In the age of extravagance, traditions drown

Megan Angelo

The sprawling pool of water was dubbed Georgica Lake in 1686, long before the Hamptons became synonymous with affluence. In fact, more than three centuries would pass before the very wealthy made their homes on its banks. But for the past several years, the lake has lived in the company of fame.

The Hampton homes of business tycoons like Martha Stewart, Ron Perelman and Kelly Klein (Calvin’s wife) are situated around the circumference of the lake. Most of the A-list inhabitants of the area have had a problem with it at some point. The complaints of the residents around Georgica Lake are not the spoiled grievances that one might expect of the outrageously rich. Year after year, Georgica Lake floods basements and swamps lawns.

But the local officials of the East Hampton village have had little to say in response to the homeowners’ moans. Georgica Lake, as it turns out, is the property of a board of trustees. Originally, it was a gift from the English governor of New York to the colonial settlers of the village. For generations, the lake was tended to with doting local attention. In recent years, however, the land surrounding the lake became a popular choice of the rich looking to build enormous estates. After tens of millions of dollars, they had the houses they dreamed of and the landscapes they cherished, but there was still that perennial annoyance: the ominously rising lake.

And then, one day this summer, the residents woke up to find their problem solved. Georgica Lake, it seemed, had evaporated overnight.

It quickly became obvious that such an environmental happening was impossible, and investigations soon showed that the sand barrier between Georgica Lake and the Atlantic Ocean had been razed, allowing most of the lake water to flow out to sea.

Apparently, using their own private funds, a resident had arranged to have the lake emptied while their neighbors slept. The identity of the person who took matters into their own hands is still a mystery, but surely many of those who had scooped the lake out of their cellars were happy to see the problem solved.

The occurrence was astonishing on so many levels. No one as much as stirred in their sleep while the late night activity at the lake transpired; the execution of the task was an amazing feat in itself. Even more striking is what the episode proved: a human being has the capacity to destroy an element of nature.

Admittedly, it is not so much an issue of the environment as it is one of power. We have characterized ourselves as a culture that has learned how to get anything we want. A subtler dimension of our muscle exists in the fact that we have learned how to get rid of anything we want. When a tradition becomes inconvenient, it’s always just a matter of time before we throw it away.

Obtaining success has become a matter of improving, merging, replacing and demolishing. So often, the things that have defined society throughout history are condemned for holding us back. Small businesses buckle and finally close in the looming shadow of corporations. Marriages are practically destined for disposal ¾ prenuptial agreements have joined tuxedo fittings and music selection on the list of important things to do before a wedding. Whole forests are decimated at an alarming rate to make room for the newest shopping mecca.

Still, no matter how much money we spend or how much space we span, there is always something bigger and better waiting in the wings. And when it comes along, we forget its predecessor almost instantaneously. The sparkling supermarket that came in a year ago thrilled us at the time. But the gigantic new one, boasting a coffee house and gourmet delicacies, attracts our curiosity. One shopping trip will hook us, and that’s the end of the first supermarket. Now, it’s a place where we’ll only stop if we’re nearby and need something fast ¾ but it’s been even longer since we visited the corner grocer, who long ago stopped competing with commercial powerhouses.

Following this pattern, many social and even human customs have eroded. The trend cannot be completely attributed to our obsession with making things faster and easier; progress naturally leaves some antiquated practices in its wake. But when a private citizen can authorize the removal of a body of water because it has caused them minor trouble, it raises the issue of just how much clout we can exercise without going too far. In other words, should we do things just because we can?

Obviously, whoever drained Georgica Lake shares this concern ¾ otherwise, he or she would not feel the need to keep their involvement a secret. On some scale, surely, we are all guilty of abandoning a tradition just to get to the next degree of comfort. For while the stream of advancement keeps us swimming frantically toward the next big thing, some institutions can barely keep their head above water ¾ and others, like Georgica Lake, just dry up and fade away.

Information taken from Vanity Fair magazine.