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The Bonackers
A 60-Minute Documentary

I was a Bayman like my father was before
Can't make a living as a Bayman anymore
There ain't much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain't no island left for Islanders like me

Billy Joel’s “Downeaster Alexa

The Bonackers,, produced and directed by Joanne Friedland Roberts, and sponsored by the New York Foundation of the Arts, is the ongoing survival story of the long- time locals who’ve fished and farmed the land and seas on the east end of Long Island for almost 400 years.  Struggling to hold onto their traditions in the midst of the mansion filled Hamptons, these fiercely independent men and women may well be the last of their kind.

Tucked into the Springs, a small hamlet surrounded by water on three sides, the Bonackers, trace their roots back to East Hamptons first settlers, seagoing families from Kent and Dorset in England. Calling each other “bub” and referring to outsiders as “foreigners” most of them joke about needing a passport to drive across the Shinnecock Canal to New York City.

 The lucky ones are still able to eke out a living fishing, farming and harvesting shellfish. But life is getting harder every year. Government regulations limit their annual catch. Greedy developers are squeezing them out, buying up surrounding tracts of land for mega-millions, and their bays are being destroyed by their neighbor’s overfertilized lawns and climate change. Few of their children can afford to follow in their footsteps, reluctantly pulling up stakes and heading elsewhere.


The Bonackers, will share perspectives and knowledge passed down through generations, sprinkled with the Bonac dialect, and seasoned with the sounds of the sea. Their powerful commitment to holding onto their traditions in spite of ever-increasing obstacles will come to life through a series of interviews and video stories.

 Historic footage from Local TV East Hampton’s “hidden archive,” and photographs from private collections, will be layered throughout, along with interviews with historians and the indigenous population. We’ll listen to Peter Matthiessen reading from “Men’s Lives” his 80’s elegy to the baymen, despairing that “we’re losing precious threads in the weave of our existence.” Singer Billy Joel, a former baymen who wrote “Downeaster Alexa” about the Bonackers, will remind us “You have to have hope, even when things are hopeless. If there was no hope, we’d just throw up our hands and become an appendage of Manhattan, a suburb without a soul.”

 But can the Bonackers continue to survive the escalating hardships they endure year after year? And is ‘hope’ really enough? We’ll find out firsthand, as one story leads to the next and family sagas unfold when we head onto their boats, bays and farms, and into their pick-up trucks, homes, and community gatherings.


While our story is about one rural community on the east end of Long Island, the Bonackers survival story is being replicated in small towns across the nation. Our aim is to inspire people to think more deeply about what we lose as a country if these centuries old cultures disappear and all that’s left of them is housed in museums and archives.


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