Soundings : Getting it
The way I heard the story, back in the years when Eddie Gentle Jr. was dealing in real estate and a family would come to him saying, "We'd like to buy a place on Chappaquiddick," Mr. Gentle would counter with some advice. "Why don't you try renting on Chappy for a season or two first," he'd say, "and find out whether you like it."
Mr. Gentle would find his customers a rental, and for some of them, one summer proved more than enough. "You've got to be crazy to live out there," they'd declare. "You can't get a carton of milk or a loaf of bread without planning a trip across to Edgartown, and the isolation - I swear, if I stay another summer I'll die of boredom."
Others would come back after a summer or two and say, "Thanks for helping me discover a little piece of heaven on earth. Chappy is the most beautiful, peaceful place I've ever been, and I want to own a place there."
This is how the unique rhythms and character of Chappy were protected half a century ago, in the days before zoning, by a natural process of selection that sorted out the people who appreciated the island's special qualities from those who just didn't get it. More recently, of course, this process has broken down. Sometimes, sadly, the dynamic is one of "ready, fire, aim," as folks purchase first and then try to fix the things they don't like about their new neighborhoods. The result has been the spectacle of wealthy customers who buy property on Chappaquiddick and then build 7,000-square-foot family compounds or clear-cut acreage for helicopter pads.
I remembered this story of the Chappy renters during last week's Island Plan forum on the Vineyard's social environment. The slide show that served as the forum's centerpiece made much of the population growth the Vineyard has seen over the past two generations. Our off-season numbers have more than doubled since 1970, to about 16,000. Of course, that still leaves each of us a lot more personal space than, say, on the island of Manhattan, which has 24 square miles to our 100, and with its population of 1.6 million, 100 people for each one of us.
Certainly population growth has changed the character of the Vineyard, but many of the changes have been for the good. Our greater numbers provide audiences and supporters for a rich variety of cultural programs, and such community-enhancing projects as our new YMCA and hospital would hardly have been imaginable three or four decades ago.
The Island's 40-year population boom seems now to be ending - partly because our land is so nearly built out, partly because working-age families with children are leaving for more affordable places. It's hard, still, to get the critical distance needed to summarize this era's effects, but one thing I'm sure of: It would be a vast oversimplification to say the effects have been only bad.
Going back to that Chappaquiddick story, I believe it helps to sort out the pressures population growth has placed on the Vineyard by thinking not in terms of sheer numbers of people, but in terms of the subset of people who come here and, for one reason or another, don't get it.