Nantucket Essays

Losing Our Community

by Robert P. Barsanti

Many years ago, when the only cars my boys cared about were built out of Lego, we planted daffodil bulbs. The wind was blowing, the sky rushed overhead, and a shower hung out on the Sound, while Angel Rays shone over Cisco. We used a small trowel, knelt in the backyard, and planted the bulbs every couple feet along a stone wall. Afterwards, we had lemonade, chocolate chip cookies, and watched Monsters, Inc for the hundredth time.

Every year, when the daffodils bloom, that memory cuts through the beards, the testosterone, and the tuition payments to bring me back to that gray afternoon. Now, of course, hundreds of daffodils bloom.

The great advantage of age is that you can live in your best year. I hand wave the future away, with its hundreds of daffodils, and return to a simpler time of mud and cookies.

Old men, like me, choose a year from the past and decide that year is Year 0. Every year after that is a slow descent away from the golden land of the past and into the gray of the future.

This is Nantucket. Our entire focus, as an island, is on the past. We live, work, and build with Nantucket in mind. The curated images of Nantucket are not along Old South or Nobadeer Farm, but along Easton, Orange, and Baxter. The present waits for us to back into it, and we have.

Seeing the world as it is, and not how it was, requires youth and honesty, both of which run out sometime after you buy reading glasses. In my dotage, I still want to go to Thirty Acres for something after work. When you accept reality, you realize that the traffic isn’t going to go away, you can’t rent a room, and ten cent wings ended a decade ago.

Reality is hard to see. If you don’t want to see it, or your paycheck depends on ignoring it, you won’t see what others can see as plainly as the noses on their faces.

Fact: The town can’t hire municipal workers, no matter how much they get paid. We are short firemen, teachers, cops, and a D.P.W. chief.

Fact: The trades don’t pay enough to allow tradesmen to live on Nantucket. The boats carry workers back and forth; the same people who would have worked a few jobs and bought some land twenty-five years ago are getting a cup of coffee and sitting inside on the way back.

Fact: You can rent a three-bedroom in Madaket for a week in July for under $20,000. The rent money never even comes on-island.

As an island, we have been losing our wealth over the last thirty years. The water company got sold, the power company got sold, the banks got sold. All of those jobs, from clerk to CEO, move off-island. The stores, the realtors, the restaurants, and the hotels—off-island investors are now catching the profits that used to buy dinners at Le Languedoc, cars at Don Allen, and boats at Marine. Now, as a final sale, the summer rental season is up on the auction block. Investors have bought homes across the island, including in year-round neighborhoods, and are ready to pepper AirBnB and VRBO with their pictures and the prices.

The wealth of the island, and the future wealth, has slipped away on ferries and waves at us from New York.

It’s hard to see this. Instead, we retreat into a past when, if you worked hard and made friends, you could build by sweat equity. Or, we create imaginary worlds where we suddenly can build in the moors. Or we pretend that this is just a business cycle.

In losing all of this wealth, we have lost community. Most people don’t fit well in a corporate profit and loss statement. Teachers need to be on-island before Columbus Day and after Memorial Day. Failing that, they can’t supervise Prom and Chess Club if they have to catch the 3:05 back to Hyannis. Nantucket depends on people who make less than a Citibank vice president. They need to be at the Atheneum, in the police station, or behind the bar at the Rose and Crown. Last summer, several successful, well-reviewed restaurants never opened or shortened hours: they had the customers, but they didn’t have the chefs. Or the dishwashers.

Children are communities. We look to our neighbors, our colleagues, and our bar stool buddies when we think of our kids. We want people who can coach basketball, referee at the Boys & Girls Club, and drive a school bus. We barely have that. Never mind protecting the south shore swimmers from sharks, walkers from drunks in Discoverys, and a pre-Civil War wooden town from fire.

None of these jobs can be done well, or for long, by people paying absurd rents. Nor, can they be done by people who come and go around the Point every day. At this point, as islanders, we need to think about what we can do to preserve the community we have. The island will survive, one way or another, until the Atlantic takes it. We will have moved to Maine long before that. Our only island community will be on Facebook.

We live in Walter Beinecke’s world. We are the “daffodils” he (and Roy Larsen, and Bob Mooney, etc) planted. Sixty years ago, the island saw the virtue in protecting open land. As a direct result of that, we have an island where people will line up to spend thousands a night to visit. They stand on the cobblestones, they go out to Cisco Beach, they bike to Altar Rock, and then they make reservations for next year. Some people work fifty-one weeks a year to spend one week on-island. With the Land Bank and all of the other conservation measures taken, we limited the amount of build-out. In doing that, they made islanders millionaires.

Today, we need to look to the future as they did, not a future that can be measured in months, seasons, or even years, but in generations. Our current island cannot house our children. We watch them wave goodbye on the boat.

Articles by Date from 2012