Dream house just out of reach for Shinnecock elder

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After three years of setbacks and tragedies, Shinnecock elder Florence Crippen’s dream of living in a house of her own on the Shinnecock Reservation is still out of reach.

Ms. Crippen has a prefabricated house sitting on her family homestead on the reservation, but she hasn’t been able to pull together the cash to put the final essential touches on it—things like heat, running water and a paved driveway—that are necessary for her to move in. Pushing her dream even further out of reach, two years ago this month a fire claimed her uninsured Hillcrest Avenue home in Southampton Village and the life of her brother Lawrence Crippen.

Her family members, particularly her nephew Phillip Brown IV, have been struggling to raise the last $20,000 to $25,000 it will take to make the home habitable and to keep the 84-year-old Ms. Crippen from losing hope.

“She did so much for everybody,” Mr. Brown said as he gave a tour of the unfinished house with a basement full of the furniture and belongings that survived the Hillcrest fire. “It’s time for all of us to help.”

Besides the essentials, like heat and insulation, the house still needs paint and drapes too, Mr. Brown said.

“It’s, like, close, but so far away,” he said.

Ms. Crippen is wary of the attention and of accepting help.

“I’m a very independent person,” she said last week. “I don’t like people doing things for me without my consent.”

But Mr. Brown said he felt like he owed it to his aunt to get her into the house because of all she has done for him and their family.

“My aunt doesn’t have any children of her own,” he said. “She’s always been kind of my second mom all my life.”

Ms. Crippen was also her brother’s caretaker until he died in the fire at the age of 82. Fire officials said they suspect a cigarette started the blaze.

Southampton firefighters Dean McNamara, Jason Poremba and Ted Duffy were honored with Medals of Valor in August 2008 for their attempt to save Mr. Crippen. The trio crawled through the house while it was engulfed in flame and full of smoke to find Mr. Crippen and bring him to safety, though he ultimately died.

The family is still grateful to the firefighters for their efforts. Ms. Crippen said she wished the Shinnecock Nation would name them honorary tribal members, and Mr. Brown said he would like to have them be the ones who bring his aunt into her house when it is finally ready for her to move in.

Ms. Crippen recalled that on the day of the fire she asked her brother to leave the house with her and go to do some laundry, but he wanted to stay at home alone.

“All within five hours, the house was gone and I lost my Larry,” Ms. Crippen said.

She also lost many family heirlooms in the fire, like her parents’ wedding certificate and arrows from the 1600s, she said. Lance Gumbs, a tribal trustee and one of Ms. Crippen’s many nephews, has put her up at a cottage on the reservation since the fire. But she spent most of 2008 hospitalized, facing several medical difficulties.

Mr. Brown said his aunt is losing hope that she will ever get to live in her new house. “She told me the other day, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it Phil,’” he said.

Ms. Crippen has retained some optimism and her independent spirit. Since her time in the hospital, she is confined to a wheelchair, but attends physical therapy twice a week.

“I’m determined I’m going to walk again,” she said. “And I’m determined I’m going to be on my own again.”

Before moving to Southampton about 15 years ago, Ms. Crippen lived in a New York City apartment and worked for a non-profit for 32 years. The contents of her apartment have been sitting in a storage unit next to her incomplete house.

“I went ahead and purchased this house because I wanted something of my own,” Ms. Crippen said.

And she wanted it to be on the reservation, because that is where she was born and bred, she said. In fact, the house is on her family’s original homestead. A previous house on that property was also lost to a fire, decades ago, she said.

Ms. Crippen’s parents, Arthur Emmett and Harriet Lee, moved the family from the reservation to the house on Hillcrest Avenue in the 1930s. Ms. Crippen was one of 10 siblings, all but one born on the reservation, delivered by Dr. George Schenck. She recalled an old family tradition: Each time Dr. Schenck came to deliver a baby, her father would make hot biscuits and molasses cake.

It’s memories like those that have Ms. Crippen still dreaming of moving into her own place on her family’s land.

“It’s me. It’s my home,” she said. “I get my independence back, and I live the life that I want to live.”

Mr. Brown set up an account at the Bank of America branch in Southampton Village to accept donations to the Florence Crippen Building Fund. Donations may also be mailed to Florence Crippen Building Fund, c/o Phillip Brown IV, Box 97, Southampton, NY 11968.

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