For ordinary mortals, planning a trip in the U.S. has become an exercise in trying to choose the least miserable path. Airlines are shrinking seats and leg room, airports are choke points, not gateways, trains are moving museums of 20th-century equipment (demonstrated tragically last week), roads and bridges are falling apart, and Interstate tailbacks can stretch for miles.
But if you’re rich enough you can skip all of this. These days the most valuable privilege for sale is to travel where you want to, how you want to, when you want to—and never share the experience with anyone you haven’t chosen.
Sometimes, though, the people lucky enough to enjoy this privilege make abrasive contact with those who don’t. And there is probably no place in the world where the collision of great wealth and the rest of humanity is as acute as it is on that slender archipelago at the eastern end of Long Island, the Hamptons.
The rich are now returning to the Hamptons for the summer season. And the richest of them come regally by air, in their private jets or helicopters, to the small airport at East Hampton. On final approach, they can glimpse with smug satisfaction what they have avoided: the coagulated traffic below where, on Friday afternoons, the tailback seems to coalesce into one great ribbon of rage from the Queens Midtown Tunnel in Manhattan to Amagansett, a distance of 109 miles.
The curse that comes with these flights is noise. At times on weekends there are so many helicopters heading into East Hampton that it almost resembles the “Death From Above” sequence in Apocalypse Now where the Wagner-blaring squadron comes in low over the beach to eviscerate the Vietnamese villagers. As a result, the town board of East Hampton, which runs the airport, is attempting to impose a night curfew on flights and restrict the operations of noisy airplanes.
But the town’s action has, predictably, provoked a reaction from aviation interests and their customers, who have filed suit to stop the restrictions. (If the suit is dismissed in a court hearing Monday the restrictions will take effect from Tuesday.) There are unresolved issues about who actually has the legal and constitutional authority to restrict flights. The FAA, as usual, is being pulled in two directions, not knowing whether to side with the industry it regulates or the people whose quality of life is being violated by that industry.
Superficially, this might seem to be a fight between two groups who both enjoy the extraordinary amenity of living in the Hamptons. And, indeed, it makes for a sexy tabloid narrative to see it as a combat that engages celebrities on both sides. But there is really far more at stake.
“Noise pollution” is too litigious and impersonal a term to convey the quality of life that is really being violated here. Beyond the billionaire estates that have colonized the ocean shoreline, beyond the once hardscrabble villages that have turned into clusters of boutiques, beyond the designer cocktails and the lines outside the restaurants du jour there is another Hamptons, a maritime Elysium that, against all the odds, has managed to resist the advance of concrete and a rampant real estate market.
The defining quality of the land is its flatness. Apart from a spinal moraine that creates a low ridge between the shores of the Atlantic and Long Island Sound most of the terrain is only a few feet above sea level. The shape of the northern coastline is scalloped by Great Peconic Bay, one of the last relatively pristine estuaries in the Northeast. Water laps at many fragile habitats. Freshwater seeps from springs and run-off channels into one side of a wetland while, on the other side, saltwater filters in on every tide.
There are well-run state and county parks and wild life preserves. One of the marvels of this precariously-balanced marine ecology is the Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island, more than 2,000 acres managed for 25 years by the Nature Conservancy. It combines tidal creeks, woodlands of oak, open meadows, and freshwater marshes. One of its signal achievements has been to protect the breeding grounds of the native ospreys. These magnificent soaring birds build their nests in surprisingly vulnerable spots atop the tallest trees and utility poles.
The flatness of the land plays a magical hand in the quality of the light, particularly in winter. Creeks, ponds and wetlands function like mirrors, sometimes absorbing and softening the light, or when frozen bouncing back the color of the weak sun into a pale maritime wash reminiscent of the Dutch landscape painters. This particular light and the intensely knotty tangle of winter undergrowth gives a clue to how Jackson Pollock found the texture of his art. It was all around his studio in Springs, north of East Hampton.
And now into these slumberous backlands come the choppers. In summer, even before the sun comes up, you can hear the air being chewed up by the chopper blades, at first like a distant chain saw or leaf-blower, then more insistently it becomes a concussive assault from above, rattling china. It goes way beyond what the FAA defines as offensive, an Effective Perceived Noise in Decibels (EPNdB) of 91 or higher.
“No peace can be found; not for man, woman or critter of any kind,” complained one resident of my own town, Sag Harbor, to the local newspaper.
From November 1, 2013, to October 31, 2014, East Hampton received nearly 2,400 complaints about aircraft noise—twice as many as were made by people living near Logan International in Boston. The top 10 complainants made more than 400 complaints each.
The airport lies between East Hampton and Sag Harbor. The most direct departure route to the north goes over Sag Harbor and Shelter Island, including the Mashomack Preserve. On a recent afternoon, I counted four helicopters using this route in the space of 10 minutes. The racket shattered what was otherwise an idyllic day—and this was even before the summer swarm arrived.
Trying to abate this infliction, the airport managers have several times altered the flight paths into and out of East Hampton, working with the FAA. This is futile. It’s like trying to put a hurricane into a bottle. A more undulating terrain, with hills and valleys and woodlands, tends to absorb and disperse airplane noise. In contrast, the flatlands of eastern Long Island magnify it. The sound of helicopters descends in a wide swathe, creating pain for miles outside its supposed “footprint.”
However, it would be facile to try to identify individual villains in this conflict.
The coalition of business interests that has filed suit to stop the curfew on flights from between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., and limits on the frequency of flights by noisy airplanes, is led by a group named Friends of East Hampton Airport. I have seen their bumper sticker—“I Love Airport Noise.” But despite the vulgarity of this sentiment, it is true that many jobs are at stake.
The industry operating private jets (excluding helicopters) employs 1.2 million people in the U.S. We have the largest fleet of private and corporate jets in the world, 12,000 airplanes. They are able to use 5,000 airports around the country, providing a timesaving convenience impossible on scheduled airlines (and after a series of mergers the main carriers have been busy slashing shorter routes, leaving many of the smaller regional airports without any connections to hubs).
Economic damage is also collateral on the other side. Real estate brokers say that they can’t rent homes for the summer that are anywhere near the airport or its approaches. That doesn’t just hurt the homeowners. There is a dependent chain of services—landscapers, pool cleaners, plumbers and electricians, and all the retail businesses that the renters patronize. This isn’t the squeal of people living high on the hog. The Hamptons is a resort in the summer but a tough place to make a living in the winter.
I have no doubt that behind the Friends of East Hampton Airport coalition there are some billionaires who don’t give a damn about rocking osprey nests or shattering the serenity of a secluded wetland. To them a prevailing entitlement to seamless movement from mansion to mansion is a given. But on both sides there are those who would prefer to reconcile the conflicts of interest if they can—it’s just that there seems to be no easy way to do so.
The appeal of eastern Long Island as a summer retreat from Manhattan for the rich was apparent from the Gilded Age onward. In the 1870s Winslow Homer arrived in East Hampton and rendered its plein air naturalness in a way that made it seductive in much the same way that the Impressionists portrayed bucolic France. Jazzy new money followed old money. Scott Fitzgerald located Gatsby’s mansion in Nassau County, close to Manhattan, but the lifestyle it immortalized was rapidly taking root in the Hamptons.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the most aristocratic of the old-money families came up from wintering in Florida in their private railroad cars. Their arrivals and departures were unobtrusive.
These days the rich have no such restraint. They are far more numerous and diverse and impatient to get to the beach. Wall Street has come to see the Hamptons as almost a suburb, only 25 minutes away if you have wings or blades. They are not only able to disregard the decaying infrastructure, they are, in effect, willing to pay a high premium to make it irrelevant to their lives. The fact that the rich and the rest of us move at two different speeds is partly a result of public policy on transportation and infrastructure—or the total lack of it. It begins to look like part of a settlement that accepts such extreme inequalities as permanent, something that Europeans in particular find astonishing.
Airplanes and helicopters are the most uneconomic and least efficient means of covering short to medium distances. To any modern railroad engineer practicing in Europe or Japan or China the route from Manhattan to eastern Long Island would appear ideal for a high-speed train. The distance, around 120 miles to Montauk, is relatively short. The terrain is unchallenging—flat and needing no curves. High-speed trains come with the same creature comforts as airplanes—the availability of first-class cars and fully wired communications. The trip would take about 40 minutes. Given such comforts, even masters of the universe would be sorely tempted to abandon their adoption of the helicopter.
Am I dreaming? Not really. This month a direct high-speed rail service was inaugurated from London to the south of France, a distance of 770 miles. The trip takes a little less than six and a half hours. Quite often, on a summer Friday, it can take five hours to reach the Hamptons by road from New York.