The Transformation of the East End
By Steve Weinstein

For several years, people in the Pines and the Grove have been saying that their communities are in a state of transition.

In the Pines, the death of John Whyte followed the sale of his properties to Eric von Kuersteiner two years ago. It was more than the sale of the most important harbor properties in the community; it represented a generational changing of the guard. Whyte, by his ownership of the Botel, the only legal transient hotel in the Pines, as well as the Blue Whale, the Pavilion and a string of property in between, controlled the social life of the Pines. Since then, the Island Club, the only other bar or club in the Pines, has also changed hands.

In the Grove, the former Property Owners Association was succeeded by a new organization that attempted to incorporate all of the Grove, including renters and businesses, into its ranks. The Cherry Grove Community Association, now three years old, incorporates the older, more exclusive group. But at least one homeowner (who spoke on the condition of anonymity) complained that now the Property Owners don’t have as much say in what goes on.

The Grove has been roiled in recent years by changes in the downtown businesses. Michael’s burned down, replaced by a new building that may symbolize a new energy in the community. On the other hand, just opposite the new restaurant, the venerable Top of the Bay is empty.

One thing is for sure: To judge by the Memorial Day Weekend crowds, the island is back with a vengeance. Of course, on Fire Island it’s all about the weather, and the atmosphere was certainly tinged with all-around joy at the immoderately high temperatures and brilliant sun for the traditional kick-off to the summer season. With the best Memorial Day Weekend weather in at least 20 years, despite a cool, rainy Friday, anyone who could score a sofa to crash on was on the island this weekend. I’ve been going out there since the mid-'80s and have never experienced an opening holiday weekend remotely as nice, weather-wise.

It was nice to see the return of house parties. Great parties on Black Duck and Shell and Bass. These were not invite-only parties. The house members threw open their homes to one and all, and one and all returned the favor.

Low Teas at the Botel looked like the ’70s had never gone away. They were jammed, as were High Teas every night.

Von Kuersteiner has reopened the gym in back of the Bay Bar, formerly the Cultured Elephant, which helps bring the boys to the harbor. The Botel, now rechristened Ciel, looks great. Amazing what a coat of paint and some well-placed bunting can do. Apparently the rooms have undergone (or are undergoing) a very much needed renovation as well. This can only help bring international visitors back to the Pines. Von Kuersteiner hasn’t begun the desperately needed remodeling of the Pavilion, but last summer he added air conditioning (even though sometimes the dance floor still emanated plenty of heat).

What he did this year, though, was brilliant: Taking out the banquettes upstairs and lowering the upper stairs didn’t cost much but has made High Tea negotiable. I used to dread High Tea because it was so hard to get around; now it’s easy and even pleasurable. He’s also added a DJ, the popular Lina, who spins in her own style. The boys love it.

Low Tea, however, remains my favorite. Whyte revived dancing at this event and brought in some of the Pines’ favorite DJs. Von Kuersteiner is relying on a rotating roster of DJs, to mixed results.

Brenda Black spun on Friday, and people voted with their feet; they didn’t dance. Black didn’t bother beat mixing and piled up records that have nothing to do with each other. I know some people, especially the fabled East Village crowd, like this mash-up style of DJing, but I’m looking for a journey. Or at least the kind of music that typifies Tea on Fire Island.

For that, we had to wait for Saturday and Sunday. Max Rodriguez turned it out on Saturday for a fun, up set. But the real surprise was Super Dave on Sunday. Hell, I didn’t even know he owned those records. He played songs that have been favorites on Fire Island for 20 years, but he did it with panache. “Souvenirs,” which comes as close as anything else as the Pines’ theme song, was played—but only a remixed intro, as a sampled musical tease. It was brilliant, and the crowd ate it up.

The big question, however, is whether that younger East Village crowd, who seemed to have abandoned the Pines somewhat in recent years, has returned. The real estate brokers all reported that everyplace available was rented for the first time in many seasons. But is this the result of more and more houses being taken off the rental market by owner-occupiers or by more people actually flocking to the Pines? No one has produced statistics either way, but empirical evidence points to more and more houses being taken off the rental market as owners decide to occupy their homes rather than rent them out to group shares. (A few years back, my posse was thrown out of three houses in three years when the houses were sold by absentee owners to owner-occupiers.)

Certainly at the house parties, there were younger faces. But there has always been a “fresh crop” coming out to Fire Island. Von Kuersteiner has made it plain that he wants to attract a younger crowd. He has been advertising in city media and Circuit Noize. When asked by one publication what he was doing to cater to the older crowd, he seemed to duck the question. And his selection of DJs this summer has skewed in favor of East Village favorites at the expense of former island stalwarts like Warren Gluck, Robbie Lesley and Susan Morabito, who helped define the island sound for many years.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. While I hope that a new generation discovers the island, I’ll be watching to see what happens the rest of the season.

In the Grove, there has been dissension caused by the resentment of some women to the presence of porn on monitors and go-go dancers and porn stars performing at the bars and clubs. This has brought out some divisions in the community along generational and sexual-identity lines. In addition, the wooing of mainland day trippers by the bars, always a cause of contention in the Grove, has escalated the old “town-gown” conflicts between older residents and the business community.

For several years, people have been predicting that the Grove would see a renaissance. Prompted in part by the high cost of the Pines, younger people, it was reasoned, would flock to the Grove, where rentals are lower. But the Grove has never been a group-share town; unlike the Pines, the homes are smaller. “It’s a different bowl of cherries here,” said Valerie Perez, owner of A Summer Place Realty in Cherry Grove.

“We don’t have the big, six-bedroom houses,” said Perez, who added that younger people were indeed rediscovering the Grove this year. “We’re getting a lot of people from the Pines,” she said. “All you have to do is literally stand in one spot and you’ll see a lot of new, younger people.”

Whatever happens in the Pines and Grove, both communities will always have the natural beauty, the gorgeous homes, the isolation and the freedom from other “civilizing” influences that will continue to attract gay New Yorkers. With von Kuersteiner trying to create a buzz in the city, the building of the new Community House in the Pines, and an influx of new blood in the Grove, the two communities that have long defined the gay high life appear to be poised for the new century.