Monday, August 5, 2013

SAG HARBOR | Black-Enclave Resorts (Updated July 25, 2017)

Plaque on left post at entrance to Ninevah 
in Sag Harbor. Photos by JTMarlin.
We knew, Alice and I, a bit about Ninevah Beach, that it was founded as a community for well-to-do African-American vacationers, especially families escaping for the summer from New York City.

The entrance on Route 114 features two large marked gateposts, but it isn't really a gated community in the sense that the gate is monitored to keep out strangers.

It's more of an organized cul-de-sac with a Homeowners' Association.

It and two other such communities in Sag Harbor are special. They can be compared with similar black resort enclaves, such as:

  • Val Verde Park, L.A. area, Calif.;
  • American Beach, Amelia Island, Fla.; 
  • Fox Lake, Ind.;
  • Highland Beach, Md.;
  • Oak Bluff, Martha's Vineyard, Mass.;
  • Idlewild, Mich.; 
  • Cape May, N.J.; and 
  • Atlantic Beach, S.C.
Plaque on right post at entrance to Ninevah, to the 
right on Route 114 after entering Sag Harbor.
The luster of some of these places has faded. But not the luster of the ones in Sag Harbor, which continue to attract well-off African Americans, as do American Beach, Highland Beach and Oak Bluffs. 

The problem is that the character of these communities is threatened because of the economics of successful real estate.

It was therefore with curiosity and pleasure that we accepted an invitation from a couple of successful African-American friends to visit their home perched above the shore at Ninevah Beach. They rented for ten years and then purchased their home in 1980.

Ninevah Beach (about 80 homes) is the smallest of the three places founded as all-black communities, the other two being Azurest (the original community, 100 homes, founded in the 1940s) and Sag Harbor Hills (300 homes, founded in 1950 along with Ninevah Beach).

The spelling of the name is unorthodox. Nineveh (as it is usually spelled) in the Book of Jonah was a city in Mesopotamia (i.e., modern-day Iraq) that God picked out for destruction because the people were sinners. God instructed Jonah the Prophet to give the people of Nineveh a Red Alert warning that destruction was imminent. 

Jonah worried about his reputation as a prophet. Should God change His mind, Jonah would take a big hit as a forecaster. So Jonah opted to skip the mission and boarded a boat going the opposite way, hoping God wouldn't notice.

God, unfortunately for him, did notice. According to the Book of Jonah, God could be described in todays language as really pissed (not the English words used in the translation of the Bible that I consulted). He created a fearsome storm. The sailors on the boat he boarded decided Jonah was Bad Luck and they chucked him over the side. God got Jonah back on track by finding a "big fish" (aka whale) to swallow Jonah, swim to Nineveh, and vomit him up on the local beach.
Lovely Ninevah Beach shore at low tide. That is Shelter
Island in the distance.

Jonah decided to 
get with the program. He delivered God's message to the Ninevites and, mirabile dictu, they repented, or enough of them to change God's merciful mind.  

Apparently even just one penitent Ninevite was enough to save all the others.

Jonah's concern about being shown up as a bad prophet turned out to be justified. His rep, sure enough, took a hit in that the threatened destruction did not happen. But his forecast about God's mercy were spot on, and the story in the end redounds to his soothsaying credibility. The only lingering question is corroboration. Jonah himself appears to be the only source of this self-immortalizing tale and so it may be the world's oldest surviving Big Fish Story.

So how does this story relate to the place called Ninevah? I don't know, but I can present a couple of possibilities:

  • The beach is a likely place for a whale to have deposited a human being. 
  • Maybe a whale was found beached there? 
  • Maybe the original founders wanted to identify with a city that was penitent, a place from which God turned away his wrath? 
  • Was the idea to remind people that as long as they had one penitent person in their midst, God would bless the entire community?
In the distance - a crowded Sag Harbor marina.
Whatever the penitence of the black and Indian whalers who founded the old St. David A.M.E. Zion church in nearby Eastville, the Ninevah church has for 173 years been locked up or leased to other congregations.

The founding date of Ninevah, listed on the two tablets on either side of the entrance gate, is 1952. The prime mover seems to have been Cottrell Elias Cooper. His nickname was "Cotchie", his daughter Carole Cooper tells me. He reportedly needed cash after World War II. He was a funeral director in Brooklyn and a licensed real estate broker. He was also president of The Comus Club in Brooklyn, a group of successful black men. 
He went to a member of the Comus Club to get people to put up money to buy the two properties in Sag Harbor, named Ninevah Beach and Sag Harbor Hills. They were sold off at retail prices, parcel by parcel, to well-off African-Americans–in Brooklyn, Queens or other communities within commuting distance of Manhattan.

Cooper says that Sag Harbor was an integral part of her childhood. Before her father built in Ninevah Beach, the family spent their summers in rental cottages, like The Ivy Cottage or other cottages owned by the Broyards.

Why are these communities being challenged today? Here are a few reasons:
  • Some the residents get older, some of them who were originally from the South have decided to return there in order to make their pensions last longer. Sag Harbor is an expensive place to live.
  • They might want to give their homes to their children, but the children may not be able to keep up payments of the rising property taxes or upkeep on the properties.
  • Another theory, not incompatible with the economic explanation, is that some younger people feel no need for an all-black community because in a country that has elected a black president, in a state that has elected a black governor, it is not necessary any longer to huddle together for self-preservation.
  • Nonblack are interested in buying in a place like Ninevah because they have black friends there and the culture is unique, or just because properties here are better and cheaper than can be found elsewhere.

Where would you rather be? Across the bay next 
another big boat? Or on the quiet Ninevah Beach? 
Famous black people who have lived in the all-black Sag Harbor communities include: Johnnie Cochran, the late attorney; Earl Graves, head of the conglomerate of black magazines; Lena Horne; Langston Hughes; Colin Powell; B. Smith, who owns the restaurant with that name in Union Station in Washington, D.C.; Susan L. Taylor, once editor of Essence magazine; and Colson Whitehead, who wrote in his novel Sag Harbor about his experience of a changing culture in the 1980s.

Update 1: Feb. 27, 2015. Nineveh (the more usual spelling) is the city in the Old Testament that Jonah was told to warn of God's destruction. Now ISIS has destroyed Jonah's Tomb in Nineveh. Meanwhile, the enclave in Sag Habor has just been made the subject of an Oprah Winfrey OWN TV special.

Update 2: Aug. 26, 2016. The New York Times has a front-page story today about Ninevah and Azurest. This post has been viewed 2,000 times. Thanks for reading.

Update 3: July 24, 2017. The Wall Street Journal today has a story on pages A10A and A10B, showing the conflict between new buyers who claim to want to keep the area the way it always was and existing residents who are distressed by teardown that are rebuilt on a much grander and dense scale. Featured characters ("luminaries") include: William Pickens III, the late Johnnie Cochran, B. Smith, Earl G. Graves and Kenneth Chenault. Supporters of landmark designation have raised $25,000 for a consultant. This post has been viewed 3,200 times. Thank you for reading.