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Push to preserve Sag Harbor's historic African American district

After World War II, subdivisions in Sag Harbor

After World War II, subdivisions in Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah Beach became a retreat for African Americans. The welcome sign above is seen on May 12. Photo Credit: Anthony J. Causi

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Monday urged adding the SANS Historic District, Sag Harbor’s traditionally African American second home and resort community, to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest and Ninevah Beach subdivisions, collectively referred to as SANS, were founded following World War II and served as a welcome retreat for people of color during the segregation era. A grassroots effort largely funded by SANS residents has been underway to catalog and preserve the area’s history, and gain state and national recognition.

“The Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah Beach communities thrived as safe havens and retreats for African American families during a time of institutionalized racism, when African American families were excluded from so many other places,” Gillibrand (D-New York) said in a statement. “As one of the last remaining African American beachfront communities in the country, the SANS Historic District holds important historic value that must be protected."

A listing on the National Register, which features more than 1.8 million sites, structures, objects, buildings and districts, would raise awareness of SANS’ cultural significance, although it places no restrictions on what nonfederal owners may do with their property, according to the National Park Service. Listing on the state and national registers, however, can make a district eligible for grants and other preservation programs.

“It would give us the recognition that we are part of the national story, the national heritage,” said Georgette Grier-Key, director of the Eastville Community Historical Society, a traditionally working class neighborhood in Sag Harbor. “It [African American resort communities] was a movement that happened across the country.”

In a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Monday, Gillibrand noted the community was one of the first East Coast beach communities founded by African Americans and features designs by Amaza Lee Meredith, one of the first professional black female architects. Meredith and her sister Maude Terry went on to manage Azurest Syndicate Inc., which brokered sales and financed mortgages for people of color who otherwise may have faced discrimination in securing financing, according to the nonprofit Preservation Long Island.

Gillibrand’s letter acknowledges that  redevelopment may be changing the neighborhood character. Investors and second homeowners are demolishing some of the midcentury ranch-style houses and bungalows that make up the neighborhood, a trend that has worried longtime community members, Grier-Key said.

“This new development threatens to undermine the historical character of the community, displace residents, and prevent the continued discovery of historically significant locations,” Gillibrand wrote.

In March, SANS was listed on the New York State Register of Historic Places, and the state board of historic preservation recommended it be added to the national register.

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