Silly, familiar civil wars consume us


The Roundabout debate reminds me of Martha’s Vineyard’s historic and persistent polarity. The common and colloquial thing to say is that Islander DNA includes a you-want-a-piece-of-me predisposition to rumble. But, it’s not true. Our Wampanoag predecessors, many of whom clove to their European interlopers, were generally peaceable, except perhaps during competitions with their Indian brethren over fishing and hunting territories or good spots for gathering groundnuts.

The Europeans, practiced in Christianity, hostility, war, and repression — all prominent features of their homeland cultures — came with their bags packed. And, over the centuries, their combativeness and their inclination to put up their dukes became common here. The seasonal visitors, seeking respite and recharge and summer castles by the sea, brought with them a honed protective culture that put them at odds with the long-suffering, dependent Vineyarders. So summer visitor and embedded Islander delighted in new generations of hostilities. When these legacy, longtime summer residents retired and became year-round, they began to resent the traffic jams and the big houses that the latest generations of summer residents wanted to build, and they and the legacy Islanders together began to have issues with most anyone who was not one of them.

This is a historical sketch that doesn’t pretend to inventory the events of more than three centuries of delight and then dismay at the Vineyard.

Maybe you remember the Bickersons, a 1940s radio comedy series — which, by the way, I discovered decades later — that became a great favorite. It comes to mind whenever Vineyarder combativeness comes to mind, as it has with this Roundabout thing. Don Ameche and Frances Langford, as John and Blanche Bickerson, were the antagonists. Thankfully, they were beyond marriage counseling. They held their marriage together the old-fashioned way, by ending nearly every episode in bed flaying one another, verbally of course, and hilariously. Normally, people hate to be dragged into nasty disagreements, but The Bickersons’ serial disputes were the exception.

Parents hate sibling warfare. Kids hate their parents’ fights. Nowadays, a half hour with The Bickersons would result in grief counselors being called to school next day to attend to the traumatized kids who caught the show, and a weekly hour-long reality show would be in production for Ameche and Langford. We are all one family, someone always says, we ought to try to get along. We try, but it’s hard.

History suggests that the battlers of today are merely the descendants — in the loosest sense — of their fore-battlers, just as Darwin — in the loosest sense — might have predicted. For instance, on the question of whether the battles are harder fought today than years ago, history suggests we are following a long historical pattern of strenuous, even wounding, debate on public issues.

From long before the day in 1892 when West Tisbury, led by William J. Rotch, finally threw off the yoke of oppression imposed by Tisbury and became a town in its own right, Vineyarders have asked and given no quarter in their civic struggles. Up-Island, agricultural West Tisburyites had long chafed under the impression that they paid too many tax dollars “to build sidewalks, curbing and even pavements in Vineyard Haven,” according to Gale Huntington, in his “Introduction to Martha’s Vineyard.” Today, West Tisbury fumes at Chilmark’s palace of a schoolhouse and the half million dollars it adds to the Up-Island district’s budget. “The fight was a long and bitter one, just as Cottage City’s efforts to separate itself from Edgartown had been,” Mr. Huntington reported, and in that historic, principled, ancient, civil smackdown, West Tisbury fought its way to freedom from its cosmopolitan, seafaring former municipal family.

I suspect that although these ancient combatants lacked the advantages of the 21st century lexicon of political abuse that we so generously employ, their 19th-century debates were as lively as the ones in the early 1970s over the Kennedy Islands Trust Bill, or Frank Sargent’s Martha’s Vineyard Commission legislation, or the battle to get Edgartown out of the MVC, or the battle to get Tisbury out.

Or, how about the mid-1970s fight over the second slip at the Steamship Authority’s Vineyard Haven terminal? There was a humdinger. The MVC rejected the boatline’s plan for the second slip, so the SSA, absolutely furious to be frustrated by this small-fry regulatory agency and with the wholehearted support of the then-Vineyard member who lived in West Tisbury, went to the legislature and got itself exempted from the MVC’s jurisdiction.

Or, consider the mid-1970s battle over the Strock Enterprises plan to create 800 house lots on 500 acres of Oak Bluffs land stretching from the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road to the shore of Sengekontacket Pond. I sat on the MVC then, as an elected member from Vineyard Haven, and I voted with the majority to reject the Strock plan. Too many lots. The developer appealed to the state Supreme Court and lost, and eventually sought bankruptcy protection. The Oak Bluffs planning board was furious with the MVC over the decision, but Major’s Cove, Hidden Cove, and, dare I say it, the Farm Neck golf course sprang from the smoldering ruins.

There are uncounted other similarly lacerating political or neighborhood disputes, but why recall them? No one needs to be reminded. Better to consider why we fight as nastily as we do. First, people care about the Vineyard. It is not a bedroom community west of Boston or east of New York. When you are here, your heart, your thoughts, and your ambitions are not somewhere else. But how people care about the Vineyard varies from person to person, town to town, neighborhood to neighborhood, retiree to business owner, something the MVC, in its 50-year Island Plan exercise — now, thankfully, long forgotten on the groaning shelf full of other long-forgotten master plans — overlooks. So, to say that we, in the royal sense, all want the same thing from and for our Island home, and further to suggest that what you want is more meritorious than what I want — well, to say that presumes too much. Islanders struggle for the different things Islanders want and hold dear.

Second, the stakes are higher. Even as we clear our heads of the bubbly euphoria of the nearly half-century Vineyard real estate boom, still the roots that Islanders put down get dug into awfully rich soil. If you pay a million to retire in a house that’s worth $200,000 on its best day, and some off-Islander plans a 30-unit affordable housing complex on the venerable 300-year-old farm next door that you thought was permanently protected from development; or if your Vineyard in-laws plan to leave the Chilmark spread to your wife but without any cash to pay the taxes; or if your two kids are in college and your seasonal restaurant needs a liquor license to generate the revenue to pay their tuitions; or if you’ve scraped together enough for a down payment, and you’ve found a good deal on a building lot, but all the permits allowed by the cap have been issued; or if you just want to build a world-class golf course and you’ll do whatever the regulators ask — for you, the stakes are high enough so you’ll put up your dukes.

And third, although to some the favorite tune is “Poor Martha,” I think that actually the place is just changing, as it has from the beginning, from when Gosnold et al stepped ashore and the Wampanoags said, “There goes the neighborhood;” from when West Tisbury separated from Tisbury, and some grizzled down-Island saltwater type said, “Those sodbusters will never make it on their own;” from when the Martha’s Vineyard Commission was formed, and veteran Islanders muttered that the newcomers and fancy pants just want to be the last ones ashore; from when the critics said the regional high school would be the end of education; from when the Land Bank’s opponents said the two-percent land bank tax would kill the real estate industry.

It’s just change, some of it good, some bad, some uncomfortable, some not to your taste. There’s no way to know how it will all turn out, but given our history, we’ll give one another a good pasting along the way.

A version of this column appeared in this space in 2007.