It’s difficult to not have an inferiority complex when you live in Flanders. People in Riverhead think you’re uptight about reminding everyone that you live in Southampton Town, and therefore in The Hamptons. People in The Hamptons spit the word Flanders as if they’re hacking up a lung when you mention where you live at a cocktail party. Then they go in the other room to hide the good silver. People who come here on vacation have no idea how to find your house. But everyone agrees to smile at the mention of The Big Duck.
Shannon Merker, a 17-year-old junior at Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead, is no dummy. She knows how much people love The Big Duck, and she’s made it her mission, since she was 11 years old, to create a duck flag for her hometown. Today, Southampton Town raised her flag over Flanders Memorial Park, a pocket park along Flanders Road where Shannon spends her spare time sprucing up the grounds. She deserves a lot of kudos for sticking to her guns and ensuring that Flanders would have its own flag. She must know, inside, that there’s nothing that unites people like the feeling of having a common flag.
Part of the problem with calling Flanders your hometown is there really is no “town” here. There’s a highway from the Hamptons to the thick congestion of the Riverside traffic circle. There are a few boarded up roadside stands along the highway that must have once been used to sell vegetables and, yes, duck eggs, grown by people who eched out a meager living here in long-forgotten generations. There are plenty of used cars for sale and a couple of delis and a gas station and a nice sidewalk and community center. But that’s all there is.
Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman came to the Flanders, Riverside & Northampton Community Association meeting Monday night to talk about the county’s ongoing envisioning process for fixing the blight in this neck of the woods.
He talked mostly about the Riverside traffic circle and the boarded up businesses along Flanders Road. If we had sewers, he said, we could rebuild Riverside. The county is spending a quarter of a million dollars to have consultants study that. They’ve been studying it for more than a year and they still have more studying to do. The East End will have $2 million to spend on building new sewer plants once all that studying is done. A lot of that money could be allocated here.
Now, Riverside isn’t technically Flanders, as most of the community associations who drum up support for this part of the world are quick to point out. But to people passing through, it’s all thought of as Flanders, and that should be ok. Right now, this stretch of highway at the very epicenter of the two forks is the valley of ashes. A better sense of identity would do this place good.
Mr. Schneiderman had a couple suggestions for how the county could help make Riverside better. He suggested changing the traffic circle so that it would be shaped like an egg (this was not to pay homage to the duck, but to help the traffic flow better. People who study these things for a living say it will help). If people who live here don’t like that, he said, the county could create a curve in Riverleigh Avenue (a.k.a. Route 104, the road to Quogue), just closer to the circle than the Riverwoods Mobile Home Park, which would dump the traffic from Route 104 onto Lake Avenue, the road that comes into the circle from Wildwood Lake. If that is done, there would only be four roads coming into the Riverside circle where there are now five.
While they’re reworking the roads, the county could also install a few small pocket sewer systems, known as membrane bioreactors, throughout the corridor, allowing restaurants and other water-intensive businesses to be built in the area surrounding the circle without polluting the Peconic River. Mr. Schneiderman even proposed a pedestrian walkway over the Peconic River leading from Riverside to the Riverhead boardwalk near the Long Island Aquarium.
It would be, I guess, similar to the way the Pont Alexandre crosses the Seine, connecting the Champs-Élysées to the Eiffel Tower.
Except it would happen in Riverside.
Mr. Schneiderman wanted to know what people here thought of the proposal. He even jumped up and down a little bit and begged people to give him something in the way of input. But the overwhelming sentiment in the room was this: “None of this will happen in my lifetime.”
I like this place. I lived in a trailer park in Riverside for five years. We all had a sort of honor among thieves and it was a fun place to live. Everyone helped each other out. We dug each others’ cars out after snowstorms and we helped bandage the scuffed up knees of our neighbors’ kids when they played in the road. As soon as I moved out, one of my neighbors broke into my trailer and stole the bottle of dish soap I’d left on my kitchen sink. That’s just the way it is, and it’s kind of a bummer.
But then my sister visited from California with her new husband, who grew up in Palo Alto and doesn’t know much about the East Coast. We were driving down Flanders Road, and it was a beautiful sunny September day, when his jaw hit the floor of the car at the sight of the duck in the distance.
He insisted we stop. We insisted we take pictures. Barbara Bixby was closing up the duck for the day but she let us in to look around. She told us that all big bizarre roadside attractions, all over the country— from giant donuts to giant alligators to giant statues of Dolly Parton — are called “Ducks” in honor of the big duck. Barbara was giggling the whole time. I think she loves working in the duck.
I live in another part of Flanders now, with nice small houses and big oak trees and wide roads. The bay is at the end of our block and everyone who lives here stands on the street and talks.
I imagine by the end of the summer, we’ll all be hanging our duck flags high.