“Mastic Beach: Finding Community in Conservation”
MAURA SPERY: We are only about a quarter mile from the Atlantic Ocean, which is Smith Point Beach, and part of Fire Island National Seashore. And as you can see, is spectacular –
NARRATION: I am standing in the home of Maura Spery as she orients me to our location as we look out of the living room window in her waterfront home in Mastic Beach, a hamlet on the East End of Long Island – and my hometown.
MAURA: – a really unique little parcel of the Earth and certainly a very unique part of Suffolk County and Nassau County. Mastic Beach has six and a half miles of publicly accessible, uh, Parkland waterfront.
NARRATION: Maura is 63 years old and the director of the Mastic Beach Conservancy, a community-led organization whose goal is to turn that 6-and-a-half-mile waterfront trail into an interactive, educational park, with the mission of protecting the “waterfront environmental health” of the area. Maura says they modeled themselves after the Central Park Conservancy, which transformed New York’s most famous park.
We wanna do the same thing. We wanna work with the different municipalities and governments and other, uh, not-for-profits to really completely, uh, revitalize, rehabilitate, um, and just make this an unbelievable park.
NARRATION: Speaking of parks, Maura invited me to the conservancy’s Earth Day clean-up event at Bayview Park. It’s only 5 minutes away from my house… yet, I’d never been there. Like Maura pointed out, the natural beauty of Mastic Beach is underappreciated. Even by people who grew up here, like me.
[MUSIC: ambient piano and drum]
When I was 15, my mom and I moved to Mastic Beach – for economic, not ecological reasons. The neighborhood is known for being affordable and working-class – one of the few areas on Long Island where a single mother, like mine, could afford to purchase a home. However, its positives have always been overshadowed by a less-than-stellar reputation. Media coverage of the area often focuses on blighted properties, absentee landlords, and crime. By bringing the community together to clean up the environment, the conservancy is also cleaning up Mastic Beach’s reputation. I was looking forward to seeing them in action on Earth Day.
MAURA: Hey! Vin, how are you?
VINCENT: Good, how are you?
MAURA: Good! I’m glad you made it!
NARRATION: Of course, I find Maura at the center of it all – underneath a pergola surrounded by Mastic Beach Conservancy banners, signage, and swag she gives out to volunteers. Living up to her title of director, she’s orchestrating the entire Earth Day clean-up event, and enthusiastically promoting the next one.
MAURA: So today, at the end we’re actually doing a raffle where we’re giving away a paddle board and we’re also promoting the event we’re doing in July, July 15th. We’re doing a big, uh, M.B.C. paddle board festival and a big summer, summer fest where we’re gonna have a, a paddle board regatta that’s gonna end at Bayview Park.
And then we’re having a giant party here open to the community. So it should be a really great event this summer. We’re, we’re looking forward to it. We think it’s gonna be awesome.
NARRATION: As for today, they’ve split volunteers into three groups to clean up the park and its surrounding areas.
MAURA: Have you walked around?
VINCENT: No, not yet.
MAURA: Oh, you gotta walk around.
It’s lovely. And they have the kayak launches down here, which, you know, let’s see.
MAURA: [33:42] Let’s see if they’ve, Hey, hey, look who’s here.
[WALKING THROUGH PARK, ROCKS, GRASS, ETC.]
NARRATION (over tape): Maura walks over to a group of volunteers, a woman and a couple of kids, to see if they can fill in for her so we can walk around a bit.
MAURA: Can you guys, I’m gonna take a walk with Vinny to the launch, can you just watch our “schtuff”?
VOLUNTEERS: Yea, yup!
MAURA: – that was kinda my job.
NARRATION: And off we go, to tour Bayview Park which is mostly an open green space surrounded by woodlands … there are picnic tables all around, a pollinator garden in the center, and a path leading to the creek.
[WALKING THROUGH PARK, ROCKS, GRASS, BRUSH, ETC.]
MAURA: I like to think of this as like the heart because it, it’s kind of in the middle.
It’s right off of Neighborhood Road, which is our gonna be our walkable downtown. Our whole, uh, downtown is being redeveloped and revitalized.
Yeah, this to me is the heart or the brain, right? This is the center of it all. We got Neighborhood Road right up here, Pattersquash Creek, right here.
NARRATION: (over tape) Maura gets distracted by an adorable kid carrying a trash picker stick.
MAURA: You get the bike, the bike and kayaking around the, the west side of the peninsula. You get on the east side–
MAURA: Easton, are you picking up garbage? You’re just whacking that thing on the ground.
MOM: He’s picking up the most minute pieces to find. Oh yeah, man
MAURA: Yeah. Good eyes. His dad said, get the most minute pieces of garbage, and he’s taking that up. Let’s see what we got down here. Oh, what do we got here? We got some sculptures. [35:15]
NARRATION: Volunteers have piled up an assortment of scrap metal–
MAURA: [35:15] We have a metal collection.
NARRATION: –rusty remnants of what were once car parts or building materials, that had been dumped in the woods. But that’s not all…
[WALKING/SOUNDS OF VOLUNTEERS]
MAURA: [35:17] What’s that?
VOLUNTEER: They tried to install a rug back here. We’re uninstalling it.
NARRATION: They’ve pulled out an area rug that has likely been buried there for years – all good reasons for today’s clean-up.
MAURA: [35:20] Well, they used to live back here, back in the day.
NARRATION: The “they” Maura refers to are people, who for one reason or another – poverty or personal troubles – lived in these woods before the space became the well-cared-for park it is now. She remembers the woods being filled with mattresses, tarps, storage bins, and other traces of makeshift homes. It’s unfortunate instances like this, of environmental and human neglect, that hurt the area’s reputation.
MAURA: That was when I was mayor. It was so much fun.
NARRATION: Oh, yeah. Maura was briefly the second and last Mayor of the short-lived Village of Mastic Beach, which residents voted to dissolve in 2016 after just 6 years. But, who is Maura? How did she become a village mayor? An environmental conservancy director? And why Mastic Beach? I had to ask.
MAURA: Oh… my God. All right. Now you really opened a can of worms. I’m going to give it to ya, so you’re here for this. So no, I am a painting contractor. I did super high-end painting and plastering in Manhattan, working for some of the best designers and decorators and working for some, you know, famous people and some pretty wealthy people. Um, And I used to have a band and play music. I sing and do songwriting, and…
NARRATION: Here and throughout our conversation, it becomes clear that Maura is a woman of many passions. Eventually, they led her to Mastic Beach.
I’m gay, and a group of my lesbian friends who all got together in the nineties and we played on a flag football team called The Bulldogs. And we became absolute the best of friends. And we used to go every summer for a weekend to our friend Millie’s, um, parents’ house in Amagansett.
And um, after doing it for years, we were like, you know, we should get a compound and we should get a place that we could all have cottages around a main house or something.
NARRATION: And they did. Sort of. In 2002, one of the “Bulldogs” heard about an “up and coming” Mastic Beach and took Maura to check it out.
[MUSIC: ambient piano and drum]
I just fell in love with it right away. I put a bid on a house that day, um, you know, and we ended up buying four of us ended up buying here of the Bulldogs buying houses here.
NARRATION: Only Maura, her partner, and one of the other “Bulldogs” still live in Mastic Beach. After moving in, she realized how underserved the community was. But Maura says it wasn’t until her mom passed away and she prayed for new direction in her life that she found her current passion: improving Mastic Beach.
17 years later we are, we are on the precipice of doing something unbelievably special here in Mastic Beach. I think as it goes on, people are going to be amazed by what’s happening here. People are gonna see the potential as we start to create these different nature – I, I have, I have some maps…
NARRATION: Maura showed me some maps of the plans for the area, and during our tour of “the heart,” I was able to see them brought to life.
MAURA: Are you alright to get scratched going through here a little bit?
NARRATION: We venture along the creek, through the brush, to the kayak launch.
MAURA: So that’s – watch out there’s scat, there’s some scat there. So this is the actual kayak launch, right? This is, this is the real launch over here.
NARRATION: Across the creek, Maura notices a group of volunteers…
MAURA: Um, look, somebody’s over there!
Are you guys cleaning garbage over there like that?
Oh, you are the best! Look at you guys.
NARRATION: Maura speaks with such admiration and appreciation for everyone we encounter.
MAURA: That’s why we love this organization cause it’s just a collaborative effort. It’s just neighbors helping neighbors, people who just want to do better for the earth, for the environment, for people, for the world. Just trying to work together to bring that to, to fruition.
NARRATION: She’s not only giving me a tour of the community’s nature – she’s also giving me a tour of the community’s people – including one who’s a history-making superstar in her own right, Sue Wicks.
MAURA: [22:33-53] So Sue, I don’t know if you know, Sue is Violet’s Cove Oyster Farm.
She’s one of our oyster farmers. And, she has been a tremendous help.
She’s also, she doesn’t – she’s also a former WNBA star. She was the, um, with the New York Liberty when we started, so…
NARRATION: Maura throws that in there, sort of under her breath, I guess perhaps Sue is humble about her groundbreaking, pre-Oyster farming career. So, I start by asking Sue how she feels about the community.
SUE WICKS: So I’m in love with Mastic Beach, um, I’m originally from Long Island.
NARRATION: As Sue talks, it’s apparent in her voice, and on her face, that this love for Mastic Beach is what inspired her to return to her roots.
[MUSIC: ambient piano and drum]
SUE: When I was 50, I moved back to Long Island from Brooklyn and I started an oyster farm. And I come from, you know, a family of, um, bay men and boat builders and people that have lived on Long Island for a long time, always working on the water.
What I love about Mastic Beach is that it really feels like a beach town. It really feels like, your summer place.
NARRATION: On most of the Island, you need to drive to a public beach for ocean views – unless you own waterfront property. Not in Mastic Beach, though. You can walk to it.
SUE: It’s a singular location on Long Island that the public has access to the waterfront. Every place else, you know, that I mentioned or alluded to has a sign, a fence, a do not trespass, this is mine, not yours, private property waterfront.
Here, it’s deeded into the community that this is forever accessible to the public. And I think that makes my heart so happy. So now we have to the people that can go there, we have to reintroduce them to the beauty of that. And once you see that, I think you fall in love with it. And once you fall in love with something it, you care for it.
So then you get this community that we have here. This has grown in the last several years that, you know, there were five or six people now today I think we’re up to about 75, a hundred people for this cleanup. And they’re all in the bushes grabbing stuff, you know, pulling out tires, pulling out trash, trash bags are filled because they saw this community, they fell in love with it, and they wanna take care of it.
NARRATION: Vice President of the Conservancy, Johnny Panessa, echoes similar appreciation for today’s turnout.
JOHNNY: You, you see here today I think there’s maybe a hundred people, uh, it shows you that the future’s looking good because so many people are interested in, in what we’re doing. And I’m hoping that equates to this park really happening and people caring about it.
NARRATION: Like Sue, Johnny also points out that, unlike the Hamptons – the waterfront in Mastic Beach is not only geographically accessible, but living here is also affordable.
JOHNNY: Here is, is for everyone. And you can tell, like you come to our cleanups or you come to our meetings and it’s, it’s people from everywhere and all different cultures and all different economic situations and everyone’s working together for the same reason.
NARRATION: Though, as Maura mentioned earlier, there was one more, slightly less noble draw for today’s event. As the event came to a close, community members filled in around the pergola for a paddleboard raffle.
[CROWD NOISE AS KIDS ARRIVE IN A TRUCK YELLING]
A bunch of kids arrived in the back of their pickup truck, excited about their trash haul.
MAURA: The feral kids have arrived!
MAURA: Alright guys. Everybody, let’s get over here. Cause we have a paddle board to give away. First of all, I just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who showed up…
NARRATION: With around 100 volunteers, it’s clear that the Mastic Beach Conservancy has become a community effort – but for Maura, conserving her community is personal.
MAURA: When when I was pretty young, I started having a dream, right? Kind of like deja vu. And I’d wake up and I’d be like, oh crap. That was the same place in that dream. And over the years I would have it couple times a year.
I always knew when I woke up, it was the same place, right? So like about three years after we had this house, one morning I woke up and I looked out and I went, oh, that’s, the dream.
I literally was like, holy crap. That’s the view in the dream. That was my dream.
And I’ve not had the dream since moving here. So, and I had it for 35 years, so it made me kind of feel like I was in the right place doing the right thing, you know?
[MUSIC fades into tape]
MAURA: …I think we see the only way that we’re gonna fix things in this world is when we all come together as a community and when we all work together with our mindset on a goal to make Mastic Beach the most beautiful place, which it already is in the whole wide world.
So thank you all for coming down and helping with that.