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Southampton pays $10.5M for waterfront land that will become park honoring Steinbeck 

John Steinbeck spent much of the final 13

John Steinbeck spent much of the final 13 years of his life on the South Fork, in Sag Harbor. Credit: Newsday/Max Heine

John Steinbeck loved Long Island.

Now Sag Harbor, where he lived for more than a decade, will return the sentiment with the purchase of the downtown property that will become the John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, the village’s first new park in more than a century.

"The Grapes of Wrath" author is most notably associated with Salinas, California, his birthplace and the setting of some of his most famous novels, but he spent much of the final 13 years of his life on the South Fork. There he became a fixture in Sag Harbor, spending mornings writing in the shed he dubbed “Joyous Garde” after Sir Lancelot's castle and afternoons fishing, drinking and socializing with locals.

“If you pay your bills, trade locally as much as possible, mind your business and act reasonably pleasant, pretty soon they forget that you are an outsider,” he wrote in his 1957 essay, My War With The Ospreys. “I feel that I belong in Sag Harbor and I truly believe that the people of the village have accepted us [him and wife Elaine] as citizens.”

Southampton Town closed on the $10.5 million purchase of the 1.25-acre property on July 24 with funding from its Community Preservation Fund, which is financed through a 2 percent tax on real estate transfers.

A previous owner had once proposed using the prime real estate for a 20-unit condominium complex before the community mounted an effort to turn it into a park.

“Waterfront is expensive,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “To be able to create a waterfront park in a downtown adds a great deal to a community in terms of recreation and public enjoyment.”

A groundbreaking ceremony is set for Aug. 16, and the property will be open to the public while the project is underway.

Village trustee James Larocca introduced a resolution proposing to name the future park for Steinbeck immediately after taking office in 2015. 

“He was a full-blooded citizen of the place,” said Larocca, who is a former chairman of LIPA and former dean of Southampton College. “He wasn’t just a passive part-time resident.”

Steinbeck, who died in 1968, was an influential presence in the village and helped found the former whaling festival, which is now the annual late summer event known as Harborfest.

The village will likely fund the park’s development through public funds and private fundraising, Larocca said. No project price has been estimated.

Noted landscape architect and Sag Harbor resident Ed Hollander volunteered his firm to create conceptual plans that were presented last month. The plan envisions pathways and native plants on the parcel, which will connect with the village’s windmill and the Long Wharf Village Pier through a walkway under the Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Nada Barry, owner of The Wharf Shop and whose former husband, Bob, was one of Steinbeck’s best friends, said Steinbeck might have found it slightly embarrassing to have the park named in his honor. He was reluctant to accept the Nobel Prize in literature that he was awarded in 1962, Barry said.

He was “the least pretentious person you would ever know,” said Barry, now 88. “He just liked being part of the gang.”

Village residents enjoyed Steinbeck’s company because of his wit and sense of humor, she said. Barry recalled a pushy fan once making his way to Steinbeck demanding he sign a book, mistaking the author for Ernest Hemingway. Steinbeck signed the book as such.

“This has always tickled all of us,” she said.

Village residents were otherwise protective of Steinbeck, often giving misleading directions to visitors asking where he lived, Barry said.

He wrote dozens of pieces for Newsday over the years, including his “Letters to Alicia” column, a posthumous tribute to the newspaper’s founder, Alicia Patterson, who died in 1963. The column ranged from dispatches from Vietnam during the war, of which Steinbeck was initially a supporter, to observational essays from Sag Harbor.

The village offered Steinbeck peace and in a way reminded him of the Salinas Valley, he said and wrote in letters to friends and colleagues. There he wrote his final novel, "The Winter of Our Discontent."

“I can move out and anchor and have a little table and yellow pad and a pencil. Nothing can intervene,” he wrote in a 1958 letter to his editor, Elizabeth Otis. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

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