With whaling captains' stately homes and a bustling wharf, the Long Island enclave of Sag Harbor feels more like a New England fishing village than part of the ritzy Hamptons. "When people think of this area, they think P. Diddy and parties―not the PTA," says resident Michael DeSanti. "But that's what we care about here."
On the American flag-lined Main Street, mothers sell cookies outside a fire station to raise money for the department. Children head inside the five-and-dime for candy or comic books. There's not a single chain store; mom-and-pops rule. Grocers even deliver to houses and docked boats. Many of the shops' facades, simple and classic, have changed little in the past three centuries.
Sag Harbor's rich maritime history resonates throughout the 2-square-mile town. Settled in 1707, it became one of the largest ports in the Northeast during the 1800s, rivaled only by New York City in importance. As whaling declined, the town turned to industry. Now the tourist trade brings in a large part of the area's income. "The background of the village becomes part of your own background," says David Brogna, who moved here 10 years ago. "But," he adds with a knowing smile, "You'll never really be considered a local unless you were born here."
Locals and newcomers work together to preserve treasured vestiges of the past. Many mementos survive in the Custom House, the Whaling & Historical Museum, and private homes. A few years ago, the removal of the town's Art Deco movie theater sign prompted immediate public outcry. Residents raised money for its restoration. Currently, the community is striving to find a new use for the old Bulova watch factory, formerly a major employer.
"The village tries to keep its integrity and history," says Bay Street Theatre's Tim Kofahl, "but at the same time, it's progressive." Known as a retreat for writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and John Steinbeck, Sag Harbor remains a beacon for novelists and playwrights today. "We like to be a safe haven for artists, a place where they feel like they can experiment," says Tim. Actors including Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin have performed on the intimate stage at Bay Street.
There's much here to inspire creative types. "Look at my view," says Tim, peering out his office window. "When the sun hits the water, all of these amazing pinks and blues just sparkle. This is why you live in Sag Harbor."
(published November 2006)