Featured Story

Codger’s Column: Noises off

On a lovely Sunday evening last week, a powerhouse Shelter Island task force assembled on a porch overlooking Gardiners Creek to gauge the noise coming across from a blues concert on the Sylvester Manor lawn.

There were three police officers including the chief, three members of the Town Board, two columnists from the Reporter, the Manor’s executive director, and Eleanor Oakley, owner of the porch, whose complaint had drawn the crowd.

Eleanor is an old pal of Codger’s, and he considers her a world-class complainer. She has marched and demonstrated against inequality, racism, sexism and other forms of social injustice from New York and Washington to Thailand and Myanmar. Local folks who know her revere the long-term, constant, hands-on volunteer work she has done with Shelter Island senior citizens.

She has been self-effacing to the point of invisibility, which is why Codger, against her wishes, feels he needs to be sure that people who don’t know her don’t write her off as a crazy, old (83) lady who should shut up and suck up occasional noise.

Which is not to say this isn’t a complicated situation. As its executive director, Stephen Searl, pointed out to Codger, Sylvester Manor wants to be a good neighbor, yet also “benefit the broadest part of the community” through music, culture and education. The vision to “make the world a more fair and joyful place” includes the mission to “become nationally significant.”

Eleanor, a twice-widowed, retired social worker who raised seven children of her own and two foster kids, says, with an edge, that she also has a mission, which is “to live in peace and tranquility in my own house.” She’s lived there more than 30 years. The music, amplified and tinny-sounding by the time it travels over the water, makes conversation difficult on her porch or inside her house with windows open.

She tells Codger that airing her grievances to the Town Board was stressful, but after five years of little satisfaction from Sylvester Manor, she felt she had no choice. “It just isn’t fair,” she said, which, of course is the main mantra of her activism for others.

Searl says he is “sympathetic” and “cautiously optimistic” that “she will feel understood ” while the Manor will “continue to do its programming.” He wishes there had been better response to her complaints in the past. Other than perhaps moving the music farther from the creek, he didn’t have a ready plan.

The Manor has become a wonderful addition to the Island as an historical center, tourist magnet and a cornucopia of organic farm products (Codger and Crone are weekly CSA customers). It is also an ambitious enterprise; as it grows and deals more deeply with its past relationships with its African slaves and Native-American workers, it expects to become even more attractive to academic scholarship and partnerships, as well as donor money.

Obviously it requires a powerhouse task force to balance the needs of an important community institution and those of an individual asserting the rights to the pursuit of happiness on her porch. And basically it’s about noise.

Of course, noise is not only a Gardiners Creek issue. Over on Menantic Creek, friends of Codger’s sat like dental patients on their deck last Thursday evening as amplified live music wafted over from the SALT restaurant’s Shipwreck bar. His friends have had their house for 40 years and now most Thursday evenings into Sunday afternoons are ruined in season.

They visited SALT a few times to complain. At best there was temporary relief. The police were friendly, they said, but unhelpful, saying that the owners of SALT were “nice people.” My friends feel powerless. They don’t want their names used because they’ve noticed how Eleanor has been attacked. Their neighbors also don’t want to get involved.

“You have to get involved,” says Eleanor. “Form a group. Stand up. It’s not fair. Big companies can’t be allowed to push little people around.”

So far, nothing much has come from that powerhouse task force. Codger enjoyed that pleasant little porch party with its elements of comedy. The decibel count, in the 50s, was well below violation level (the Manor, as a charitable organization, was granted a 65dB limit for that concert from the police).

Soon after most of the power players had left, the noise level rose dramatically. Eleanor rolled her eyes.

Paul Shepherd, the only board member who stayed, grinned mischievously and danced. Codger made important marks in his notebook. Later, he would be told by executive director Searl that it was the music of a different band, also maybe the wind had shifted.

Codger has been waffling between coincidence and conspiracy theory. He keeps reminding himself that the movie he lives in is called Shelter Island, not “Casablanca” or “Chinatown.”