Bonac Blind: Breaking Out of the Housing Crisis

Back in the fall of 2020, if you’d been cruising through Accabonac Harbor in Springs, you might have caught sight of a geodesic dome encased in the side of what appeared to be a duck blind, an image straight out of the nautical dreamscape East Enders have come to recognize as the work of artist Scott Bluedorn.

If you haven’t been following the art world, you may also recognize Bluedorn’s work from Greenport Harbor Brewery’s iconic beer labels. Or maybe, just recently, you’ve seen that same strange duck blind pop up in the switchgrass field adjacent to the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.

“Bonac Blind,” as this work is known, is an attempt by the artist, an East Hampton native, to pay tribute to the baymen and farmers of the East Hampton hamlet of Springs, adjacent to Accabonac Harbor, known for generations as Bonackers.

It is also a play on words, meant to capture the blindness of the consumerist mainstream culture of The Hamptons to the world of longtime residents of the far end of the East End. 

The Bonac Blind is set up inside like an off-the-grid tiny house, and is meant to highlight the housing insecurity felt by East Hampton’s founding families, who have been squeezed out of the community by the rising real estate prices and cost of living here.

‘Bonac Blind’ hasn’t had a smooth ride in its journey to the Parrish — last fall in Accabonac, someone kicked in the windows and threw fish inside, leading Mr. Bluedorn to speculate that some remaining Bonackers might not be thrilled to be memorialized with the project.

On January 15, Corrine Ernie, the Senior Curator of ArtsReach and Special Projects at the Parrish, convened a group discussion on Zoom with Mr. Bluedorn and local housing advocates to discuss some of these interconnected issues.

“I’ve steadily noticed a decline, environmentally, culturally and community-wise, with working class people moving out of the area,” said Mr. Bluedorn at the discussion. “These things are all connected.”

“I have always been fascinated by their culture,” he said of the baymen of Springs. “They are true to their values, live close to the land, are self-sufficient and their folk ways are still intact. But the culture has been eroded by the problems I just mentioned. Climate change is a huge problem for our world and for our area in particular. It changes fish habitat and migration, and the livelihood of these people. Building this small home is an homage to them.”

Bonac Blind, which floats up and down with the tide on industrial barrels, has a wood burning stove and a large window that looks out on the harbor, and is woven together of natural and found materials.

“It’s a tongue-in-cheek solution,” he said. “It’s interesting to think that it’s moveable. We could create entire communities using a structure or design like this. Looking outside of the box is an important way to tackle some of these problems.”

Architect Bill Chaleff, who has focused on sustainable design since he moved to the South Fork in 1972, was also on the panel.

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Hamptons were a hotbed of experimentation by the most forward-thinking architects in the country, not just the city [New York City],” he said. “But if you build that building within a suburban or semi-rural settlement pattern, the energy you’re saving by doing that pales beside the operational cost of living in a house in that kind of settlement pattern.”

“The built environment is the armature for the social environment,” he added. “It’s led to a dwindling of community. Polarization, politically, has also occurred in our local towns, where we’ve created a schism between the year-round community and the seasonal community. We live in very different bubbles and we hardly communicate with one another. What we really need to do is to throw out the suburban settlement pattern, which Long Island famously started in the 1930s and ‘40s, and go back to a pattern that is timeless and around the world.”

Curtis Highsmith, the Executive Director of the Southampton Housing Authority, also served on the panel. He spoke about Southampton’s struggles to build community support for workforce housing complexes. The town has only just recently had some success with the construction of the Sandy Hollow Cove apartments in Tuckahoe and Speonk Commons, adjacent to the Speonk Long Island Rail Road station.

“That’s 66 total units, and one of the first pure affordable housing projects in Southampton,” he said, adding that Southampton had to combine the Speonk and Sandy Hollow Cove projects on paperwork in order to meet the minimum size for federal funding.

“In New York City, you could get 600 units, but because of the cost of land and the cost of construction, it’s very difficult and competitive for our agencies to get that funding,” he added.

Southampton Town has also worked to build housing on properties forfeited for non-payment of taxes through the 72H program, in which Suffolk County gives such properties to local municipalities for affordable housing.

“We still have nine [72H] lots we’re in the process of doing now,” he said.

But that supply of housing is far outstripped by the demand.

Mr. Highsmith said there are currently 2,500 names on a waiting list for affordable housing in Southampton, down from 5,000 when the town decided to close the list to new applicants.

“We had to close the list, because there was no reason to put more people on the program when we are trying to manage what we have now,” he said, adding that there are 200 names on a separate list for a senior housing complex in Hampton Bays. 

“Unfortunately, they’re waiting for someone to go into a nursing home or pass away before a unit becomes available,’ he said.

He added that affordable housing here runs the gamut from Section 8 rental vouchers from the federal government to owned units for families of four who earn as much as $190,000 per household per year.

“We’re talking the real work force, that have steady jobs and are not sitting back waiting for a subsidy, but are looking for an opportunity to own,” he said. “There needs to be a path to homeownership. There has to be a path toward higher density homes.”

Mr. Chaleff said East Hampton Town estimates it needs between 2,500 and 3,000 units of affordable housing, while Southampton Town, which is much larger than East Hampton, needs between 5,000 and 7,000 units.

“I remember when you’d be standing alone getting rotten tomatoes thrown at you when you mentioned ‘density,’” said Mr. Chaleff. “People are afraid of density, things like elevators, sidewalks, traffic lights and also ‘urbanity.’ But those things define what makes villages good to live in. Those are the things that, of course, we have to build. The new urbanists, who now represent the majority of the planning community, have been doing this for 30 years.”

“The best plan is to build with higher density,” he added. “We need development in hamlet centers. We should be creating environments that are walkable, where life takes place on foot.” He added that concentrating density in hamlet centers allows for more open land in rural areas.

“The more we model nature, the better off we will be, not only physically, but in terms of creating communities and a social landscape that is healthier as well,” he said.

Mr. Chaleff added that modern technology and design is already at a point where it can make these projects sustainable.

“It’s happening around the world and even here, in villages, hamlets and inner city units,” he said. “If housing is not accessible and affordable, people go out into the boonies and build little villages without a carbon footprint. We can do that now with one hand behind our back. The technology and knowledge for doing that is not the stumbling block. The stumbling block is site acquisition.”

Both Mr. Chaleff and Mr. Highsmith said that our current municipal zoning codes do not prioritize this type of development.

“There are a number of obstacles we, as a community, have to get past to have substantial change,” said Mr. Highsmith. “We have to play in the realm of working with the community, and with government, to make sure what is built is community-sensitive. We can have more creative designs, a little out of the box, with balance.”

“We have to grab the bull by the horns. We have to redo our zoning,” said Mr. Chaleff. “These are words on paper, lines on paper and we shouldn’t be intimidated by them. We have to make structural changes because, as we can see, we’ve crossed the threshold to where we’re in a crisis where our young and older people can’t afford to be here, we don’t have balanced communities and we don’t have healthy communities. We’re becoming less and less diverse and less and less healthy, from a social perspective. We have to restructure the landscape.”

Josh Halsey, who comes from one of the founding families of Southampton Town, said he’s been living with his family since he moved back home from the West Coast before the pandemic. His family’s background is in farming, and his is in geology, with a primary focus on soil microbiology.

“I’ve been focusing on water projects, looking at watersheds, finding partners with a common goal of finding a balance between the population issues we face, where people are going to be and how to have access to essential items,” he said. 

“If I didn’t have a home base here, I don’t know how I would have returned,” he said. “I’m 13th generation in this community.”

He added that modern South Forkers should look to the example of the Shinnecock Nation, whose members originally taught his ancestors how to survive here.

“Their families are so close. They’re living in the same house,” he said. “It’s that kind of connection that we need to foster if we want to have a future out here.”

“I’ve always had to rent. My family never owned a house. That was never a possibility,” said Mr. Bluedorn. “That was true even in the early to mid-1980s. I was born in ’86 and there have always been problems in my lifetime.”

He added that he thought it would be helpful if South Fork towns could end seasonal rentals, which leave many people scrambling for housing during the summer high season. 

“It’s so advantageous for people to rent their house out for two months of the year, for extraordinarily high rent, which leaves people literally out in the cold,” he added. “There’s a huge imbalance there…. I don’t know if it’s any one person’s fault. There’s the government’s responsibility, but there’s also a community responsibility to advocate for affordable housing. I don’t know that it’s come through strongly enough that the community wants this. Myself and my peers are all housing-insecure. I’ve been housing-insecure for most of my adult life, and it’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure where I’ll be next year.”

“I have a 25-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter in medical school, and she’s not going to be coming back here,” said Mr. Highsmith. “That’s talent we’re losing to another community. We need young people like Scott and Josh to come out and say ‘this is for me.’ These young adults are living in their childhood homes with their parents. We need those young minds and hearts to show up every time there’s an application for affordable housing and say ‘we have to do something.’”                   

The video of this conversation is on The Parrish’s YouTube channel.

  —BY

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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