Connections 04.26.12

Your Neighbor, As Yourself

    The Clearwater Beach Property Owners Association is a formidable organization. Unlike many homeowners groups, which tend to evaporate after their first few years, the Clearwater association spread its wings, taking under them what was originally known as Lion Head and the neighborhood farther east.
    There are 870 homeowners who are eligible to be members, and 550 have paid their dues! When they do, they have first dibs on a 119-slip marina at Hog Creek and access to a gated and protected bayfront beach and a barbecue and picnic area.
    The group’s president, executive secretary, and dockmaster each had messages in the association’s recent spring newsletter, and it is clear that they feel lucky to live in a special place. The newsletter encouraged residents to participate in Earth Day last weekend, to volunteer at a forthcoming barbecue, and even to try a few recipes. But it also asked its members to do something about “illegally overcrowded single family homes.”
    Our challenge, the newsletter says in big bold letters, is to “UNOCCUPY SPRINGS.” The slogan is more than eye-catching. Standing the Occupy Wall Street movement on its head, the words strike a foreboding tone. They have aroused concern among a few readers who brought the newsletter to The Star.
    That low-wage workers and their families are more often found living in Springs than in other hamlets in East Hampton, that many houses there are overcrowded, and that East Hampton Town has not been able to do much about the situation is a serious problem for our community as a whole. However, urging residents to turn in their neighbors, to “file complaints . . . and follow up with [the] Freedom of Information Law” is, in my view, a bit too reminiscent of the sort of message you might expect in a repressive regime.
    As the newsletter indicates, governments have a responsibility to protect the environment and to make sure that living conditions are safe. The association is correct that stuffing more people than the law dictates into houses is dangerous as well as illegal. But the association, in its newsletter, also makes the rather inflammatory assessment that overcrowded houses “are destroying our school, raising taxes . . . and diminishing our quality of life.”
    We all know that most of the overcrowded houses in Springs are occupied primarily by Latinos — but I will refrain from interpreting the newsletter’s rallying cry as an example of bias. It is always unwise, in the heat of the moment, to ascribe the worst motives to those who take strong positions in civic controversies.
    Instead, I want to point out that new immigrants have become a needed and necessary part of our community. The Latino demographic in Springs is, largely, part of a labor pool that many long-time residents have come to find indispensable. Grade schools, like the Springs School, have an obligation, moral and otherwise, to educate the children in the district — and to help these students learn English, if need be. Having classmates who are only just learning English isn’t something for kids or their parents to be alarmed about; it is at the core of the American experience. (Who taught your Polish or Persian grandfather how to say “chalk,” or “chocolate bar”?)
    Dealing with this situation constructively and creatively is in the interest of all of us. First and foremost, municipalities ought to take the responsibility of trying to provide housing opportunities for all those among us who have a hard time finding decent, legal places to live.
    Ten or 12 years ago, East Hampton was host for a while to Study Circles, organized gatherings that occurred nationwide as a response to instances of discrimination. The idea was to help people from diverse backgrounds understand each other and develop trust. Instead of spying on one another, instead of calling meetings that serve mainly as a forum for venting rage, instead of fear-mongering, community leaders might try to bring people together.
    Perhaps if the good neighbors who live in Clearwater were given a chance to learn, firsthand, about the problems and needs of those who live nearby in marginally acceptable quarters, practical — instead of simply incendiary — solutions might begin to emerge.