A Place of Our Own

They lie just south of Sag Harbor Village, on the bay side of Route 114, leafy neighborhoods marked by small street signs: Eastville, Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, Chatfield's Hill, and Ninevah. For decades, Sag Harbor's historic African-American districts have constituted a quiet world apart.

Now that world is at risk.

Most of the houses down those shady streets are the originals — modest in size and appearance, some in need of sprucing up. Taken together, the neighborhoods look less like summer colonies than bucolic family camps, which is what they've been: getaways where generations could mingle, safe from bias on one of the few black-owned resort beachfronts in America.

In recent years, some homes have been sold to white owners, as many as 30 percent, to go by neighbors' guesstimates. Still, for the most part, a sense of black community has remained, the white owners welcomed with street-side chats and invitations to barbecues and fish fries. Which is why the news of last winter hit so hard, and reverberates still.

At a routine meeting of Sag Harbor's Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board, Peter Cook, a well-known East End architect, unveiled preliminary plans for a roughly 6,500-square-foot house in Sag Harbor Hills, steps from the beach on three newly purchased contiguous lots. The owner chose to remain private, Cook said. Plans were to be filed by the L.L.C. that had bought the lots, “Mile High Partners.” Was the timing by chance, with most houses empty, the residents away in New York, or Florida, or the Bahamas?

A little sleuthing by The Sag Harbor Express revealed the owner to be one Robert Kapito, 58, co-founder and president of BlackRock, the world's largest investment firm, with $4.6 trillion in assets under management. Kapito's annual pay is about $20 million; records show that he has earned about $250 million from BlackRock in all.

Kapito's skin color — he is white— is not the cause of alarm among his prospective neighbors. Nor, they say, is his religion. (He is Jewish).

“This has nothing to do with religion or race,” declares Bill Pickens III, 79, a retired corporate executive and the unofficial historian of the enclaves. “It has to do with place.”

Bill Pickens, summer 2016

By that, Pickens means not just the impact Kapito's house will have, if approved. He means also the other houses bought up discreetly in recent months by L.L.C.s connected to Kapito's local business partner, lawyer Bruce Bronster. Neighbors have thrown around all sorts of numbers for how many. A spokesman for Kapito puts it at “under 10,” but that's just the investment properties. When added to the properties purchased by Kapito and Bronster for their own use, the total is 12.

These quiet purchases raise a troubling question. Why is one of America's richest money managers buying all these old houses in these historic black communities?

 At a minimum, Kapito's arrival seems sure to bring, as Pickens puts it, a new dynamic to the summer place he's loved since childhood, when he came “in lieu of camp.”

Pickens's Aunt Nan came as early as 1908, though only one of the districts, Eastville, existed at that time, a legacy of Sag Harbor's whaling days. Free blacks in the early and mid-19th century came to the village to do the hardest jobs on long-haul whaling trips, working alongside laboring-class whites as well as Montauketts and Shinnecocks. (Not by chance is Melville's Queequeg an Indian.) Eastville was originally the shantytown where black whalers lived between trips, along with their Native American shipmates, with whom they were buried together, and with whom they lie still, in the Eastville cemetery.

Aunt Nan, an English teacher at Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, was one of the newly prosperous blacks renting the houses of those whalers' descendants. The new arrivals were doctors, lawyers, undertakers or, in the case of Pickens's grandfather, a Yale-educated, nationally known orator and classics professor. But Eastville had no beachfront of its own, and African Americans weren't always welcome at Havens, the village beach that lay between Eastville and Gardiner's Bay.

Pickens’s father-in-law James H. Brannen, circa 1968, who served as a 
Sag Harbor Village trustee, in front of his boat on the beach at Ninevah

That was the story with almost every stretch of beach in the United States, with two exceptions. Maryland's Highland Beach had been bought up by a black developer and subdivided; so had South Carolina's Atlantic Beach, proudly called the Black Pearl. (Oak Bluffs, on Martha's Vineyard, is regarded as a third, but in fact was settled by white Methodists; it has drawn a consistent but small number of black visitors for decades.) In 1947, two sisters, Maude Terry and Amaza Lee Meredith, decided to grace Sag Harbor with a sanctuary of its own.

The sisters bought land just past Eastville, land that included its own stretch of beach. They cut the property into 120 lots. Beachfront lots went for $1,000, inland lots for $700 and up. So quickly did those lots sell that two more beachfront developments, Sag Harbor Hills and Ninevah, followed, totaling 480 lots in all. The founders' names live on, with Terry Drive and Meredith Street. There's a Pickens Place, too.

That was the start of a golden era. “This was what I'd been dreaming of, as a boy in Bedford-Stuyvesant,” recalls marketing entrepreneur Dan Gasby, the husband of B. Smith, the actress, model, and former restaurateur, “only I couldn't have dreamed it. A place where you could socialize with other black families and let your kids roam free? It was heaven on earth.”

The houses were humble, but that was the point: community, not competition. On any summer weekend, Count Basie might be seen strolling the lanes with Duke Ellington or Harry Belafonte, along with the actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. The Pickens's first guest, at their new house in 1972, was the torch singer Lena Horne. Pickens's son John has blurry footage on his laptop of Langston Hughes, the great poet, lighting his cigarette by a campfire in the dark, about to read a poem to Bill Pickens's mother.

Modest as the houses were, dozens of prominent professionals summered on that crescent of white sand. The late Ron Brown, secretary of commerce under President Clinton, spent childhood summers here, as did his future wife, Alma; they lived for decades in a beachfront house. Edward R. Dudley Jr. was a New York Supreme Court judge. Roscoe C. Brown, legendary pilot in the Tuskegee Airmen, who shot up and derailed a supply train en route to German troops, was a longtime summer-house owner who died at 94 on July 2.

The '70s and '80s brought more distinguished figures. Ken Chenault, CEO and chairman of American Express, was here for years with his family until security concerns induced him to move. Luther Clark, a Harvard-educated lawyer, works for a big pharmaceutical company; Dr. Al Cuyjet is a cardiologist, his wife a dentist; Ralph Dawson is a Yale-educated lawyer whose roommate was Howard Dean. The young novelist Colson Whitehead, author of the 2009 novel, Sag Harbor, among other books, lives here.

For a generation or two, the houses stayed in “carry-on” families, which was to say black. One by one, though, grown children moved away, no longer feeling the need to “self-segregate.” A few houses, with absentee owners, grew shabby. Others sagged as childless widows died. Some streets seemed almost frozen in another time.

A mile away, the rest of Sag Harbor went through a long fallow period, too, with many of the beautiful little clapboard or shingle houses clad in vinyl siding and weeds where roses once had bloomed. But then” a good few decades after the rest of the South Fork had become “the Hamptons” came Sag Harbor's boom time. Mercifully north of the gridlocked highway, the storybook village with water on nearly all sides was suddenly the jewel in the crown. Real estate prices skyrocketed, with water views rising far, far faster. 

Inevitably, a few of the water-seekers began nosing around those sleepy old black communities, where one of the area's finest white-sand beaches lay waiting. A few of the curious, no doubt, caught their first glimpses of that beach from the decks of their super yachts, moored offshore for the hot new Sag Harbor season. Like New World explorers, they scanned the beach with an acquisitive eye.

Residents of the black communities felt the encroachment gradually at first, then more so. Houses their parents had built for a song now sold for $1 million” or more. The new record for a property is $4 million. Those were the three contiguous lots bought by Robert Kapito for his new home.

Kapito is nothing if not a shrewd investor. He hasn't purchased a beach-front property. None of those were for sale. But while his own is set back from the water, no house lies between it and the beach, so he'll have water views. Three lots give him more square footage to build on. Then there's his fourth lot, catty-corner to one of the others, with a connecting path.

Peter Cook, Kapito's architect, makes the case that all four lots add up to one package, even if the fourth shares only a kissing corner with one of the others. If so, it's a package big enough, under Sag Harbor's new code, to allow a house larger than the village's limit of 4,000 square feet” a house of up to 6,565 square feet.

As Tom Preiato, Sag Harbor's building inspector, explains, the village could declare that Kapito's dangling fourth lot can't be merged with the others. That would block the 6,565-square-foot house. But as Peter Cook argues, Kapito could instead build two somewhat smaller houses, one on that clump of three lots, one on the dangling fourth. At 4,780 square feet and 3,812 square feet respectively, each would still be bigger than any other house in the neighborhood. Together, in close proximity, they would add 8,592 square feet of residence to the immediate neighborhood.

Cook's plans for the 6,565-square-foot house call for seven bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, a detached gym and garage, a swimming pool and pool house, and a wraparound porch and second-floor balcony, the better to enjoy the view.

 “From the renderings, it's a beautiful house,” says Beverly Granger, a dentist who's lived in Sag Harbor Hills for 65 years. “It's just out of place in this community. This has always been a community of neighbors and friendships and smaller homes, and people in and out of each other people's homes. My fear is that we're losing the character of what made these communities magical and special.”

Kapito's house size isn't his neighbors' only concern about his property. So is beach-front access. Back when Sag Harbor Hills was drawn up, a parking lot and public path were put in to accommodate all the owners whose houses weren't on the beach. Those lucky enough to have beachfront lots owned their strips of sand right up to the mean high water mark. The rest of the families owned access to the communal beach in front of the parking lot” about 140 feet across. Only things didn't work out as planned. One winter years ago — Pickens thinks the middle 1960s —  the owner of the house next to the parking lot claimed that chunk of land for himself. When the residents came back for the summer, they found a lawn where the parking lot had been, and a fence around it. The owner, Dr. Jonathan “Buddy” Gibbs, had kindly let eight spaces of parking lot remain to one side, for 80 families, with a new little path punched through the woods for them to get to the beach. The original path he kept for himself, set off by a gate. 

No one challenged him, for Dr. Gibbs was a venerated figure who treated most of the neighborhood residents.

All this happened on Lot 38, the largest of the Sag Harbor Hills lots Kapito would buy years later. With Kapito's house plans unfurled, neighbors remembered old grievances and nursed dire scenarios. Would Kapito keep and use Dr. Gibbs's gate and private path to the beach, through the communally owned underbrush? Worse” much worse” might he claim the communal beach as his own?

Kapito has issued a statement to EAST that should ease those concerns.

 “Sag Harbor Hills is a historic community that I have great respect for,” Kapito relayed through a spokesman. “I bought a property here because I want to build a vacation home for my family. I intend to comply with all building and planning codes and have no intention of asserting any claim to the beach in front of our property, which I do not own.”

Nor, Kapito says, will he use Dr. Gibbs's gate and path. He will, instead, use the nearby parking lot path to the communal beach that everyone else uses. He says he is “committed to ensuring residents can continue to access the beach the same way they always have. I look forward to enjoying the beach with them.”

Kapito's neighbors still hope he'll scale down his house plans: Four thousand square feet would be nice.

“My house is 3,000 feet, it's one of the largest houses here,” Pickens said. “Six thousand feet is a lot larger! It will cast a shadow, and when will you see the sun again?”

Anthony Brandt, chairman of the Sag Harbor Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board, has only seen those preliminary plans for Kapito's family residence, so he's reserving judgment. But he does wonder why Kapito is building a house this big in Sag Harbor Hills. “He could have had land anywhere, he's rich enough to buy in Sagaponack. It doesn't make any sense.”

As great a worry at this point are the other properties purchased by Kapito, as a passive investor, with real-estate lawyer Bruce Bronster, all through L.L.C.s. On those, Kapito is somewhat less reassuring.

 “Regarding other properties in the area,” Kapito declared, “I am a passive investor with a local developer but am otherwise not involved with those properties.”

Some of the houses on those lots are in disrepair, even ruinously so. Tom Preiato, the building inspector, ticks off a few. “74 Hillside Drive East” that's a Bronster project. It was an abandoned foundation that sat around forever, 11 Cadmus” that was a blight house in disrepair.” Another, at 10 Lincoln, wasn't in much better shape. “I heard they paid the African-American owner $1 million and he was thrilled to take it.” 

Still, if Kapito is merely intending to live with his family at numbers 116, 110 and 106 Hillside Drive East (along with the catty-corner lot at 55 Lincoln), why all the teardowns and fix-ups?

Jeff Bragman, a lawyer representing two of the concerned neighbors, Eglon and Renée Simons, is convinced that Kapito wants to flip the whole neighborhood, house by house.

 “It's similar to applications we've seen from Joe Farrell,“ says Bragman, referring to the most prominent mansion developer in the Hamptons. “There is a damaging effect from demolishing existing homes and in-filling lots with oversized houses. It encourages neighbors to sell out, and changes an intimate community into a haven for the super rich.”

Bronster says there's no master plan. “I have been a summer resident of Sag Harbor since 1991 and maintain a residence in the village,” he relays by email. “I will be moving to Ninevah because I love the area, the beach, the rich history of the communities and the people, who have overwhelmingly warmly welcomed me, my wife, and my two young daughters.”

Still, why all the other houses? By his own admission, Bronster has acquired nine investment properties in addition to the one he'll live on with his family. “Of the nine, I plan on renting seven,” Bronster said in an email. “Two will be put up for sale. I have no specific plans to acquire any additional properties unless they make sense economically.”

Is it too much to suggest that a neighborhood hangs in the balance of that word “unless?”

Out on Route 114, across from Eastville, Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, and Ninevah, lies the fifth of the historically black districts, Chatfield's Hill, where lots were sold to black families by a white developer in the 1920s. Without beachfront access, it's always been the poor relation of the family, though as Bill Pickens points out, it's where ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell hung out as a kid. Recently, a development company called Villadom Custom Homes bought up a wide swath of dense woods on Chatfield's Hill, razed an old farmhouse on it, and erected six nearly identical, much larger new homes, at $1,645 million each, with gunite pools and Belgian-block driveways. So far, the houses look jarring and raw, bereft of almost any landscaping, denuding the community spirit that Chatfield's Hill once had.

Is this the fate awaiting the waterfront black communities? Andrew Bedini, a white Sag Harbor resident who married into a black family in Ninevah and owns Java Nation in Bridgehampton with his wife, Cheryl, feels they've reached the tipping point already. The old folks kept their trees for shade and cool. New neighbors, he says, have clear-cut their properties and put in HVAC systems that whirr all day and night. The old folks had no pools: What was the point, with the bay at their feet?

Now, Bedini counts seven, not including Kapito's planned pool and those for the other houses he and his lawyer have bought. From their poolside speakers, the new neighbors blast rock; the old folks played jazz, Bedini recalls, soft and scratchy, its gentle riffs drifting into the summer night.

Bill Pickens is more upbeat than that. It's not paradise lost, he says, just a paradise that needs preserving. “This is where freedom was found — freedom for us,” he says. “And we cherish this place; it's unique in the annals of American history.

 “We want newcomers to share the elan, not just come in and build a house and flip it, and not care who buys the property,” Pickens adds. “The question for our new neighbors is: will you live here and participate? Will you let us in, and come meet us? Borrow some sugar?”

And then, with a grin and his penchant for rhymes, he puts it even more succinctly. “Don't annoy us,” he says. “Enjoy us!”

Shelter Island Sound, 1917 Aunt Nan on left

Michael Shnayerson

MICHAEL SHNAYERSON is a long-time contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and the author or co-author of seven books on subjects that range from mountaintop coal mining (Coal River) to an unauthorized biography, in 2015, of New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo (The Contender). He has lived in the Sag Harbor area for over 25 years.