Land Shark
Nantucket Essays

Nantucket’s Land Sharks

by Robert P. Barsanti

Summer Rental
Room for one
Own entry, No Dogs, fridge, Micro
$5,000 upfront

Everything you need to know about Nantucket is in the classifieds. The stories may not stand up, grab you by the collar, and shout at you; but if you sit down next to them, hold their hand, and listen quietly, the truth will come out. Then, if you stand up, say thanks, and look around, you can see the world from where you stand.

I have stayed in an apartment like this one. My apartment was in a basement, with an entrance through the bulkhead doors, mildew in July, and the upstairs rumbling regularly. I didn’t mind; I was working nights until two or three in the morning then I spent the days either working or tanning. I suspect if you found many 50-somethings who have lived on the island since the eighties, they could point out some houses and tell you some tales.

That apartment didn’t cost five thousand dollars. The years and inflation have made my rent insignificant, but it was paid in cash every Friday. The rest of the house had several other tenants, all spending roughly what I spent, and all working through the summer either building some sweat savings or beach bank. I could not have paid $5,000 upfront back then and would need a serious conversation with the mirror to pay for it now.

But, in the summer of 2021, $5,000 upfront for a crash pad for the summer, is a great deal. By the time this paper hits the coffee shops, bakeries, and ferries, that rental will have been snapped up. It doesn’t take long or too many online searches to find other homeowners offering up similar rooms for $5,000 a week or, for the more economical, $500 a night. You could see a couple in New Haven, looking at an idle weekend and a generous bank account, signing up for a $1,500 long weekend on Nantucket. “We’ll bring our bikes. It will be fun.”

So much of the summer economy on Nantucket is acted out each evening in front of the ice cream shops downtown. One group of people lines up for waffle cones and Watermelon Creams; one group of people scurries behind the counter to fill their orders. Even if the wait is long, the customers understand and tip. But now, as the multi-nationals and the Investment trusts snap up all of the houses under a million dollars (and several over that), the number of beds for ice cream scoopers keeps dropping. That line is going to get longer.

If someone is handing out money, I will be there with my hand out. I understand the urge to rent the house out for the summer and live on a lake in New Hampshire. Mrs. MacDonald taught me my multiplication tables at the end of a ruler, and I took her instruction to heart; those “products” would pay for a mortgage and a trip to St. John in February.

I’m not the only one doing the math, though. In the last ten years, off-island investors and real estate trusts have bought at least 240 year-round island homes. That money has left the island permanently. Now, an off-island realtor can rent a house to a visitor, take her check, send her the keys, and it’s all done. At one time the rent, the realtor’s fee, and the mortgage would all make a stop in Nantucket pockets; someone would have gotten his beak wet, be it Frenchie or Hank the Bank. Now, an islander may mow the lawn or clean the toilets. The rest of the money never even gets its feet wet.

A red headed sandwich maker once told me that “If you own it, it’s yours.” As a community, we have been selling what we own for years. As the great wave of money has swept up the island, we have sold restaurants, utilities, banks, hotels, stores, and homes to offisland interests. The jobs that sat behind the counters, at the electric company, at the banks, and the real estate offices, have all drifted off-island, along with a healthy chunk of the building trades. Islanders have made a lot of money, then packed up the car and built a beautiful house on a lake in Maine. But they can’t come back here.

Today, Nantucket, and America, run on poverty. Behind the swinging kitchen doors of the $50 tenderloin au poivre are cooks and dishwashers that will make a little more than that for the night. On the seat of the lawnmowers are men who are packed ten to a basement. On the construction sites are builders who sleep in their vans. They aren’t saving for a mortgage. Desperate for the money, they will do the work. Most of the men who went on whaling voyages signed on for the same reason.

One hundred and ten students graduated Nantucket High School this weekend. The weather cleared for them, and the graduation glowed under that rarest of things: the June sun. Smiles, hats, awards, scholarships, and a car parade downtown. From where we were in March, graduation is a miracle of science and peer pressure.

Some graduate received the UPON scholarship this year; the Unimportant People of Nantucket. I have always thought of those people as old Whalers, people who tend bar, or deliver lumber or pump propane. The Unimportant People of Nantucket build the community. They come to town meeting. They bring their kids to Main Street on Halloween. They stand in the red ticket drawing. And they graduate from Nantucket High.

How many will be here in five years?
How many will be here when they are forty?
How many will be fire fighters, cops, plumbers, nurses, or teachers?

Our island, surfing on this amazing wave of money, can’t house it’s doctors or nurses. If it can’t keep people with six-figure paychecks, how is it going to keep the Unimportant People of Nantucket?

Everything you need to know about Nantucket is in the classifieds. Including this ad:

8-10 Rooms
Employee Housing in Hyannis.
Walk to Boat.

Articles by Date from 2012