At one stage of my life, my interest in Montauk was limited to rips, rocky shores and surfcasting. My plans were based on NOAA forecasts and tides, maybe tweaked with up-to-the-minute fishing reports. Most trips were 24 to 72 hour fishing binges, with sleep limited to a couple hours here and there, always in the truck. Showers consisted of a gallon of cold water poured over my head, and food meant a cold slice of pizza, or a soggy hero. Contact with loved ones was limited to how much change I had for the payphone.
Marriage and family changed all of that. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I wanted to carry on fishing like this (and stay married), I was going to have to find a way to bring the family along. This meant making the whole experience much more inviting to the diverse interests of women and children.
Most of the surfcasters like me – who decided they had a long-term interest in a single place – found ways to make this work. Many invested in a condo or time-share, others found the funds for a slide-on or RV with every imaginable creature comfort! Still others bought property and/or moved to the east end of Long Island, full-time.
Today, for many readers, I am sure Montauk means much more than just fishing. I pick on “Montauk” but I am sure the same type of observations I am about to make can be noted for other Northeast surfcasting/tourist destinations. For those among us, what is happening in and around town is just as important as what is happening on the beaches.
Good or bad, Montauk remains a working fishing village with a significant portion of its survival reliant on the weather, and pegged to the whims of regional tourists.
I write this knowing I can easily draw a chorus of “things ain’t like they used to be.” I could be writing this in 1960 and yearn for the good old 40s. Someone a generation from now will no doubt yearn for how good it was in 2020. Many readers might have personal stories of a Montauk that used to be, but some sound like the cranky old fart who tells us how he used to walk to school barefoot in the snow, uphill, both ways. Likewise, I also risk painting a picture of how rich city money found its way to Montauk – and stole that salt-of-the-earth fabric that made Montauk such a wonderful place to begin with.
America prefers a story told this way, with an easy-to-follow plot, and where you can quickly tell the good guys from the bad. This is how Hollywood taught us, and even journalists jump for a story where everything is black and white. Seldom is it ever so.
The recent Montauk “changes” themselves are easy to identify, but in reality, the driving forcesappear to be coming from a number of different directions. I pen this as a “Part One,” knowing I might need more space to complete some thoughts. We’ll see. Remember, this is just one person’s view…and some mighty touchy subject matter here…so just don’t get your knickers in a twist.
The most easily documented change in Montauk comes from trends in real estate. We all have our stories of property that couldda wouldda shouldda been purchased for a song back in the 80s or even 90s, on Block Island, Nantucket, Cape Cod, take your pick. No different here. But what was particularly telling in Montauk was the more recent invasion of larger agencies buying out / pushing out the mom and pop one-location businesses that used to dominate this very local market. There was a time, not so long ago actually, when the bigger agencies seemed uninterested in the hamlet – when they seemed to prefer the choicer listings in East Hampton and Southampton. Today, all the big agencies are here, and a Montauk oceanfront parcel is likely to be mentioned in everything from the East Hampton Star to the Wall Street Journal.
Go ahead, curse the bankers if it makes you feel any better, lump in some celebrities if you must. But ongoing inspection of real estate transfers over the past ten years will find a fair number of enterprising Montauk locals doing their own fair share of house flipping, thank you very much.
True, more celebrity and corporate types have found their way to Montauk – a well-known name buying a property in Montauk is hardly news-worthy anymore – but the rocky shores have hosted the likes of Dick Cavett, Paul Simon, Andy Wharhol, Jacqueline Onassis, the Rolling Stones and countless others, looong before many readers here ever beached their first Montauk striper (myself included).
If you are hauling your wife and kids out to Montauk again this year (as will I be), you will encounter the most striking changes in the options for eats and drinks.
Trends? Less fried fisherman’s platter joints and bars with stale beer smells, and more Asian-fusion, gourmet wraps and other globally-inspired offerings. At the risk of over-simplifying the trends, “soul surfer chic” best sums up what has been happening in eating and drinking these days. Don’t worry, you’ll still have enough drink-til-you -puke bars, where it is still possible to get a front row seat for an authentic bar room brawl. (I won’t mention any here by name, but scan the police blotter section of the local newspaper if you must have details.)
Perhaps the Montauk trend in eats and drinks only mirrors what is happening in other parts of the country –establishments known best for fried food and mass-produced domestic beer are fast falling out of favor, are they not?
A growing number of tourists, it seems, do have an interest in surfing and fishing – if only the image. Put a little more bluntly, there is no shortage of recent establishments that have somehow worked “surfing” into the theme. Hey now, we fisherman can’t curse the surfers –nothing prevents any one of us from jumping into the market with a “Surfcasting Shack,”– and there is ample opportunity as almost every long-established place of business is either for sale right now, or has recently changed hands. And we can’t associate all these changes to “outside money” either, since enough of this is being driven by local entrepreneurs. The bottom line is that (a) it’s going to be harder and harder to find affordable places to eat and drink this year, but (b) it seems more and more tourists (and some locals) want it that way.
Don’t worry, as of now, Rick’s Crabby Cowboy and John’s Drive-In remain open for business.
Is Montauk really becoming a place where celebrities and hedge fund managers are having all the fun, and where the good old hard-working locals are being pushed out? This is where it gets most confusing.
The math clearly evades me – the cost of living must be driving the “community fabric” – fisherman, teachers, administrators, policemen and others – out of town. Quite frankly, I do not know how anyone in one of these occupations can make it work, not when a deli sandwich costs $10, a gallon of gas $5 and a “starter home” is listed at $750,000.
Here’s the real hard part – I seldom go for long without running into/ hearing of a successful local businessman or tradesman, who has found a way to devote a good portion of play time to Florida, Costa Rica, or some other exotic South Pacific surfing/fishing destination. I asked a waitress why a particularly popular restaurant was closing so early last fall. The place was mobbed, with an hour wait at peak. He could easily have filled the seats, at least on weekends, all winter long. “He just wants to spend more quality time with his family…skiiing, fishing…” I was told. OK. So, I’ll spare you the stories of months of sailing or extended surfing quests. But just how much of this ability to take extended time is afforded by the influx of that “evil” city money?
My current inability to negotiate my own “bi-coastal” living arrangement is reason enough why I am still very much on the outside, looking in.
More to write on this…maybe.
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