Happy Campers

THE MONTAUK SHORES TRAILER PARK IS A HOLDOUT FROM A SIMPLER ERA, BUT OUTSIDE FORCES OF CHANGE — MILLIONAIRES-ONLY REAL ESTATE PRICES, FEMA’S NEW BUILDING RULES — ARE KNOCKING AT THE GATES.

 

At the end of a sleepy dead-end street just beyond the turnoff to Ditch Plain Beach sits Montauk Shores Condominiums, a private beachfront mobile home community that comprises around 200 units, a front office, and clubhouse. Though it had been operating as a campsite as early as the 1940s, the 20-acre property got its official designation in 1976, making it the first mobile home condominium in the State of New York. 

A far cry from the palatial digs of Southampton and Amagansett shorelines, the units here vary in size from your standard single-wide trailer to double-wides and a few larger structures that look more like funky pre-fab houses. Arranged in a tight grid around a wide main street, the homes press right up against one another, forming a kind of micro-suburbia. In an area where towering hedges and baronial driveway gates are increasingly the norm, this kind of communal living might not be to everyone’s taste. However, watching Montauk Shores residents wave to one another from their kitchen windows and stroll barefoot between the units, you get the sense that the close quarters aren’t bothering anyone, and in fact may be part of the appeal. “This is a family place and, for the most part, middle class,” says Jim Graham, the affable president of Montauk Shores. “We’ve got cops, firefighters, mailmen, teachers. These aren’t fancy jobs, but they’re good people.” Jim himself was a police officer in Nassau County for 37 years. 

Montauk Shores is a rare thing to find on a stretch of valuable oceanfront real estate: a community. Photograph by Nina Channing.

 

The park is extremely tidy and well maintained, though not in the familiar perfectly manicured style of Hamptons cul-de-sacs. There are no landscapers here, and, for the most part, residents are responsible for mowing their own lawns and keeping their yards clear. Walking around the park, it is typical to see someone building a shed or fixing a deck, the kind of home improvement tasks that wealthy East Enders commonly outsource. The people who live here clearly take pride in the place. 

But as home values have gone up, some residents have decided to sell, and the demographics of the park have shifted somewhat. Walking down the main drag toward the ocean, Jim points toward one of the trailers two rows in from the water, an unassuming gray-yellow single-wide: “That one’s on the market right now. They’re asking $1.5 million.” He chuckles. “They’ll probably get it, too.”

You might very well be wondering how a retired cop or a schoolteacher could possibly afford a $1.5 million dollar trailer, and the short answer is: They can’t. Most of them bought the units decades ago when prices were more modest and have watched their beloved beach homes blossom into serious financial assets. While some have chosen to take the payout, others are still too attached to the community to let go. “I know families here who will never sell,” Jim said confidently, “doesn’t matter if the price hits $2 million or $3 million. They raised their kids here, and they’re not gonna leave.”

Although a few newer high-design, rebuilt trailers have been featured in  chic "shelter" magazines, the setting overall feels like a flashback to less status-obsessed times. Photograph by Nina Channing.

 

The new neighbors buying up these units typically won’t spend more than a couple of weeks in them each year. Many will use the trailers as surf outposts, weekend getaways, or even what you might call a “beach house for their beach house” — an oceanfront abode to complement a larger property in Southampton or East Hampton. Gut renovations are popular with newcomers, who generally re-outfit them with more modern designs and amenities. 

While most of us are, by now, nearly immune to the sticker-shock of real estate on the South Fork, the prices in the park are still somewhat mind-boggling. Even considering the spectacular location, you can’t forget that these are trailers, often with only one wood-panelled bedroom and a kitchenette on a postage-stamp slice of land. That leaves us wondering: Who is buying these units? When asked, Jim shrugs his shoulders, sticks out his pointer finger, and says, “You know, I don’t know what all of them do, but that unit on the end there was just picked up by the guy who owns Vitamin Water.” 

About the future of Montauk Shores, however, Jim seems unworried. “The park is very well managed. We haven’t raised our maintenance fees in the 16 years that I’ve been here, and we don’t plan to.” This means that longtime residents will have an easier time hanging on to their properties, which is ultimately good for the community. 

The park has updated its facilities over the decades. The managers paved the roads, installed a sewage-treatment facility, a pool, and a fancy jungle gym. “Change is hard,” Jim says. “People don’t like change.” 

“You wouldn’t believe what a battle it was just to get some basic improvements made here,” he says. “When the idea of having a digital sign put in at the entrance first came up, some residents were up in arms over it.”

Compared to the world outside, the park has seen relatively little change over the years. In fact, it is that stuck-in-time quality that is most striking to an outsider. It is a place where kids run around in bathing suits unsupervised, neighbors know each other’s names (and their grandkids’ names), and there are community pancake breakfasts on Sundays. All in all, the park seems a little otherworldly, more like a scene from a well-aged Beach Boys film than a real place where real people really live. This is the way, Graham says, they hope to keep it. “It’s a little slice of heaven.” 

Jim Graham, President of Montauk Shores, in the clubhouse. Photograph by Nina Channing.

 

But not all of the residents see the state of the trailer park in such rosy colors. Some who have been coming to Montauk Shores since they were kids — much longer than Jim — have witnessed it, and Montauk, change dramatically. Vince Pacchiana, known around the park as Vinnie, first came out east in 1965 when he was 13 years old, back when the site was just an open campground. Later, he was one of the first owners to buy property when the park “went condo.” Vinnie’s love of Montauk and surfing all goes back to those first summers when, he says, he “pitched a tent, felt that sand between my toes, and never left.”

Now, sitting outside his refurbished baby-blue single-wide on the park’s eastern end, listening to an old Louis Armstrong record whine out the screen door, he remembers life as a surfer kid in the 1970s. “We made our own surfboards back then. We’d hitchhike down to Hither Hills with the boards under our arms, surf all day, and come back at night.” He laughs. “That’s when Woodstock would start settling in.”

But the newcomers, whom Vinnie playfully dubs “Westies” because they live primarily in units on the western side of the park, don’t know much about that part of the park’s history. When asked about how the Westies are changing the community, he sighs sofly and adjusts his glasses. “Well, let me put it this way: We never used to have Mercedes-Benzes in here. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge them, but it used to be a different place. Used to be that everyone had their father’s old Buick with five kids in the back seat and slept in a tent.”

“I mean, Jimmy Buffett rents the corner place. He comes here just to surf, have a shower, and then goes back to his big house in Sag Harbor. Very nice man, but this is what it’s turning into. It’s just cabanas to them.”

“Now, I understand that it’s the 21st century. Things are upgraded. But the old charm is going with it. I mean, it’s difficult to get these new people to wave to you. I’ll drive by someone, and just stop my car and keep waving until they wave back to me.”

Despite his nostalgia, Vinny makes it clear that he’s not resentful of the newcomers. He still thinks Montauk Shores is a great place to live. What’s more, most residents obviously share his preference for a simpler way of life. Some of the kids he surfed with as a teenager have families at Montauk Shores now, children and grandchildren.

But the future isn’t entirely clear at Montauk Shores. More change is rising up over the horizon. For one thing, there are the new regulations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which require oceanfront dwellings to be jacked up a minimum of six feet above ground, to prevent storm surge inundating houses near coastlines. That rule could change the profile of the community considerably.

Buddy Wandzilak is another of the community’s longest-tenured residents. He remembers camping there as early as 1947 and while a lot has changed in 70 years, the place still feels like home. Buddy’s son James also lives in the park and is one of the people impacted by new FEMA rules. 

“I love this place,” James Wandzilak said last month. “Now I’m looking at $20 to $30 thousand,” he told the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals, estimating the cost of raising the structure. “I understand what you are saying, but it is killing me.”

In response to all of this, Vinnie, informed by his long-view perspective. offers a few words on embracing change: “My generation are all grandparents now,” he says, with just a hint of sentimentality in his voice. “I don’t mind the kids out here causing trouble now, ya know, because we were the snot-nose kids back in the 1960s, invading Montauk and carrying on, drinking and swinging on the town flagpole and making all kinds of ruckus. . . . We had our time. It’s their turn now.”

 

 

Due to FEMA regulations about buildings at the waterfront, house/trailer profiles are rising steeply. Photograph by Nina Channing.

Nina Channing

Our associate editor at EAST, Nina has written this year about yoga studios, Grey Gardens, and Trump helicopters. Born and raised in Bridgehampton, she is a high-school dropout, a Wesleyan graduate, and now an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Southampton. When she’s not working, she can almost always be found with a book and a stack of blueberry pancakes in the back booth at Candy Kitchen.