A half-century of history revisited
SUFFOLK COUNTY—A special 50th anniversary exhibit, “Protecting a Ribbon of Sand: The Creation of Fire Island National Seashore,” recently opened inside the Suffolk County Environmental Center at the Scully Estate on South Bay Avenue in Islip, where it will remain through July 15. Through correspondence, articles, memorabilia and photographs, the exhibit explores the battle over the fate of Fire Island from the turn of the century until the establishment of the Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) in 1964.
Starting with New York State’s purchase of the western tip of Fire Island in 1892, the exhibition traces the successful campaign against Robert Moses’s proposed barrier island roadway and the subsequent crusade for national seashore designation, culminating with the creation of FINS. The seashore’s dedicated, passionate advocates were part of a burgeoning environmental movement that continues to inspire many to this day.
In the early 1960s, Robert Moses was poised to enact a longstanding plan to build a four-lane highway stretch across Fire Island. Moses’s vision spawned a grassroots movement that successfully stopped the road from being built and preserved the inimitable character and setting of Fire Island that we know today.
Bay Shore resident and community leader Susan Barbash, who curated the exhibit along with her sister, Cathy, experienced the fight to preserve Fire Island firsthand while witnessing the efforts of their father, Murray, as young girls on the eve of the wider environmental movement.
“For my family, it’s very personal,” said Barbash. “I had an impulse the minute my father died to tell his story. I started thinking about his legacy and not wanting people to forget what he’d done. He did so much and was the kind of person who went from one major project to another. But this was the first one.”
Barbash said that aside from wanting to commemorate the memory and deeds of her father, one of the main goals of the exhibit was to ensure that the history of Fire Island was preserved and told both properly and accurately.
“The older you get, the more you realize that people get history wrong,” said Barbash, who utilized sources from a number of historical archives on Long Island. “We wanted to make sure that we got the story right and that it was readily available. My uncle and one other person are the only members of the original Citizen’s Committee that are still alive, so we wanted to get the story while people can still tell it.”
The Suffolk County Environmental Center marks the second location for the exhibit – the first being the Fire Island Lighthouse Fresnel Lens Building late last summer. In order to utilize the facility, a special hanging system was designed and approved by the county to display pictures and text without putting any holes in the walls of the historic mansion.
“[The Seatuck Environmental Association] had the room and the interest,” said Barbash. “It looks terrific in the space they have for it.”
Seatuck executive director Enrico Nardone was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to its new location – the first of its kind at the environmental center.
“We’re very excited and proud to have it at our estate,” said Nardone. “Thanks to the Barbash family for making it happen.”
Nardone noted the key roles Fire Island plays in the region and the importance of understanding its history.
“I think a lot of people just take for granted the fact that this island is protected and doesn’t have a road running down the middle of it like Jones Beach does,” he said. “Anyone who’s been there knows what a special place it is.”
Nardone added that Fire Island is both an important cultural and ecological resource.
“It offers a globally rare habitat for a variety of species, and the island itself provides a vital role in creating the Great South Bay, the estuaries there, and protecting the mainland from the ocean,” said Nardone, who noted that Seatuck has plans to utilize the estate as a gallery space for other exhibits and installations in the future. “I think it’s fascinating to look back and realize it really was on the verge of having roads built on it. But it wasn’t, [thanks to] this group of people who put in the effort to protect it, not just for the locals who lived there, but as a natural resource.
“It’s a national treasure, and we owe them a debt of gratitude,” he added.
Barbash said that the exhibit, which can be easily remounted, could reappear at another location in the future. She hopes that it inspires others to retain a similar degree of optimism that her father and his fellow citizens had while fighting against a powerful figure for a cause that they truly believed in.
“The politicians were kind of afraid of [Moses],” said Barbash. “It took individual citizens to bring [him] down. People are more cynical nowadays, but you have to be engaged. What Kathy and I hope is that people will read about their story and feel empowered to be involved in events of their own lives.
“They believed that if they could generate support around the people, that the system wasn’t so corrupt [to the point where] they couldn’t change people’s minds,” she added. “And they were right.”
This exhibit will run until July 15. For more information, visit www.seatuck.org, call 581-6908, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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