By Susan Risoli
The St. James of the past was a gracious world, where locals were joined by artists and celebrities summering in the prosperous farming community. St. James of the present is a town marked by empty storefronts and limited opportunity for growth.
“St. James needs sprucing up,” said Eric Neitzel, owner of DeBarbieri Associates Real Estate agency and a member of Celebrate St. James. “If you look at Lake Avenue, it looks a little depressed.”
Interior designer Natalie Weinstein helped form the nonprofit organization Celebrate St. James whose mission is to “develop community pride and involvement, and allow people to understand what we can have here.” She is owner of Uniquely Natalie, a high-end furniture consignment shop housed in the former location of the historic St. James Calderone Theater, and Studio 455 Art Gallery on Lake Avenue.
Like Weinstein, many of the group’s members are lifelong St. James residents. They are proud of the town’s rich history. New York City mayor William J. Gaynor and his family lived at the Deepwells mansion, where notable figures such as Harry Houdini, Mae West and Madam C.J. Walker strolled through the parlor.
“Our unique and special town has an auspicious history — but it has so much more,” reads a post on Celebrate St. James’ Facebook page. “It has spirit and pride and a desire to look back while looking forward. It has young and growing families, valued seniors, those who have been here for generations, and those who have just chosen to live and work in our wonderful hamlet because of who we are and what we stand for.”
For their vision and determination to make St. James thrive once more, TBR News Media is honoring the members of Celebrate St. James as 2018 People of the Year.
Since its formation in 2017, the group worked hard to create an 18-month calendar for 2018 featuring historic photos of the town and put together an outdoor concert series at the St. James Gazebo.
Events scheduled for 2019 include a springtime silent film festival and an Art Walk slated for May 5, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For three weeks, more than 20 local artists will partner with St. James businesses along Lake Avenue to showcase their work, according to Arline Goldstein, a St. James resident and Celebrate St. James member. It is currently in the process of reaching out to visual artists, sculptors, photographers, potters, weavers, performing artists and others interested in participating in the event.
Weinstein said Celebrate St. James has also applied for a grant to create a historic walking tour enhanced by kiosks that people could access via an app on their phones.
Celebrate St. James is continuing its work to create a Lake Avenue arts district that would stretch from the St. James firehouse on Route 25A to Woodlawn Avenue. The group first presented this idea to Town of Smithtown officials at their May 8 board meeting.
“It’s in my heart for artists to show their work, and for others to see that work,” Goldstein told TBR News Media in May. “The project is the culmination of all my ideas about art.”
Neitzel explained that the district could become a reality when the street is outfitted with a sewer system. In the new year, the first piece of the plan will move forward, with dry sewer mains scheduled to be installed on Lake Avenue. The town’s streets and sidewalks will also be redone.
“Right now, development is hindered,” Neitzel said. “Eventually the commercial community, and an arts community surrounding it, will be piped into the sewers.”
Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R), the town board and its planning department have said they will help in any way they can. Smithtown officials and St. James community members, including representatives of Celebrate St. James, have been having regular meetings to plan out steps toward downtown revitalization, according to town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo.
Weinstein and the organization’s hard work and persistence has not gone unnoticed by their neighbors.
“Natalie is a phenomenal woman that’s done a tremendous amount for our town,” Tom Donohue, of St. James, said. She’s always looking for the future; she had a ton of energy.”
Goldstein also oversees a committee composed of residents, business owners, architects and representatives of the Town of Smithtown planning department. Goldstein said they are looking at various issues, including off-street parking and signage.
“Right now signs are haphazard and not attractive,” she said.
Goldstein said Celebrate St. James is strategizing ways to strengthen the relationship between the town and creative people. One goal is to have artists and musicians living and working in St. James, “to bring art from the studios right out into the community.”
“We can and will save this town through the arts,” Weinstein said.
The members of Celebrate St. James are all volunteers. Together, they have embraced the challenge of navigating complex matters of zoning and funding, if it means restoring St. James to its former glory.
“We have a big love for St. James,” Neitzel said, “It’s a wonderful town.”