The Changing Face of Montauk…And Other Musings (Part One)

At one stage of my life, my interest in Montauk was limited to rips, rocky shores and surfcasting. My plans were based on NOAA forecasts and tides, maybe tweaked with up-to-the-minute fishing reports. Most trips were 24 to 72 hour fishing binges, with sleep limited to a couple hours here and there, always in the truck. Showers consisted of a gallon of cold water poured over my head, and food meant a cold slice of pizza, or a soggy hero. Contact with loved ones was limited to how much change I had for the payphone.

Marriage and family changed all of that. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I wanted to carry on fishing like this (and stay married), I was going to have to find a way to bring the family along. This meant making the whole experience much more inviting to the diverse interests of women and children.

Most of the surfcasters like me – who decided they had a long-term interest in a single place – found ways to make this work. Many invested in a condo or time-share, others found the funds for a slide-on or RV with every imaginable creature comfort! Still others bought property and/or moved to the east end of Long Island, full-time.

Today, for many readers, I am sure Montauk means much more than just fishing.  I pick on “Montauk” but I am sure the same type of observations I am about to make can be noted for other Northeast surfcasting/tourist destinations. For those among us, what is happening in and around town is just as important as what is happening on the beaches.

Good or bad, Montauk remains a working fishing village with a significant portion of its survival reliant on the weather, and pegged to the whims of regional tourists.

I write this knowing I can easily draw a chorus of “things ain’t like they used to be.”  I could be writing this in 1960 and yearn for the good old 40s. Someone a generation from now will no doubt yearn for how good it was in 2020. Many readers might have personal stories of a Montauk that used to be, but some sound like the cranky old fart  who tells us how he used to walk to school barefoot in the snow, uphill, both ways.  Likewise, I also risk painting a picture of how rich city money found its way to Montauk – and stole that salt-of-the-earth fabric that made Montauk such a wonderful place to begin with.

America prefers a story told this way, with an easy-to-follow plot, and where you can quickly tell the good guys from the bad. This is how Hollywood taught us, and even journalists jump for a story where everything is black and white. Seldom is it ever so.

The recent Montauk “changes” themselves are easy to identify, but in reality, the driving forcesappear to be coming from a number of different directions. I pen this as a “Part One,” knowing I might need more space to complete some thoughts. We’ll see. Remember, this is just one person’s view…and some mighty touchy subject matter here…so just don’t get your knickers in a twist.

The most easily documented change in Montauk comes from trends in real estate. We all have our stories of property that couldda wouldda shouldda been purchased for a song back in the 80s or even 90s, on Block Island, Nantucket, Cape Cod, take your pick. No different here. But what was particularly telling in Montauk was the more recent invasion of larger agencies buying out / pushing out the mom and pop one-location businesses that used to dominate this very local market.   There was a time, not so long ago actually, when the bigger agencies seemed uninterested in the hamlet – when they seemed to prefer the choicer listings in East Hampton and Southampton.   Today, all the big agencies are here, and a Montauk oceanfront parcel is likely to be mentioned in everything from the East Hampton Star to the Wall Street Journal.

Go ahead, curse the bankers if it makes you feel any better, lump in some celebrities if you must.  But ongoing inspection of real estate transfers over the past ten years will find a fair number of enterprising Montauk locals doing their own fair share of house flipping, thank you very much.

True, more celebrity and corporate types have found their way to Montauk – a well-known name buying a property in Montauk is hardly news-worthy anymore – but the rocky shores have hosted the likes of Dick Cavett, Paul Simon, Andy Wharhol, Jacqueline Onassis, the Rolling Stones and countless others, looong before many readers here ever beached their first Montauk striper (myself included).

If you are hauling your wife and kids out to Montauk again this year (as will I be), you will encounter the most striking changes in the options for eats and drinks.

Trends?  Less fried fisherman’s platter joints and bars with stale beer smells, and more Asian-fusion, gourmet wraps and other globally-inspired offerings. At the risk of over-simplifying the trends, “soul surfer chic” best sums up what has been happening in eating and drinking these days. Don’t worry, you’ll still have enough drink-til-you -puke bars, where it is still possible to get a front row seat for an authentic bar room brawl.  (I won’t mention any here by name, but scan the police blotter section of the local newspaper if you must have details.)

Perhaps the Montauk trend in eats and drinks only mirrors what is happening in other parts of the country –establishments known best for fried food and mass-produced domestic beer are fast falling out of favor, are they not?

A growing number of tourists, it seems, do have an interest in surfing and fishing – if only the image. Put a little more bluntly, there is no shortage of recent establishments that have somehow worked “surfing” into the theme. Hey now, we fisherman can’t curse the surfers –nothing prevents any one of us from jumping into the market with a “Surfcasting Shack,”– and there is ample opportunity as almost every long-established place of business is either for sale right now, or has recently changed hands. And we can’t associate all these changes to “outside money” either, since enough of this is being driven by local entrepreneurs. The bottom line is that (a) it’s going to be harder and harder to find affordable places to eat and drink this year, but (b) it seems more and more tourists (and some locals) want it that way.

Don’t worry, as of now, Rick’s Crabby Cowboy and John’s Drive-In remain open for business.

Is Montauk really becoming a place where celebrities and hedge fund managers are having all the fun, and where the good old hard-working locals are being pushed out? This is where it gets most confusing.

The math clearly evades me  – the cost of living must be driving the “community fabric” – fisherman, teachers, administrators, policemen and others  – out of town. Quite frankly, I do not know how anyone in one of these occupations can make it work, not when a deli sandwich costs $10, a gallon of gas $5 and a “starter home” is listed at $750,000.

Here’s the real hard part – I seldom go for long without running into/ hearing of a successful local businessman or tradesman, who has found a way to devote a good portion of play time to Florida, Costa Rica, or some other exotic South Pacific surfing/fishing destination. I asked a waitress why a particularly popular restaurant was closing so early last fall. The place was mobbed, with an hour wait at peak. He could easily have filled the seats, at least on weekends, all winter long. “He just wants to spend more quality time with his family…skiiing, fishing…” I was told.  OK. So, I’ll spare you the stories of months of sailing or extended surfing quests.  But just how much of this ability to take extended time is afforded by the influx of that “evil” city money?

My current inability to negotiate my own “bi-coastal” living arrangement is reason enough why I am still very much on the outside, looking in.

More to write on this…maybe.


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16 comments on “The Changing Face of Montauk…And Other Musings (Part One)

  1. Frank

    A real good read and another part of the extended fishing experience to think about.

    I moved out to a small hamlet close to Montauk 10 years ago for the change in life-style, fishing, shellfishing, boating, gardening, birding, you get the point, and it is a wonderful.

    Over the 40 years I have been enjoying Montauk surrounds it has become clear that if the change we have all witnessed continue, and they seem destined to continue, the Montauk we love will not remain the way we love it. Strip malls, fast food franchisers, over crowding, greater competition for access.

    Now that Montauk has been discovered by the rest of the world it will take constraint on the part of those who live here, invest here, elected to rule here, and play here to keep what we love about the “East End” available in future.

  2. fisherman joe pags

    I keep passing that house and property on the lake and can only “dream the dream” and play lotto.. And buy more fishing equipment .

  3. David D

    One thing that I have come to know is that when you wake up in the middle of the night for a certain tide, and the night is dark and stormy, and you wipe the sleep from your eyes and you arrive to your spot to find it empty and you walk out on a lonely beach to find fish, you are the richest man in the world and you own a piece of the most expensive real estate money can’t buy.

  4. antonio

    Great read, John.

    I’ve been in love with Montauk for the past 20 years now. I’m not a local, although I’d like to be, but I do try and venture out at least once a month throughout the year. Its clearly evident that Montauk has been in the midst of a major transition. I can see the major changes, even in the short 20 year span that I’ve been going out there. Some changes I like, and others not so much, but the way I see it is this: if you love the ocean, and all the unmeasurable pleasures that come along with it (specifically striped bass), then Montauk will always have some appeal.

  5. mr.mastastico

    I can go on and on about montauk, I have been traveling out their to surf(with a board not a pole) since the age of 15 from another eastern yet western to montauk south shore town. I have seen the changes and yes all have been bad..all of them, I cant think of one change for the better. For a period of two years I worked for Peter Beard a well known cult hero artist of sorts whos claim to fame is being the last house before the lighthouse, as well as once being married to cheryl tiegs. I spent long periods of time in montauk during those periods, and in the off season is obviously when montauk really shines. These days I dont make it out there much to surf or fish with a young family of three kids and a house that always needs tinkering my time is spent at home or at the beach out my backdoor. When i do make it out for a surf or a fish or both Ihonestly have to try and keep my blinders up..The amount of RangeRovers and Douchebags is staggering to what it used to be. True Montauk still remains a gorgeous natural beauty but all the stuff besides that makes me want to vomit in my mouth and spit it out on some 25yr old popped collar wall street guy or trust funder who is wearing sunglasses that cost more than my jeep waiting on line at the ditch witch. But I digress..the surf is still great and the fishing is as well, and shagwong still has the best fried oysters and cold pints..Yes I am jealous of the popped collar douchebag, not for his doucheyness or popped collar but for his ability to have cash to spend so much time out there

  6. Jerry

    Great week on the SJ blog.. great reads by both Zeno and John and the comments have been extraordinary. Thank you.

  7. Moses

    Great read John! I can’t wait to read part two. It’s sad to hear the way things change and how families and the hard working people who called NY home for so long have had to walk a way because they can’t afford to do it anymore.

  8. Mark

    Great read. I have similar feelings about Cape Cod. I am too young to have been around to buy property at a bargain. But I hear the stories. In Provincetown you can buy a studio condo not on water for 500000 dollars what a bargain. It is the most beautiful place on earth and I will have my ashes spread on race point and a few other places. But that will be the only way I can ever truly be a part of that landscape.

    The world is over run with special interest they are taking over our country. The government is handing them the keys to the kingdom. Regardless of it is the wealthy the bird folks( many times one in the same) it is a sad predicament. Without a concerted effort from us the majority our coastline will be lost to the few. We have on Cape Cod a tract of land that was deignated for the use of the people for ever. The same people we trusted to protect it for our use are now taking it away and playing god.

    Wether it be the enviro nazis the wealthy or the government unless we begin to set some precedent in our favor we will all be visiting the museums remembering when.

  9. Tyson

    I agree with you that things have change, but nothing stays the same. I started gong there in the early 70’s, when things and times were a lot different than now.

  10. mark m @ ""

    Big money has always been in Montauk. It’s just that it was a hamlet to get away from the other “big money” folks and just hang out for sake of enjoying life. Time is always changing history & it seems at this moment that the “big money” is a bit more flashy out there for everyone to see.

    I think the Mom & pop shops will always be out there…folks just have to watch the trend change again back to original roots. Kinda like when a wealthy individual wants to “rough it” for a couple days, but needs that double latte & a tuna infused sandwich is a jam when things get too rough, LOL

  11. bob jones

    Hey John
    On my way to the Cape for big Lure Collector Show.
    You could change the word ‘Montauk’ to ‘Brooklyn’ or any other urban area. Re-building is how I made my living all these years.
    When in East Hampton; I add a ‘Please’ when I yell: “get off my f***ing grass”. It’s even affecting me.
    Best to all.

  12. Jimmy Z

    I grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Want to see change? lol
    The other day I was thinking of my aunt Rosie, and how, as a child, things were so simple to me.
    When i go to Manhattan. I take a ride to the neighborhood where i grew up. I go to the place my dad hung out with his friends. The place is now a trendy restaurant, but to me, it was fond memories. As i remember it, it had a big sailfish on the wall,it had many pictures of the guys who hung out there. Fishing pictures! I remember the backroom, next to the cases of empties, the lockers with fishing tackle. Not the fancy shiny stuff like today, but the typical stuff a guy who goes fishing uses.
    Than there were the fella’s. Mike the sign painter, Smitty, Eddie Gehring, (who owned the place), My uncle Mitch, who tended bar on the weekends. And my dads friend, Charlie Russo. All fishermen, as I remember them. They all fished, and this is what has changed to me. I don’t see places like, Joe’s Place, anymore. I miss that!
    So we see change, I know this comes with the territory. I like change. But with this change, something does leave us.
    In my mind, there will never be the times of my youth again, this I know. But I love this thing we do! This my friends, will never change.


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