Inside vehicles rolling in a steady stream off the ferry this week are people who have been away for a while. They’ll get settled in, shop at the IGA, swing by the hardware store, and take a look around the Island to see what’s new. On the surface, it will be just like they remember.
The Chequit looks pretty much the same as in 1913, only spiffier and with new landscaping. Like a friend who went in for a double knee replacement, the Pridwin is on the mend from some invasive procedures that seem to have temporarily stopped the aging process. The ongoing construction boom has resulted in some new houses, and a new restaurant, but mostly they look a lot like the old ones.
An online exhibit by the Historical Society called “Then and Now” pairs photographs of Shelter Island in the 1920s with photos of the same spots taken recently. What’s surprising is not how much the trees and buildings have changed, but how little. If Evans Griffing, Town supervisor from 1955 to 1971 was plopped down at the corner of Chase and Grand Avenue today, he’d recognize every house in sight, and know where to go to buy a hammer or order a beer.
But inside those houses and businesses the changes are striking, because it’s not just Victorian architecture and mature oak trees that define this place. The folks running the businesses, grilling grass-fed burgers on the deck, and drinking rosé on the beach are not the Islanders of yore.
They are much richer. The plain fact that residents have somehow earned enough money to live here, is proof that they are mostly well off.
Since 2017, our population increased by 50% and at least 30% of that increase occurred in the past two years. The average yearly income on Shelter Island also increased, making it one of the wealthiest places in New York.
I don’t think the influx of money is a change for the better or for the worse, and even if I did, there’s not a darn thing I could do about it. But it is disorienting, leaving me wondering: Where am I?
In the old days on Shelter Island, houses were known by the name of their past owners, and never changed. That is how it came to pass that we lived in a bungalow on West Neck Road for 30 years that was referred to by everyone as “the Piccozzi house.” Sometimes Angelo himself would stop by to say hi, and entertain us with the story of how little he paid for it, and how much he sold it for, two owners before us. Although we lived in that house long enough to pay off the mortgage, the old name stuck, even though everyone knew that no Piccozzi had lived there for decades.
The Chequit and the Pridwin both have new owners this year, and like our old house, everyone continues to call them by the same name. Underneath the name is a new reality. The owners are actually large corporations.
This winter I went for a walk in the woods near Dering Harbor with a friend, and got lost. For several minutes everything we saw was unfamiliar, in spite of decades of walking around here. We crossed a road and there was a cul-de-sac with no houses, near a body of water I could not identify. Starting to wonder if we had stumbled into some sort of crack in the time/space continuum, we were accosted by a large flock of wild turkeys. Their confidence assured us that we were still somewhere on Shelter Island, probably on one of the few as-yet-undeveloped parcels of land left.
It’s possible that trying to adjust to all the changes on Shelter Island over the last two years, is making me scatterbrained. I recently drove onto the North Ferry with a cup of coffee in a wide mug on top of my car, looking like a jaunty, yellow hat.
The purser asked genially, “Did you intend to have a coffee cup on your roof?”
The coffee was still warm.
In the end, our geography will save us, as it always has. No matter how much money rolls into Shelter Island, it will never be the Hamptons because we have no ocean beaches, and it’s too hard to get here.
We have very kind ferry captains, and very good roads. Our turkeys have swagger. All the investment in houses and hotels and docks and planting mature trees, and restoring Victorian structures to their former glory doesn’t change those things.
I’ll try to accept the reality of living in a very wealthy place that still remembers when it wasn’t so.