All about us
There is nothing Islanders like talking about more than themselves. Yearning for the past - the way it was 30 years ago, or when you first came as a child, or when you grew up here, or when you moved here 10 years ago - is part of every conversational self-examination, which leads to preserving and protecting the Vineyard of today, which leads to planning to design the Vineyard 50 years hence as it suits us right now. The Martha's Vineyard Commission has begun a multi-year effort to develop a 50-year plan, and its work was the occasion of a skeptical column in this space last week.
I wrote: "Pursuing their Island Plan, the Martha's Vineyard Commission and its adherents agree that preserving the Vineyard's environment and character are top priorities. But, I wonder what they mean.... What does this presumptuous effort mean? To preserve the Vineyard or the Vineyard experience as it was, or is, for you or me, or our children or grandchildren, no matter their circumstances or desires, for the next five, 10, or 50 years: Does it mean anything at all? Doubtful."
That was enough to get the Whither-the-Vineyard? ball rolling. A woman I know and like and consider a friend, though we often disagree, was on my case immediately.
"I really was enjoying your piece today [Aug. 3] until I got to the bit about how you propose to improve the Island ("save it" is not only too presumptuous but too late) and then I was dumb-founded. Well almost. Silenced perhaps, but dumb, no.... Do you seriously think that relaxing zoning is going to save this Island? That some of the other suggestions that you have will work? How are they to be accomplished, pray tell? Please offer up specifics, not lofty (or in this case not so lofty) platitudes. I know that editorial and the advertising sides of newspapers are never supposed to affect one another, but I fear that you're responding to the wallet (all those advertisers... and you have hundreds) rather than to intelligence in your proposals.... What seriously disturbs a lot of us (with lengthy Island roots) is the loss of values, the loss of an Island culture, and an Island way of life. It's gone...right down the old tubes.... We're into an era of gentrification, I guess you could call it.... I know, it's hot and I'm crabby, but think about it, Doug, and recant!"
I didn't recant, but I did reply. I wrote: "I've lived here 37 years. In that time, by the measures that seem most reasonable to me, the Island has changed, of course, and gotten better. Not in every way, naturally. In some ways, important ones, it's gotten worse. And, you may use another measure. But, here are some of the measures that tell me it's better today than it was. It's richer, not for everyone in the same way, but richer. There is zoning and subdivision control. There is more land in public hands. The schools are better. There are more restaurants to go to in the off-season. There are some bike paths. We are more careful about drinking water. We handle wastewater better. We pay attention to the health of surface water. The libraries are bigger and better. These are some of the good things. The reason for the improvement, as I see it and measure it, is that the population and the economy have expanded. More people, more business, more wealth, more advances - not all good, as I said, but advances nevertheless. Looking ahead, I think is the best thing to do, and as I look ahead, I'm optimistic. Making it easier for businesses to grow and compete will improve the lives for employees who will earn more and for customers who may pay less. More bike paths. Back to half-acre zoning on the outskirts of town centers so that supply may dampen some of the price inflation that's heating up the real estate market. WiFi everywhere, so it's easy for folks to carry on business at an off-Island scale from on-Island. Rules for development that are clear and understandable, not subject to the high-handed, whimsical, nonsensical carrying on of the MVC. Government of the six towns streamlined where it's possible. And...on and on."
Pretty clever of me, I thought. And, beginning her next, I thought I'd made a convert. She wrote: "Believe it or not I agree with almost everything that you wrote in your response, and if you had detailed all that in the original column I wouldn't have had anything to argue about or question. In fact I think that you should make something - perhaps another column - out of this whole dialogue because your answer really starts to say something much more logical, reasoned and thoughtful than the brief and vague ideas in the column. Just to add on, you forgot to mention Island health and social services are vastly improved and we also have access to off-island medical, social and psychiatric services that we would never have been able to tap into, even a few years ago. We've got lots of services for the elderly and the physically and mentally handicapped, all relatively new. Hospice is a huge plus, also relatively new. Another biggie is that yes, we have many more beaches open to the general public.... Hell, we have electricity and phones in places that we didn't some 30 years ago. I even agree with the half acre zoning for the business districts (but you have to include some requirement for parking - witness your own debacle) and in some of our business districts it is just that. To go back to social services, when you moved here (was it really 37 years ago?) did Community Services even exist? Or the Chilmark Community Center? Or was it just the Boys Club in Edg? And when the wasted youth of today piss and moan about "nothing to do and nothing for us" someone ought to fill them in on how much there is and how recently it's been developed. I am sure that there are many other good things that have occurred that neither of us have listed."
There was a but lurking in all this, and here it was: "However, I don't agree that more people are better, nor is more business better either because we don't have a useful mix of businesses. We've got too much seasonal boutiquey/antiquey/artsy stuff and too little practical. Have you tried to buy a bra locally lately? No, well I thought not, but seriously the only source is Brickman's and the selection is slim. How about shoes? Or art supplies? Or how about food? Why should we have to buy a membership in "The Island Club" to get a 10 percent discount on stuff that is still way overpriced (and don't give me the bull about the freight to move it five miles)? Frankly I find the concept insulting.
"Where you and I differ is whether the Island as a whole, is really better. I don't think that it is. I'd rather do with a lot less and have the Island of my youth - a lot less people, less wealth, and a much simpler lifestyle. And perhaps a plumber or electrician who actually answers the phone and turns up to do a repair. As I wrote before, what really distresses me, a lot of us in fact, is that we've lost so much of the Island way of life, a simple but really quite sophisticated sort of culture, and the values with which so many of us were raised. Admittedly all that is a very subjective, vague, and amorphous. I can't define what is included in an "Island way of life" and perhaps this is too close to the things that Henry Beetle Hough wrote about and held dear for you to swallow. I also can't explain why so many of us feel that all that is close to gone. It could be because so many of the "island elders" have passed on, or because we're all so caught up in the media hype of everything (I-pods for entertainment instead of a potluck and musical evenings), or because there are so many newcomers who gush over everything when they arrive, and then try to turn it into suburbia, or it could be just because the whole bloody world has changed. One symptom (or is this a manifestation) is the influx of the very wealthy who jet in for their power vacation at their multi-million-dollar compound; their only contact with the community is when they drive somewhere to get to the parties and events sponsored by others in the glitterati. Another symptom is that so many of us are very rushed and stressed (witness the number of massage therapists and yoga teachers). I could mutter a bit about the traffic but you won't agree because this is part of the "more people and more wealth". Perhaps Islanders are wealthier in the wallet, but frankly I think we are (all) poorer in so much that really counts.
"We've lost fishing and farming (the former due to a whole host of reasons but depletion of the resource is the prime factor) although some would argue that the number of very expensive horses here makes up for the loss of cows and sheep. But then, in W.T., we've got unhappy neighbors calling up, frequently, Town Hall to complain about crowing roosters. And the smell of farms.... That is enough for tonight...."
It was enough, true, but on the other hand, this is a conversation that never ends. And changes little, as it continues.