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Guestwords: On the Old Back Lots

Wed, 05/03/2023 - 16:50

Sometimes you assume that sights and events that you have witnessed are evident to everybody. Then you realize that, for one reason or another, your perspective might not be so universal, and that you might have some enlightenment to offer. The heretofore beneath-the-radar saga of Marsden Street in the Village of Sag Harbor is like that for me.

My acquaintance with this acreage began in 1968. Most of the people who were around then are no longer on the planet, and most of the people who are alive now were not yet born then, or at least not living in Sag Harbor. It dawned on me that the factions warring over these few acres might be unaware of the prologue. My familiarity with this disputed territory goes back well over half a century, so here is my contribution.

These days the land is at the center of controversy by virtue of being targeted for potential acquisition by the Sag Harbor School District, ultimately for use as an athletic field and possible expansion of facilities. Pierson High School has insufficient playing fields, and student-athletes must walk a mile to Mashashimuet Park for several sports.

There are acrimonious running battles on various social media; there was a contentious public hearing at the high school gymnasium. Some opponents of school acquisition want to see the land become a passive park. A third alternative is that five houses be constructed on the site.

The back lots. This is how many locals knew the vacant land in the angle of Division Street and Marsden Street during the 1960s and 1970s. By whatever name, the forested land was familiar to generations of Sag Harborites.

Historically, the terrain was gradually sloping down to the south and to the west; the low point was close to Marsden Street, behind the house on the corner of Madison Street. The back lots were a de facto public park. Generations of Pierson students took it as a given that it belonged to them.

Beyond the purview of the teachers, boys would meet there for fistfights at lunchtime or after school. (Up until the late 1960s, the Pierson building housed all grades from kindergarten to 12th.) Teenagers would sneak off to smoke cigarettes. Whatever minor mischief kids could get into, they would do so there, conveniently across from the school, but distant enough to escape the prying eyes of grown-ups.

Summer 1968, more days than not, would find me in the back lots in the morning, looking to capture salamanders maybe, but more so the garter snakes that hunted them. The woods were shady, cool, and damp, with scattered sunny glades, hence the plentiful snakes. There were box turtles, too.

Diagonally across Division Street from the entrance to the original main brick building of Pierson there is a concrete retaining wall, with an iron railing wrought from plumbing pipe spanning the top. It has been there since the 1950s at least, according to my cousin Jonathan Kulczycki, a Whaler from the class of 1965. In the second half of the 20th century, the drop from street level used to be about 10 feet.

From the railing, a vista opened over a natural amphitheater, a green bowl a hundred feet or so in diameter, and completely blanketed by wild grapevines reaching to the tops of the trees. In late summer, my friends and I would clamber among the tree limbs beneath the canopy, 30 feet or more above the ground, eating grapes, then spitting out the sour and the seeds. The back lots off Marsden Street were pretty magical for a kid.

It almost sounds primeval. If you think you can see where this is going, read on.

Looking west from Division Street, toward the center of the block, were the ice pits. These were the square rock foundations of two structures, all that remained of long-gone 1800s buildings.

The walls were over a foot thick, probably made from quarried New England granite, definitely not from local glacial stone. The story was that these ruins were left over from before the dawn of electric refrigeration. During the winter, ice would be cut in a local pond, most likely Round Pond less than a mile away, and stored there, for distribution to the iceboxes of the South Fork during the warm months.

For much of the era of human civilization, low-lying spots have been used for waste disposal. The hollow off Marsden Street was no different. Considered otherwise useless, it was a convenient refuse pit.

In the 1960s we would dig for treasures there. Broken pottery and glass would turn up, but the prize of a decent collectible bottle would also emerge occasionally.

For centuries, this land was used pretty intensively. Sometime before the turn of the millennium, sandy fill was trucked in and spread over the former wasteland. What once was a depression became a level plain.

The sterile expanse was colonized by Russian olive, Scotch broom, Japanese knotweed, Norway maple — a veritable United Nations of Old World invasive species. The list goes on — bamboo, garlic mustard, mugwort. None of these plants are native even to this continent. The black locust, while endemic to North America, is not native to the State of New York. Today you would have to search long and hard to find any kinds of plants growing there that grew in precolonial times.

As for fauna, the snakes, turtles, and amphibians are long gone — nowhere to hide and nothing to eat. Native birds and mammals largely have departed for greener pastures, too.

Nature trails are a great concept where there is some actual nature left. Not here though.

The Marsden Street land is not pristine wilderness. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a Sag Harbor Village site that is more degraded.

By default, the best possible use for the Marsden Street property is as a desperately needed addition to the Sag Harbor School District facilities. For most sports, the kids will no longer have to walk a mile to get to their playing fields, which will now be less than a hundred feet from Pierson.

Christopher Chapin, Pierson High School class of 1976, lives in Sag Harbor. The Marsden Street referendum is on May 16.

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