Cast your eyes along the Forbes list of America’s billionaires and you will quickly find many who have homes in East Hampton, names like Icahn, Pearlman and Spielberg, who burst upon the scene in the 80’s and made East Hampton a center for their recreation and networking. Media celebrities came too and soon the beautiful old town on the east end of New York’s Long Island, with its blend of old wealth and descendants of 17th Century fishermen and farmers, emerged on the cutting edge of what we now identify as America’s second gilded age.
The contrasts between wealth and poverty, once sedately managed, soon bulged like tree fungus. Ten million dollar homes became commonplace; $3 million homes classified as “moderately priced”. Rundown shacks “north of the highway”, (Easthamptonese for the other side of the tracks), routinely sold for upwards of $500,000 and reaped year-round rentals of $2,500 a month. Three acres of ocean-front property, whose only structure was a tear-down, sold for $100 million. By 2010 some 70% of the town’s houses had become second homes, occupied less than three months a year, while hundreds of old settler descendants and immigrant workers, beset by inflated living costs and long out-of-season depression of a resort economy, became homeless. By the turn of this century, East Hampton year-rounders and summer people had one of the highest average incomes of any town in the country and the second lowest median income of the 10 towns in its county.
Media coverage of these realities is overwhelmed by its focus on Hamptons glamour – the summer parties under the colorful tents, celebrity weddings on beaches, fundraisers, chaired by heroines of Women’s Wear Daily, which rarely raise funds for the Hamptons’ native and immigrant poor. The New York Times, our regional paper, rarely covers this aspect of life here. Network, PBS, cable and local TV coverage is similarly scant. Even the hometown weeklies would far rather profile a florist or chef than the 65 year old crippled polio victim who runs the best water skiing boat in the Hamptons, or the mother of a developmentally disabled son who spent decades persisting through endless bureaucratic notices of denial to find him work and housing, or the organizer from the Bronx who’s battled nimbyism for 20 years to finance and build affordable housing, or the retired school teacher who in his 80’s became a prolific, prize-winning documentary maker or any of the scores of people who picketed and leafleted to get the Town Board to withhold subsidies and payroll deposits from a cultural institution and a bank that were stonewalling compliance with The Americans with Disabilities Act. Such people are somehow not considered interesting by the mainstream media.
If this can happen in East Hampton, with its record of supporting liberal positions it can happen in your town too, if it hasn't already.
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