Authors Posts by Nis Kildegaard

Nis Kildegaard


by -

Consultant Karen Sunnarborg is at work now preparing an Island housing needs assessment, a much-needed update to the reports prepared in 2001 and 2005 for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. There’s a lot to analyze, because so much has happened in this field over the past seven years.

Ms. Sunnarborg’s report will tally the affordable properties on the Island and measure them against the community’s need. But what I’m waiting most eagerly to read is her analysis of what has worked, what could be done better, and what we perhaps shouldn’t try to do again.

One aspect of the affordable housing story that won’t be tabulated, but deserves to be celebrated, is the shift in public attitudes on the issue that the past decade has seen on the Vineyard. You seldom hear, any more, the geezer’s argument that affordable housing shouldn’t be the public’s business: “I worked hard when I was young, and I bought an Island home; I don’t see why we need to subsidize them now.” And we less often hear that worn-out complaint about creating “second-class citizens” when the topic is the subsidy of an affordable home with resale limits ensuring that it will be affordable for generations.

Such is the emerging consensus that three years ago, when the Island Housing Fund imploded, Island towns stepped up to support the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority’s rental assistance program and now reliably fund that program to the tune of half a million dollars a year.

In her report to the Island, Ms. Sunnarborg will have many successes to highlight. As we look at what we’ve accomplished, among the most interesting questions will be: Which of these programs can we duplicate? What is scalable, and what isn’t? Since we’re spending public money here, what gives the best bang for the buck?

Certainly one of the notable successes in affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard over the past ten years has been the rental assistance program. For about $6,200 per rental, per year, it matches income-qualified tenants with Island landlords and pays part of the rent to make the properties affordable. Currently the program serves about 70 households, whose tenure in rental assistance averages two and a half years.

Rental assistance is a useful tool for preserving the diversity of the Island’s year-round community. But it’s not a program we can double in scale by throwing more money at it. In fact, the regional housing authority has asked at least one town in each of the last three years to reduce its funding for rental assistance, citing a shortage of landlord-tenant matches.

The only other Island initiative that rivals rental assistance in scale and impact is Morgan Woods in Edgartown. Morgan Woods, a mixed-income development of 60 rental units on 12 acres of town land, doubled the stock of affordable housing in Edgartown when it opened in June of 2007. Five years later, it’s a stable neighborhood with three-quarters of its original renters still in residence. Visit Morgan Woods in the evening and you’ll find families barbecuing on porches and kids playing on the greens; visit during the day and you’ll find most of the parking spaces empty, because folks are at work.

Morgan Woods is a thumping success by almost every measure, and it’s a story crying out to be duplicated on the Island.

Edgartown is already working on plans for a mixed-use housing development on nine acres off Clevelandtown Road. This project will be smaller — perhaps 20 units or so. But it builds on the success of Morgan Woods and moves Edgartown closer to the day when it meets the state standard of 10 percent affordable housing stock. Towns meeting that standard need no longer fear the threat of a hostile developer using Chapter 40B to ram through an unwelcome project.

Why aren’t more towns actively exploring the Morgan Woods approach? The guess here is that even though this project has worked out wonderfully, the idea of it offends our Vineyard sensibilities. Where affordable housing is concerned, we’re still fixated on an old esthetic that doesn’t serve us well when the mission is meeting this community’s needs. We’re still wrapped up in the romance of the detached single family home, and we’re inclined to see multi-home projects as somehow “un-Vineyardy.”

It took real leadership to overcome our attachment to scattered site housing and get Morgan Woods built. It’s doubtful that this neighborhood could have been created without the conviction of its namesake, Ted Morgan, and the respect he had earned in a lifetime of service to his town.

There are places where developments on the scale of Morgan Woods could be situated on the Island — most notably on land set aside for just this purpose in the Southern Woodlands of Oak Bluffs. The question is whether the Island now has a leader with the stature of a Ted Morgan to bring the next big affordable housing initiative into being.

by -

The school year that begins today across the Island is one of important firsts for public education here. Two of the biggest changes — in the way we feed our children and the way we evaluate our teachers — may seem unrelated, but the parallels run deep.

To my conversation last week with Dr. James Weiss, our superintendent of schools, I brought a blast from the past which is either funny or frightening, depending on your point of view: three weeks’ worth of Vineyard school lunch menus from September 1987, 25 years ago. A litany of potato puffs, French fries, pasta, peanut butter and fluff on white bread and sugary desserts, they’re a culinary royal road to obesity.

The federal government, which sets guidelines for its school lunch program — about half the children in our Vineyard schools get the subsidized lunch — has been ratcheting up the quality of what our schools serve our kids for decades. And after a dozen years of batting it around, Massachusetts recently passed its own school nutrition law that takes aim squarely at the problem of childhood obesity.

Thanks to all these new top-down rules, school districts across Massachusetts face an overhauled set of standards for school lunch menus, beginning this week. The new rules pile on the fruits and vegetables, and are far more specific about them — including, for the first time, limits on starchy vegetables and a weekly requirement for dark green and orange vegetables. They place lower limits on salt, call for less meat and now allow schools to serve only 1% fat or entirely no-fat milk. The new rules also specify that at least half the grains served at lunch be whole grains.

“USDA recognizes that these proposed changes are significant and may pose a particular challenge to implement,” the Department of Agriculture said when posting its new rules in the Federal Register this January. But Superintendent Weiss says, “Most of the Island schools were already there or well on their way there when these new standards came out. That has to do with the whole farm-to-school movement.”

The Island Grown Schools program, launched at the end of 2007 by the Island Grown Initiative, has helped bring vegetable gardens to every Island school and greenhouses to several of them. The IGS gleaning program, started in 2009, has been harvesting more than 10 tons of food from Island fields each growing season. Dr. Weiss says that from the beginning, he has supported this new program: “I’ve encouraged our school leaders — our principals and cafeteria directors — to participate. It’s become a pretty well-developed movement across the Island, with school gardens, with education around healthy Island-grown food wherever possible, with the notion that we want to get away from the old school lunch menu to something healthier.”

In another big change at school, today begins the first year of public education in Massachusetts since the commonwealth was exempted, by President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, from the onerous terms of NCLB, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This federal law has been screaming out for revision since 2007, but our paralyzed U.S. Congress hasn’t gotten around to it. Recently, rather than watch every public school in America be labeled a “School in Failure” as unattainable standards clicked into place, the Obama Administration has been taking a quid-pro-quo approach, offering waivers to states who agree to pursue certain promising new approaches. One of them is to change, radically, the way school districts evaluate their educators.

Eight years ago, during his first summer here as superintendent, Dr. Weiss read through all the files for the Vineyard school district’s staff. He was shocked by what he found. “It was miraculous,” he recalls: “99.9999999 percent of our people were the best in the world. They were all sixes on a scale from one to five. There weren’t any comments of, ‘You could do a better job if you tried this.’ There really wasn’t any differentiation – everybody was wonderful.”

Three years ago, the Vineyard school district started a new program called the professional growth system in an effort to enrich the way teachers are evaluated and encouraged to improve. It wasn’t perfect, says Dr. Weiss: “Like anything we do without much data, there were some flaws in the program early on, and we had to fix them. But this September, the state is requiring every school to go to a new evaluation system, and for many school districts it’s a quantum leap. For us, it’s more of a step.”

The first packages of information have been going out to Island teachers all this week, Dr. Weiss says. “We want to roll this out in a methodical way over the course of the year. We’re not saying, ‘Here it is today: now you’ve got to know it all.’ We’re going to introduce this and unpack all the details to make teachers comfortable with it. Then we’re going to go into the classroom and observe teachers and show them how what we’ve discussed plays out there.”

The new evaluation system provides for small groups to help teachers improve their practice through training, observing, and working with each other. It’s based on work by the state Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education which, Dr. Weiss says, “has done a phenomenal job of creating a teacher supervision and evaluation model that focuses on the pedagogy, the practice of teaching, and on the student outcomes, to determine who is successful and who isn’t.”

The whole idea is to give our teachers evaluations that are more like the food our school cafeterias are serving today, less like the Tater Tots of a generation ago.

Says Dr. Weiss, “The changes in food from the 1980s to now, and the changes in teacher evaluation over that time are of the same order of magnitude. These are two big changes in education that are happening across the country. But for us, they’re not quite as big, because we’d already started doing them.”

by -

Our relationship with the automobile started with a taste and ballooned into full-blown addiction in the span of a single century.

In the early 1900s, Tisbury garage owner William G. Manter kept an informal tally on the Island’s growing fleet of automobiles. In 1911 he counted 93 vehicles, about one for every 50 people on the Island. In 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue counted more than 31,000 vehicles registered on Martha’s Vineyard – about two for each of us.

Automobile addiction is so universal today, the few people who don’t suffer from it seem to be the eccentric ones. I remember emerging from an errand at the Vineyard Veterinary Clinic one morning last winter to find Frank Jennings, proprietor of an Edgartown bicycle shop, checking out my bike. In the ensuing conversation, Frank said the reason he closes his shop every off-season is that by his count, only five people in Edgartown use their bicycles through the year.

I have the bike rack outside the Edgartown Library to myself for half the year because most of us still think of bicycles as toys for children and tourists, not serious transportation. As a regular pedaler through puddles, I can tell you that one proof of this is in the widespread absence of fenders on the Vineyard’s two-wheeled fleet. Adding fenders, a carrier, a bell, mirror, and lights can turn that toy in your garage into a viable Point A to B machine.

The Island’s glut of motor vehicles is the most vexing in July and August, but public health leaders are becoming worried that our year-round automotive habits are literally making us sick. The automobile is one part of what the Commission of the European Communities described, in a recent report, as “the obesogenic environment.” Declared the commission: “Transport and urban planning policies can ensure that walking, cycling and other forms of exercise are easy and safe, and address non-motorized modes of transportation.”

Denmark, where half of all commutes are already made by bicycle, is building a network of more than two dozen “super cykelstier,” cycling superhighways designed to lure even more Danes onto two wheels. Cities from London to Chicago are planning similar projects that will make cyclists feel less like interlopers in the transportation landscape. Among the superhighways’ friendly features: air-pump stations and streetlights timed to be green for miles at a stretch as cyclists cruise along at 12 miles per hour. (Oh, and by the way: Denmark’s obesity rate is less than half of ours.)

In Massachusetts, we have “Mass in Motion,” a state Department of Health initiative targeting obesity, which is on track to surpass smoking soon as our state’s leading cause of preventable deaths. Healthy eating and exercise are the program’s key elements, as well as planning for infrastructure that encourages people to leave their cars at home and walk or bicycle to school and work.

For Mass in Motion, improving the diet in our schools is a comparatively easy part of the equation — the low-hanging fruit and vegetables, if you will. Building infrastructure that makes pedestrians and cyclists feel like something other than second-class citizens will take more money and political determination.

The Vineyard, with its bike-friendly scale, has tantalizing possibilities as a model community for encouraging alternatives to the automobile. Transit planners say the ideal distance for commuting by bicycle is five miles or less, and for many of us the trip to work is well within that range. But our infrastructure isn’t ready: the national standard for safe shared-use bicycle paths (which is what we have on the Vineyard) calls for a width of 10 to 14 feet, while almost none of our paths are close to that.

The most challenging distance here, the most daunting Point A to B, is not on the highway but inside our heads. We have a long way to go before bicycling is accepted as viable transport, not summer play. In our current mindset, the bicycle commuter is the oddball, while we see nothing unusual about driving an SUV to the health club, changing into sweats and pedaling for an hour on a bike that’s bolted into the floor.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious or holier-than-thou because I use a bicycle for commutes and grocery runs all year. We’ll never manage the shift toward this terrific alternative to the automobile if our prime motivation is guilt. What I encourage you to discover is what I’ve found for myself: Bicycling is a healthy choice that happens also to be enjoyable.

When you bicycle to work, certainly you’ll be easing traffic congestion, reducing air pollution, lessening our reliance on petroleum fuels, and improving your fitness. You’ll also be having fun.

by -

1. Missed Opportunities

Anyone trying to understand the recent dispute over naming opportunities at the new Edgartown Public Library, without knowing the history behind it, has my sympathy.

On the face of it, we have the Edgartown Library Foundation trying to do what public libraries have been doing here and across the nation for years: recognize donors whose support goes far above and beyond their property tax dollars. Yet when the foundation asked the selectmen to approve an entirely reasonable policy for accepting major gifts, the board replied with a written statement: “At this time the selectmen do not wish to entertain any policies regarding naming rights.”

This is in the town whose present library is named after the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who donated $4,000 a century ago to build it, a library in whose entryway hangs a portrait of Caroline Osborne Warren, donor of the land beneath it.

This is in the town next-door to West Tisbury, whose library publishes a list of naming opportunities right on its municipal website — and half a million dollars’ worth of them have already been snapped up by donors.

What’s the story here? To be blunt, it goes something like this: Once upon a time, about seven years ago, the Edgartown Library Foundation and library trustees asked Edgartown to buy the Warren House property adjoining the Carnegie library, declaring that if taxpayers kicked in $3.5 million for that purchase, they’d build a new library without another penny of town money. That plan imploded when the foundation couldn’t raise the funds and the project’s cost estimate jumped by a million bucks.

Edgartown then went back to the drawing board and crafted a library plan without a penny of foundation money — selling the Warren House property and using the site of the town’s derelict 1924 elementary school. After voters backed this plan at town meeting, here comes the Edgartown Library Foundation, proposing to hang plaques over doorways honoring donors who give more than $25,000 in support of the new project.

The only way to understand the selectmen’s resistance to this idea is in the context of this recent history. It’s their way of saying to the foundation: Folks, you had your chance to build your library, but this is our library now, built by We the People, and keep your naming paws off of it.

This is understandable, in a way, but also sad. Libraries everywhere have found gracious ways to accept those extra, above-and-beyond gifts without cheapening themselves. But until there’s some reconciliation between town hall and the library foundation, the guess here is that the Edgartown selectmen will persist in leaving good money on the table rather than accept the foundation’s offer of help.

2. Roundabouts, Before & After

Now that the Vineyard’s anti-roundabouters have gasped their last political gasp and, we dearly hope, expended the last wad of our taxpayer dollars in efforts to stop the project, only one question remains: Whatever was all the fuss about?

Digging in the traffic engineering literature this week, I discovered that our community’s fevered dispute over the roundabout turns out to be not unusual at all.

The most to-the-point study I found, published recently in the Institute of Traffic Engineers Journal, looked at three communities — in Kansas, Nevada and Maryland — where intersections controlled by stop signs were replaced by modern roundabouts.

In their field surveys, the researchers found that modern roundabouts reduced vehicle delays and traffic congestion in all three cases. In their telephone surveys, they found that in every case, most people opposed the roundabouts before construction and favored them afterwards. Almost half the drivers who had opposed the roundabouts, even strongly, later said they’d changed their opinion and now favored them.

So here’s a bit of good news for those of you who took to the battlements to stop the Oak Bluffs roundabout, and lost: There’s an even chance that once it’s been in place for a year, you’ll agree that it’s an improvement.

I’ll try not to say I told you so.

3. Returns on Investment

As a geeky kid, I thought it odd that made-up stories were labeled “fiction” while factual books were called “nonfiction.” The negative prefix, it seemed to me, was attached in the wrong place.

Now I feel the same twinge of linguistic umbrage at the word “nonprofit,” which sounds like a dismissive term for enterprises whose work is valuable for its own sake, not merely as a way to generate money for stockholders. Caring for our children, our sick and elderly; protecting our historic villages and natural environment; creating housing opportunities that ensure the future viability of the Vineyard — the only way any of these enterprises can be called unprofitable is if you insist on looking at them from the narrow standpoint of the investor who tallies the dollars in his portfolio every day.

If your idea of a sound investment, rather, is one whose dividends involve a better quality of life on Martha’s Vineyard, you’d do well to set aside today’s stock tables and peruse the comprehensive list of Island nonprofits on the website of the MV Donors Collaborative ( Whether your passion is for arts, education, conservation, agriculture, health, housing, or human services, you’ll find dedicated and urgently needy nonprofits at work here in your favorite arena.

July and August are make-or-break times for the nonprofits of the Island. Almost all of them schedule major events which, together with their annual appeals and the funds they generate from their services, will help keep them at their important work for another year. That at least is the hope for the Island nonprofits whose directors cross their fingers each year for good weather on the day of their summer dinners and auctions, water tastings and golf tournaments.

Whether the gifts you can give involve time or money, this is a great time of year to remember the organizations whose work helps make the Vineyard the place we love so dearly, to get involved, and to be generous.

by -
David Gergen, the distinguished former advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, will speak July 26 on the political landscape in this election year. — Photo courtesy of Summer Institute

The Summer Institute began 15 years ago as a July 4 celebration organized by Stanley Snider and the late Arthur Wortzel at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.

Mr. Snider, a developer of resort communities from Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont to Mattakesett in Edgartown, had worked with Mr. Wortzel (then president of the congregation) raising funds to build the new temple on Center Street in Tisbury. “Arthur was a great man,” recalls Mr. Snider, “and we had such a good time together. We had the Fourth of July coming up, and I said hey, this is a very important holiday – let’s do a celebration here that really amounts to something.”

That 1997 event featured Alan Dershowitz, Jemima James, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and the NAACP Choir – and its success got Mr. Snider thinking. He and Mr. Wortzel decided to mount a series of summer lectures, soon broadening the program to include brunch with patrons on the morning after, and the Summer Institute was born.

Mr. Snider chaired the Summer Institute committee in its early years. He was followed by Carole Cohen, then Betsy Sheerr, and since last year the program has been chaired by Geraldine (Gerri) Alpert.

“Each new chairman has added depth,” says Mr. Snider. “I get a kick out of seeing that the Summer Institute apparently was a good idea, because we have so many patrons who are willing to support it now, and the programs have a great attendance.”

This year’s Summer Institute presents eight Sunday evening movies and seven speakers from the front lines of politics and economics, beginning at 7:30 pm this Thursday, July 5, with journalist and author Jeffrey Toobin, the nation’s leading authority on the Supreme Court. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more timely speaker for this moment, in the aftermath of the high court’s historic ruling on President Obama’s health care reform.

In fact, if you tried to list the questions in the forefront of national debate in this election year, you’d likely come up with something resembling the Summer Institute’s 2012 lineup.

Jared Bernstein, former director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class for the Obama administration, will speak July 12 on “Competing Visions about the Role and Size of Government.” Mr. Bernstein, the author of numerous books, is the man who gave us the phrase “YOYO economics,” meaning “you’re on your own,” as a way to talk about attempts to dismantle regulations and the social safety net.

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, will speak July 19 on how new technologies are changing the future of privacy. David Gergen, the distinguished former advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, will speak July 26 on the political landscape in this election year.

Journalist Robin Wright, author of seven books on the Middle East, will speak August 2. Her talk, in a reference to her latest book, is entitled, “Rock the Casbah: The Middle East in Turmoil.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind’s topic for August 9 is “Hard Lessons: The Evolution of Barack Obama.” His latest best-seller, “Confidence Men, Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President,” was simply described by The New Yorker as “the book on Barack.”

Another Pulitzer-winner, Daniel Yergin, will conclude the speaker series on August 16 with a talk entitled “The Quest: The Future of Energy.” His latest book, “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” has been hailed by critics as “the book you must read to understand the future of our economy and our way of life.”

Over the years, the Summer Institute has grown, but the basic format has endured, and the engine that drives it is the support of its donors – patrons who contribute at least $1,000 each season for reserved seating in the Hebrew Center hall and admission to the brunches with speakers on the mornings after.

Many Summer Institute donors have been involved since the very beginning, says program administrator Joleen King, and a sense of community has grown up around the summer series: “We had our first film on June 24, with 150 attendees, and one of my staff told me afterwards that one of our donors came in the door, looked around and said, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to be here – it’s like coming home.'”

Gerri Alpert, chairman of the Summer Institute, says her own involvement began as a donor, enjoying the programs and making new friends. “Someone invited me to one of the brunches a few years ago,” she recalls. “I didn’t really know much about the Summer Institute then. I met some of the donors there, and we started coming to the programs, which we thought were great – and we made a lot of friends. In fact, I would say that the majority of our friends on the Island now are donors.”

In Mr. Snider’s view, this community-building is one of the most important aspects of the Summer Institute: “Once you attend a few programs and get to know some of the people, it starts to make a difference. You know, I’ve been in the vacation home business for 45 years. People come up to me and ask me for advice, and I say: Don’t buy the building, buy the community. Community is what it’s all about – people don’t want to just sit on the front porch and look out at the scenery. They want to have relationships with others, and the Summer Institute has made that possible to a great degree.”

Given the lineup of speakers this summer, Ms. King expects one of the hardest parts of her job will be dealing with sold-out houses at the Hebrew Center on Thursday nights. “I’m going to have the problem all summer, I’m afraid, of having to turn people away from a packed house. The doors open at 6:45 p.m., and we don’t sell tickets in advance.”

All Summer Institute programs begin at 7:30 pm. Admission is a suggested donation of $15 for Thursday forums, $10 for Sunday films. Information on the programs is available at

Mr. Kildegaard, a regular contributor to the Martha’s Vineyard Times, is publicist for the 2012 Summer Institute.

by -
Peter Boak. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

The Island Community Chorus sings three concerts every year. Arguably the most magical of them comes on the evening when we in the choir mark the end of another 10 months of singing together, just as the Island’s summer community begins their season here.

At the Tabernacle on Saturday evening, June 30, we’ll look out from the stage into a hall filled with summer families fresh off the ferries. We’ll sing our best for them, and afterwards we’ll say our goodbyes to fellow choristers we’ve rehearsed with every Monday night since last September, disbanding until after Labor Day – while in the audience, folks are saying their hellos, reconnecting with old friends at the opening of their Island time together.

“It’s like a passing of the torch, isn’t it?” says Peter Boak, director of the Community Chorus.

Mr. Boak says that for him, part of the magic is the Tabernacle itself, a venue that has echoed with music at the heart of the Campground since 1879.

“Performing at the Tabernacle is like coming home,” he says. “It really hit me this year, because it’s the first time I’ve attended a high school graduation there. To see the kids walking into the Tabernacle — there’s a certain magic about it. I feel the same way when the Chorus takes the stage to sing: it’s like being embraced by something that’s been there since before our lifetimes, this place so full of memories, and now it’s continuing to make new memories for everybody.”

Robert Cleasby arrived on Monday for his 22nd year as program director for the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association, just in time for the Island Chorus’s rehearsal at the Tabernacle. Opening the association’s program season with the Chorus has become a tradition, and Mr. Cleasby likes it that way.

“The Chorus is special because it’s Islanders, first of all,” Mr. Cleasby says. “These are Island artists performing together. And the setting is one-of-a-kind. Where else do you get an ambience and acoustics like the Tabernacle? Nowhere.”

Mr. Cleasby’s off-season home is in Pawtuxet, R.I., on the southern outskirts of Providence. There, he was artistic director and conductor of the West Bay Chorale and Orchestra in Warwick for 18 years. And each summer on the Island, he still serves as director of the Tabernacle Choir. So he has a special admiration for Peter Boak and his work with a community choir that requires no auditions, only the promise of regular attendance at rehearsals.

“A non-audition chorus is able to bring people in who love to hear singing, and would like to try it,” Mr. Cleasby says, although it does pose special challenges for the director. He observes with a laugh, “Peter has a remarkable amount of hair, for somebody who could have torn his hair out.”

Mr. Boak selects this concert program with an eye to the festive setting and to the Independence Day holiday. “I like to think of this as more of a pops concert — not that it’s watered-down music, but it’s music for the Fourth of July weekend, lighter and more entertaining,” he says.

The concert promises a mix of music familiar and new, patriotic and just plain fun – from Gilbert & Sullivan to Irish folksongs and even a rousing gospel number. At this opening event of the season, there’s no set admission charge; a free-will offering will benefit the Chorus and the Campmeeting Association.

It’s the perfect program, at the perfect time and in the perfect place, says Mr. Cleasby. “It’s the beginning of the summer, the kickoff event for us, and the Tabernacle was designed acoustically for groups like this. It’s the perfect venue for the Island Community Chorus, and we love to highlight indigenous Island music on the Campground.”

Island Community Chorus in concert at the Tabernacle, directed by Peter Boak and accompanied by L. Garrett Brown, at 8 pm, Saturday, June 30. A free will offering will be taken.

Nis Kildegaard is a regular contributor to the Times and a six-year singer in the choir.

by -

Last month, after my column on the Vineyard Transit Authority was published here, I was struck by the vehemence of one online poster who lambasted our regional bus service as a source of traffic congestion and air pollution and an assault on American free enterprise. He turned out to be the manager of an Island taxi company.

I realize, on reflection, that it can’t be fun to stand by your van watching streams of ferry passengers walk past your proffered $24 ride to Edgartown, choosing the $3 VTA bus instead.

That taxi driver’s lament got me wondering, as I began researching a column on the 20th annual Cross-Island Hike of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank: who might the Land Bank’s natural enemies be?

Before there was a Land Bank, some real estate brokers saw their incomes threatened by the agency’s two percent fee on most Island property transactions. As it turns out, the Land Bank hasn’t hurt the brokers, so you won’t find many enemies there.

But, if you’re the owner of property that was an exclusive enclave until the Land Bank swooped in to give the public access, you can be doubly resentful. First, because you fear a threat to the enjoyment of a place you’ve had to yourself. Second, because this prospect forces you to admit that you’re not the egalitarian lover of humanity you like to think you are.

So, here’s my guess: today’s natural enemies of the Land Bank are abutters who have a high opinion of their own liberal principles and morality, but are confronted with an aspect of themselves they’d rather not acknowledge when the Land Bank moves in.

The rationalizations for abutters’ exclusionary impulses can be pretty creative. James Lengyel, director of the Land Bank since 1989, says the agency hears protestations of property exceptionalism all the time: “Oh, this property is so unique, it’s different from anything you’ve ever managed before, and it can’t handle the public use.”

But the Land Bank, which has been lauded by the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs for its “long tradition of high-quality stewardship on the Vineyard,” hasn’t made many missteps with the 3,000 acres in its care.

On Saturday, June 2, as rains of Tropical Storm Beryl were buffeting the Vineyard, more than two dozen people convened early at Wilfrid’s Pond Preserve in Tisbury for the Land Bank’s 20th annual Cross-Island Hike. Mr. Lengyel has walked in every one since the event’s founding in 1993; this year he was the “caboose” hiker, trailing the pack to be sure no one was left behind on the 18-mile trek to Katama.

In 1993, he recalls, “We had learned that National Trails Day was being promoted. Conservation organizations were being encouraged to come up with events. And the logical event to hold was some sort of litter clean-up or path tune-up.

“But what we wanted was to do two things: to encourage people to experience the beauty of the Island and to see how things stitched together. John Potter, our land superintendent at the time, said that in Weston, where he grew up, every year there was a cross-town hike. We said, why don’t we have a cross-Island hike? And that was that.”

Bill Veno, senior planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and trails guru for the Land Bank (which pays one quarter of his salary), has been organizing and leading the Cross-Island Hike for 15 of its 20 years. In recent years, he’s planned walks that begin where the previous year’s hike concluded.

Finding new cross-Island routes isn’t terribly hard. The Land Bank has some 130 miles of trails in its care when you include the town paths, easements, and ancient ways it also maintains across the Island.

The Land Bank published a new map a few weeks ago, and it’s worth asking for at the agency’s Edgartown office (or your local library), because it includes lots of outdoor opportunities not listed on the 2008 edition. One of them is Felix Neck Preserve, 25 acres adjoining the eponymous wildlife sanctuary, which the Land Bank bought in 2003 but didn’t open for public enjoyment until this year.

My wife and I discovered Felix Neck Preserve two months ago, on a walk along the Boulevard in Edgartown. The Land Bank had quietly taken down the No Trespassing signs, opening the trails without fanfare or press releases. It turns out this approach to opening properties is a Land Bank policy, not an accident.

“We very seldom announce the opening of a property,” says Mr. Lengyel. “We just let it be discovered.

“There’s a practical consideration – we want people to slowly come to understand the availability of these properties. But the larger consideration is the thrill of stumbling across something, seeing that you’re welcomed, seeing that it’s organized, but still just finding it serendipitously.”

It’s not like the Land Bank is keeping its treasures secret. The agency’s map is published by the thousands and is widely available. But still, one defining quality of Land Bank properties is that you have to seek them out. And when you do, you’ll be richly rewarded.

“The Land Bank tries not to have very many drive-in experiences,” Mr. Lengyel says. “You have to want to achieve them.”

So here’s my prescription for relief from the crowds and traffic of the next four months: Pick up a Land Bank map, pack a bottle of water and head for the hills, at Tiasquam Valley Reservation in Chilmark or Wompesket Preserve in West Tisbury, at Quammox Preserve in Edgartown or Pecoy Point Preserve in Oak Bluffs. You might walk for two hours and meet only a couple of other hikers. You’ll definitely find the place as beautiful as its name.

by -
Senior Amalie Tinus rehearses her solo performance. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

“Saints & Sinners:” It’s the perfect title for the 45th anniversary program of the Minnesingers, this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center (PAC).

The elite high school choir, created in the spring of 1967 by Tom Mills, became a show choir in 1975, early in Robert Nute’s defining 27-year tenure as director. Janis Wightman, who started with the Minnesingers as their accompanist in 1998 and took over as director in 2006, puts it simply: “The Minnesingers show choir as we know it today is certainly Bob Nute’s legacy.”

Ever since 1975, the Minnesingers’ spring program has had a dual aspect: The concert begins with the choir arrayed on the risers in tuxedos and dresses, singing music from the heart of the choral repertoire. After a quick costume change, the Minnesingers re-emerge, transformed into a song-and-dance troupe that reliably brings down the house.

For the generations of proud parents who attend these programs, it’s always a bit of a wild emotional ride: First, we sigh with satisfaction at the sight of our little angels so neatly groomed, so attentive to their director and singing so sweetly together. Then, we gasp at the sheer hormonal energy as they shake – well, pretty much everything – in the dance performance that follows.

Ms. Wightman has made this contrast the central dynamic of the Minnesingers’ anniversary show. It begins with an ambitious performance of classics, which recapitulate the history of choral music from the middle ages to the present day. The dance program that follows is organized around the seven deadly sins, with numbers exploring each one, from anger and gluttony to lust and greed, sloth, envy, and pride.

We sat in on the Minnesingers’ first tech run-through last Thursday night, May 10 – Ms. Wightman calls it “our first stumble-through” – and even with the stumbling, it held the promise of another blockbuster spring program for the show choir.

The choral program opens with the deceptively simple two-part harmonies of a medieval piece, John Dunstable’s “O Rosa Bella,” and skates through the centuries to finish with the hauntingly polyphonic Eric Whitacre composition, “Water Night.” When 27 voices break into 14 separate parts, it’s a goosebumps moment that you don’t want to miss.

The dance program, choreographed by Lianna Loughman, opens with a high-octane hip-hop number, “Nobody’s Listening,” featuring solos by senior Chris Pitt and junior Julia Cooper, and accelerates from there. With five of the dance numbers backed by a live band featuring drummer Noah Stuber, guitarist Alistair Morgan, and bassist Avery Lazes, the PAC will definitely be rocking.

This program will be the curtain call for six Minnesingers who are off to college in the fall. Haley Hewson, Alyssa Laslovich, Chris Pitt, Amalie Tinus, Ian Tripp and Anna Yukevich will be taking their final bows as Minnesingers, and five of them will also be taking solo turns in their last program with the show choir.

In the weeks after graduation, Ms. Wightman will hold a round of auditions for the 2012-2013 Minnesingers. She expects perhaps 50 candidates to participate in the try-outs, and with only six seniors leaving, she knows the competition will be fierce.

But keeping the group small, Ms. Wightman says, is part of what makes the Minnesingers the Minnesingers: “This is a premier group. I think we all feel, kids included, that the sense of an elite performing group is better fostered with smaller numbers.”

The first tech run-through, with barely more than a week remaining until showtime, is always a little scary, Ms. Wightman admits.

“I’d be worried if they were perfect right now, because they’d be peaking too early. Would I like it to be all memorized and ready to perform? Sure. But it’s never been that way. Never in 14 years. It’s always in the week before I’m saying, ‘Oh my God, are we ever going to pull this off?’ And I have to have people tell me, ‘yes.'”

The bottom line for Janis Wightman, clearly, is her pride in the Minnesingers. They’re a talented, hard-working group, whose members excel not only onstage but in the classroom and in the high school’s sports arenas – this year’s choir includes student-athletes on the softball, basketball, ice hockey, and track teams. “I just admire their ability to balance everything,” she says, “— work and school and athletics, college applications, pressures from home — everything.”

Looking ahead to this weekend’s show, she concludes: “Are they going to be perfect? No, I can’t remember when we’ve ever had a perfect performance. Are they going to be good, and enjoy themselves, and is the audience going to absolutely love it? Yes.”

“Saints & Sinners,” the 45th anniversary program of the Minnesingers, 7 pm, Saturday, May 19, and 3 pm, Sunday, May 20, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center, Oak Bluffs. $10; $7 seniors/students.

by -

Imagine running a service that sees demand double each year from February to April, double again from April to May, again from May to June and again from June to July. Welcome to the world of the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA), whose ridership explodes each year from fewer than 25,000 to nearly 300,000 passengers per month.

The only constant in the year for Angie Grant, administrator of the VTA, is change.

Ms. Grant is a living example of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule – the idea that the key to success is putting in the time. As VTA administrator since 1997, she hit the 10,000-hour mark more than a decade ago, but in fact her bona fides in the transit business go back much further.

She’s held a commercial driver’s license since she was 18 and driving shuttles for Island Transport. In fact, says Ms. Grant, “The seeds were planted way back, in my early teen days, on the Chappy ferry. I was a ticket taker, and that was a fabulous job.”

I caught up with Ms. Grant last week for an interview while she delivered stacks of new schedules to the inns of Edgartown. The transit authority launched its shoulder-season schedule on April 28, and will shift again to its peak-summer bus schedule on June 23.

Running a service efficiently when your daily ridership ranges from 600 people to more than 13,000 sounds like a recipe for migraines, but Ms. Grant relishes the work. “I think one of the things that keeps this job interesting,” she says cheerfully, “is the seasonal changes.”

The big news from the VTA for this summer is a new schedule for its busiest service, Route 1, between Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. That service is being expanded from 30-minute intervals 20-minute intervals for most of each day, beginning June 23. It’s all about tweaking the schedule to optimize service, Ms. Grant says.

Summer ridership on VTA buses has been climbing steadily over the years. Last July, the transit authority carried more than 290,000 passengers, up 38 percent since 2006. But the most dramatic growth has been in the off-season: Since 2006, January ridership has increased 129 percent.

The summer numbers are mind-boggling, but Ms. Grant is proudest of the way the VTA has been embraced by the year-round community. “It’s been very rewarding to watch the acceptance of transportation on the Island,” she says. And to the critic who questions those January buses with three or four passengers inside, she has a ready answer: “Our core riders need us and want us.”

The VTA enjoys a good relationship with the towns it serves, says Ms. Grant. About 20 percent of the authority’s $4.3-million operating budget comes from the Island towns via cherry sheet contributions; state and federal government contributes about 25 percent. But the VTA’s biggest revenue source is the fare box — about $1.3 million per year. In fact, the Vineyard agency has the highest fare box recovery rate, and the lowest government subsidy, of any transit authority in Massachusetts.

With its intense seasonality, its mix of routes and its varied user groups — from summer day-trippers to year-round workers, children, and the elderly — the VTA is unique among transit agencies on almost every front. Ms. Grant laughingly tells of a recent visit from researchers studying rural transit agencies, whose jaws dropped when they began to understand what the VTA faces in serving this community. “We were like, yeah, this is what we do,” she recalls.

And the vendors of fleet management systems to transit authorities across the nation come to the Island confident that their software can handle this little operation — but they leave humbled. Ms. Grant warns them: “This is Martha’s Vineyard, my friend. You have no idea what you’ve just gotten yourself into.” The software vendors have yet to figure out how to accommodate a little agency that will pull a bus from the Edgartown-South Beach run on a rainy day and throw it at whatever Island route needs it most.

Even the buses in the Island fleet are scaled to fit our unique roadscape. The VTA can’t buy buses in the standard width of 108 inches because they’re simply too wide for our streets. “We’re looking for a width of 96 inches,” says Ms. Grant, “and right now only two manufacturers make them.”

With so many challenges, what explains the VTA’s success? “It helps that we have a veteran staff,” says Ms. Grant. “We’re very good at what we do, because we’ve been doing it so long together. And on our workforce, we have a huge number of returning seasonal drivers each year. At the VTA, they don’t lose their seniority when they come back.”

From the rider’s perspective, the VTA is the ultimate Point A to Point B service — reliable, affordable and convenient. But Angie Grant understands that even as she crunches the smallest details of customer service, her agency is funded by government sources with a different agenda. “Our core mission,” she says, “is congestion mitigation and air quality improvement. That’s the big driver of mass transit everywhere.”

What’s ahead for the VTA? “I’d love to see us forming stronger relationships with the business community,” says Ms. Grant. “We need to educate business owners about the benefits of transit, for their staff and for their business. You know, if you’re parking your own car three or four doors down from your business, your customers can’t park there. If you spend $100 on an employee bus pass, you get a tax deduction and you’ve made your employee feel great.”

She’s also been thinking about all the bus pull-offs on the busy Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. “It’s great for our passengers that we’ll stop pretty much anywhere it’s safe to stop. But we’d like to have less of an impact on the roadsides, where we’re killing vegetation and degrading asphalt in some areas. It would be nice for our passengers to have amenities like benches and shelter, but formalizing bus stops has a financial, an aesthetic and operational impact — we need to consider these things and work them out with the towns.”

Finally, does Angie Grant have an opinion on the Roundabout, which her buses will be traversing almost 100 times on a busy summer day?

She shrugs and grins. “Our trip length isn’t going to change with or without a roundabout. It’s going to take us the same amount of time to get to Edgartown. The overall length of the trip won’t be any different; it’s just a matter of where we’re going to be backed up. It doesn’t matter to us.”

by -

In the season of annual town meetings that opens this Tuesday, public libraries are making headlines in four of the six Island towns. Edgartown and West Tisbury will vote on multi-million-dollar building projects. All three up-Island towns are poised to join the Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing system, the regional network known to and beloved by down-Island patrons as CLAMS.

It’s a remarkable moment, playing out against the backdrop of a Vineyard community that fiercely loves its libraries.

Ebba Hierta, director of the Chilmark Library, recently spent some time with her calculator and the records kept by MBLC, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. She totaled the number of transactions Vineyarders made at their libraries last year, divided by our year-round population, and then did the same for Nantucket. Ebba found that on Nantucket, the tally came to 17 transactions, per patron, per year. On the Vineyard, the number of transactions was 33 — double Nantucket’s figure.

“Martha’s Vineyard,” she told me, “might be the library-lovingest place in the Commonwealth. I think the fact that our libraries are being used so heavily by our residents is proof positive that these six libraries are doing a great job.”

Last July, the Island received news from the state that two towns had won grants for new library construction. West Tisbury won $2.98 million, available as soon as the town votes its portion of the project cost. Edgartown won $5 million — also pending a town vote — with its state funds becoming available next summer.

Meanwhile, at the Edgartown Library, where I work, we still hear at least one patron remarking every week that it’s too bad we didn’t get our grant. Actually, we respond, it’s a good thing we won our grant in the second year rather than in the first, because Edgartown needed time to prepare the comprehensive plan, which voters are taking up this week.

Island papers have enjoyed contrasting West Tisbury’s happy dance toward a new public library with Edgartown’s bruising political slog. Conflict makes news — I get that. But I’d like, politely, to suggest that in fact the similarities between the stories of these two towns entirely trump the differences:

Edgartown’s most recent library expansion, to 6,800 square feet in 1975, was so heavily compromised that in 1986, the town’s capital programs committee put the library back on its short list of facilities needing expansion. West Tisbury’s current library building, which opened in 1993, was cut back by more than half from the original design by architect Ben Moore, and at just 5,640 square feet was inadequate from the start.

Edgartown has struggled painfully with the disposition of a beloved building, the 1904 Carnegie Library on North Water Street. West Tisbury had a similarly hard time letting go of its historic Music Street library – trying not once, but twice, to operate a branch there.

In the end, both towns accepted that their old library buildings were outgrown and turned to the Island champions of adaptive reuse, the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust. The Preservation Trust has restored the Music Street library and now rents the space to Island Theatre Workshop. The Trust has promised that if voters approve the new library in Edgartown, it will take the lead in restoration and reuse of the Carnegie building.

Finally, both Edgartown and West Tisbury explored vastly more ambitious expansion plans in recent years, and then sharpened their pencils. In 2003, West Tisbury considered plans for a new library enclosing 22,000 square feet; the design before voters this week is just 13,000 feet square. Four years ago, Edgartown was considering a 24,000-square-foot building plan; the project now proposed measures 15,600 square feet.

In both West Tisbury and Edgartown, the library trustees and building committees have come up with smart, tight building designs that will serve their towns for at least a generation. This, I’d suggest, is the story of deep parallels between two towns that has been eclipsed by the coverage of juicy political spats-du-jour over the past year in Edgartown.

Meanwhile, the library budgets of West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah this year include funds that will bring them into the same CLAMS library network that already includes the three down-Island towns. It’s hard to overstate what a game-changer this is for up-Island library patrons.

Ms. Hierta of Chilmark says the first thing her library staff looks forward to doing, after voters approve, is to enroll all Chilmark’s patrons in the CLAMS network and connect them to downloadable audiobooks, music, ebooks and videos through the OverDrive service. Chilmark’s second step will be connecting their patrons to all 1.5 million items held by the CLAMS libraries across the Island and Cape Cod. Finally, sometime this fall, Chilmark will bring its own collection of about 34,000 items online for sharing across the network.

For West Tisbury, the urgency of membership in a regional network is heightened by that town’s building plans. While the town library is closed for expansion, West Tisbury will operate from what is now a single room of the building, and patrons will get most of the materials they need from the regional network.

In Aquinnah, library director Catherine Thompson is also delighted to be giving her patrons access to digital materials through the CLAMS network. “The downloadable component and the quality of the interface are both so strong,” she says. “I think people will love it.”

As members of CLAMS, the Island public libraries, and all our patrons, will be able to enjoy the best of both worlds: the library as local gathering place, and the library as portal to a lively world of information. For the “library-lovingest place in the Commonwealth,” this year brings a great moment of opportunity.