressed.”
Those new places — Solé is in its third season, Surf Lodge its second, and Montauk Yacht Club in its first — are run by corporate concerns, which sets them apart from what preceded them, but they still aren’t quite like Hamptons hot spots. You won’t find the prickly bouncers, long waits to get in, steep cover charges, and $600 bottle service that are the hallmarks of nightspots from Tavern to Lily Pond. Rattiner likens a trip to a Hamptons clubs to a regrettable hook-up, “When you go to the Pink Elephant, even if you have a good time, you feel bad about the next day. The Surf Lodge doesn’t make you feel that way.”
Jamie Mulholland, one of the three owners of the Surf Lodge, says they have tried to create a friendly vibe. “There really is no bullshit here,” he says. And they certainly bring out one of the most diverse crowds you are going to find in the Hamptons. Despite some citations this year from the town for overcrowding and long lines of parked cars, Mullholland says they feel like a part of Montauk. Anyone can come to the free, live performances they host, and Mullholland says they’ve made an effort to keep the prices in line with the local establishments. “We’re planning on being here a long time,’ he says.
But only if their septic system holds up. Bob Stern, president of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, an environmental group dating back to the early 1970s, points out that the waste disposal at the Lakeside, now the Surf Lodge, has a history of problems. “It didn’t pass in 2003, when the place was authorized for 65 people,” he says. Of course, many times that number traipse through the Surf Lodge every weekend.
Mulholland says the health department has been out to the Surf Lodge on two separate occasions and found nothing wrong. But is that the town just playing nice with developers? Mullholland scoffs at this possibility, arguing that cleanliness is in everyone’s interest. “People don’t come to Montauk to see trash and swim in feces,” Stern says. “They can get that in Coney Island.”
And the people, they are coming, economy be damned. The Memory Motel’s Schneider had been bracing for bad summer, “But it has been better than I expected,” he says. The blonde at the Ditch Witch says she’s been as busy as ever.” Solé’s Ceva says that they were up in June and July, which had the worst weather, and down in August. He thought the economy might be helping, as many of his typical guests see a trip out east as a less costly vacation option. Mullholland reports that the Surf Lodge has been up “15 percent across the board.”
And then there are all the new spots: Calypso set up shop on the edge of the Plaza, and Screaming Mimi’s is right across the street from the old Puff and Putt. You can lay money that Ralph Lauren (a local!), Blue&Cream, and Alice & Olivia can’t be far behind.
And yet, everyone from Mulholland to Ceva to Stern and even Andrew Farkas still contends that Montauk is a special place. Corey Dolgon says that no matter what, “It will always be somehow distinct.” Ratnier says the difference “comes down to the stability of the families. Montauk is a place you choose to settle. The sons and daughters of Montauk want to stay.”
If the worst happens, and the latest influx destroys the desolate charm of The End, where to next? (Asked if he thinks there’s any chance that the current local families will hold out where the Bonackers and bay men and farmers of the Hamptons couldn’t, Dolgon replies flatly, “No.”) Rattiner suggests that Shelter Island has an untouched quality, but of course not the ocean beaches or the surfing. Rachelle Hruska wishes for Quogue, possibly because it’s a shorter trip from Manhattan. And Dolgon suggests the theory of “creative destruction,” a rediscovery and reclamation of an old place. New Yorkers could go back to Miami Beach, or, he says with a laugh, “maybe Coney Island.”