Price For Beauty
There seems to be a price for beauty, one which many are willing to pay.
Yesterday I drove through my neighborhood for the first time in months so as to inaugurate my return home for the winter. My community is a large bayside town not far from the Hamptons but woefully dreary by its comparison. I make a point to photograph it often, being the place to which I am most frequently exposed it exists as the place wherein which I most frequently photograph. There is a long record, both in my mind and in my pictures, of the ways in which this town has changed and how it has stayed absolutely the same.
Driving I am drawn to the bay shore, as always, like a dying fish to the sea. There is little of interest to photograph uptown after all, vacant homes beside readymade palaces mostly, things photographed and re-photographed too often and by too many. No, the bay is where I am drawn, where I have gone since my childhood to witness nature and man in profound and beauteous struggle.
When Hurricane Irene swept this coast it promised to rock the minds of those who had built their homes at the oceans stead. It failed to deliver on that promise, flooding homes and causing damage but ultimately reinforcing man’s triumphant hold over natural forces. In Irene’s wake few feared Hurricane Sandy. They believed that they had already survived the worst.
Pulling onto Cranberry Rd I stopped the car and flash my hazard lights. So close to the water this area becomes mostly marsh and it would be foolish to drive any further. Still, the form of a half-fallen telephone pole, devoid of its wires, captures my attention. I
compose my photograph and capture the quiet moment. Packing up my camera and walking back towards the car I look around, nothing but marsh, bay and properties in various states of disrepair.
Many of these homes have been abandoned since the storm, their wealthy residents finding little reason to sink funds back into their mud encrusted summer homes. Left to rot they become hideaways for rebellious teens and heroin addicts or else they slip slowly back into the natural state of the land, sinking steadily into the marsh upon which they were built.
Getting into my car and pulling away I encounter more homes. Most still inhabited are steadily rising away from the sea. After Hurricane Sandy federal, state and local governments approved funds to be distributed to the many victims of the storms awful damage. After years of tedious bureaucratic maneuvering many of the residents here have claimed at least some of those funds. Their decision to stay where the storm had impacted them was usually quick, after all you couldn’t beat the view from out here. Instead of electing to leave many invested in a program to have their houses foundations lifted, and so you find homes floating upon wood pilings up towards the sky and away from the marshy earth below. The elevation of the houses varies depending of the paranoia of the home’s owner, some stand as low as the highest point of the last storm surge, and others rise as high as those two story houses left behind in the storms wake. I am always fascinated to see the new wood holding up and supporting these old homes.
I turn a few corners and pass a marina, empty of boats so late in the season, before coming across the unusual sight of a new home rising near the shore. It wasn’t unusual to see construction out here, houses with new foundations or homeowners expanding their beach shacks, but it was unusual to see the skeletal form of a completely new structure rising up. In a quick moment I pulled up to a woman photographing outside.
I asked her if this was her home, and to my pleasant surprise she said yes. I asked her if I could photograph her new home and after consulting her husband she happily approved. John and Florence have been longtime residents of the town, they tell me. After seeing their last home damaged during the storm they had worked for two years to obtain the permits to build this one towering above the reeds. They were quite friendly people and very proud of their property, quick to point out the height of its flood foundation. I told them I was photographing the neighborhood to document its change following Sandy, not the truth but not a lie, and they were happy to share their story and their time with me.
From the roof of the house their son waved to us and we waved back. He said the view from up there was marvelous. Florence took my email address and promised to send me photographs of the home which once stood there; I agreed to send her scans of the photographs I had taken too. They were sweet people, happy to open their lives up to me, a stranger, and spend some time in my company before going back to inspecting their house. Where at first I was stunned by the irony of their efforts now I was warmed by their openness and kindness.
It’s a strange thing to think of how these people could justify living in such a precarious place, living far from the water I lack much sympathy for those who see damage from storms like sandy. In conversation with John it did come out why he was building his home where he was building it. He pointed towards a refuge just across a small river and said “That’s why we’re building here, because no ocean view or city skyline can beat that. We watch the wildlife from here; I’ve even seen Bald Eagles nesting before. It’s not the safest place for a home but it’s worth the risk”.