Last summer was kind of a bummer for me. Living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with two young children, I didn’t get to the South Fork much, the place where I spent the majority of my youth as a year-rounder. And when I did make it through the constant knots of traffic to the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere of Memorial Day to Labor Day to stay at my mother’s in East Hampton, it became a harried journey to avoid the clots of people and whole swaths of overrun villages.
While it was great as always to see old and dear friends, I felt estranged from a nostalgic sense of place. Was it the increasing wealth and population? Maybe it was the seemingly amped-up presence of police and “brownie” traffic cops. Or maybe it was the dissociation between visitors and locals, part-time residents and full-time workers.
These are, of course, issues and questions that are not new to the South Fork. Ever since people with means (and some with not so many means) discovered the beauty of the beaches and bays relatively close to the metropolis, the area has held its sway. But these questions have grown as wealth has moved from the buttoned-up, traditional place it stayed for much of the 20th century (I worked for a few weeks busing tables at the Maidstone Club when I was a teenager) to the flashier and more ostentatious role it had in the late ’80s and ’90s to the perhaps inevitably more entrenched role money (and the entitlement that often goes with it) plays into the 21st century.
While not all of this is connected to Wall Street, the show of wealth in certain environs around New York City is not disconnected from the infamous bonuses that came, and still come, from the growth of financial services — investment banks, hedge funds, and the like. Naturally these bonuses also helped develop and fund many local businesses and livelihoods on the South Fork, including my mother’s landscaping and garden design company.
But, as we now look back over the last few decades, it’s clear to most analysts — and certainly to Occupy Wall Street and those who support it — that the pressure on these industries to make more money out of money and the shenanigans that went along with doing so have not only been corrosive but have also exacerbated divisions in American society to such a degree that the slogan of the Occupy movement — “We are the 99 percent!” — has caught on more than anyone could have imagined.
In December a Pew Research poll found that a majority of Americans agree with the issues that Occupy Wall Street brought up — such as that too much power is in the hands of too few individuals and corporations — even if they do not agree with the tactics of the movement. Evidently, the subcutaneous pressure in American society generated by unemployment, foreclosures, Wall Street bailouts, and the growing realization that democracy on some fundamental level is not working for much of the middle class had found a way to break through.
On a personal and professional level, I have pursued a path in writing and documentary film producing in which I have always tried to engage with social-political issues that intersect with many of the focal points of Occupy Wall Street. These would include economic inequality, social justice, media, and all the tendrils of thought connected to these somewhat vague but powerful categories.
So I went to Zuccotti Park, where the movement started, a number of times, taking my 6-year-old son with me on one occasion. I went to the massive protest that took over Foley Square in early October. I wasn’t a camper and didn’t become part of a working group, but I’ve become involved in producing an independent collaborative feature documentary that includes more than 100 filmmakers from around the country — a film that I hope will be a compelling and honest portrayal of the beginnings, the occupations, and the evictions and try to engage on many levels about what this movement actually means for the future. (More is at 99percentfilm.com.)
Because if you look at what happened with the seemingly sudden rise of Occupy Wall Street and what it means, it’s clear that whatever the vagueness, whatever the complexities, it has vigorously injected an awareness of many of these economic issues back into American society (the last time they were as present, one could argue, was in the 1930s). It’s not the drum circles, the sign waving, the “people’s microphone,” or even the direct consensus that have so much defined the face of the movement; it’s those overarching issues that resonate with Americans from most walks of life. While there is a grassroots element to Occupy Wall Street, it feels at this point — after the evictions of encampments around the country — that, rather, the roots of this new movement are growing and merging with previous micro movements, be they MoveOn. org, community soup kitchens, or religious and artistic nonprofits, and maybe burgeoning political candidates.
And it’s come to a point where even Republican presidential candidates, stalwarts of the unregulated free market, are using examples of corporate raiding and greed to garner votes. In part, that’s because the issues of the movement are not solely about a left-right divide, as some might think. But instead they come from a need from many quarters for an honest conversation — one that the Republicans and even the Democrats seem unable to handle — that looks at the real consequences of unbridled markets and blind deregulation. One that would honestly assess, for example, what a health care system without government involvement would look like. One that would open up a discussion of new systems in finance, law, intellectual property, and other fundamentals that would change and maybe make healthier the broken economic culture of the country.
In other words, the ideas that most economic historians might agree began their ascendancy with the election of Ronald Reagan, and have been dominant ever since, have come home to roost in a big way.
What does this mean on the South Fork? The gorgeous small spit of land that much of the world now automatically equates with colossal wealth and celebrity? I can’t comment as someone who is living there now. But I hear and see things: that villages are at risk of losing some of the last remaining mom-and-pop stores and meeting places, that seasonal high-end boutiques have propagated even further, that real estate is ridiculous, and what about the cost of living? (Well, I’m sure most reading this get the picture.)
As an area that is populated by a disproportionate number of the 1 percent, the Hamptons are a world apart from the dried-out and boarded-up towns and neighborhoods around the country that have taken the brunt of the Great Recession. But perhaps that’s the point and not the point. Occupy Wall Street is not so much a “class issue,” as there are plenty of people with money who are interested and involved in the movement. It’s more about perspective and change. It’s about “hope,” but not solely as a campaign slogan (sorry, Barack). Young and old alike can see this.
And I hope, when the teens of the current Hamptons have kids, that, in their middle-aged grandeur, they will hold on to the kind of nostalgia for the area that I do.
Williams Cole’s credits as a documentary film producer include “Giuliani Time” and “Gun Fight.” He is a founding contributing editor of the arts, politics, and culture publication The Brooklyn Rail.