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Library - Martha's Vineyard

Can We Beat Them?

Opinion - Vineyard Gazette
By Sam Low

So, when you turn on your TV at night and you see coifed, backlit, perfect people riding around in BMWs solving life's problems, what do you think? That if they can figure out the mysteries of marriage, child rearing, life and death in sixty minutes (well, actually forty-four, given the time set aside for commercials) that maybe you can do it too?

What struck me watching one of these shows was that it held the key to what is going on here - on the island, I mean - regarding golf courses and such.

A friend of mine, a college roommate actually, sent me recently via the internet a copy of an article about Nantucket that appeared in this week's Sunday New York Times. It was apropos of a conversation we had recently when he visited the island.

My roomate's name is name is Ron. Ron is a world traveler, a man of many talents, mostly concerned with solving problems of third world countries. His focus is broad - world wide. I don't think the words "neighborhood" or "community" concern him much. We talked, as we walked on South Beach, about development. I told him why - if we allowed development to go rampant - there would be no South Beach to walk on.

Ron is a libertarian. He believes, deeply, in market forces. Caveat Emptor. It's a form of Darwinism that is personal to him. I can't really explain it. But he took the devil's advocate seat.

"Well, why not?" he said. "If there were more hotels on this beach, more people could enjoy it?"

He talked of privilege, the usual stuff, hauling up the drawbridge just after you get across. He talked of status envy - old money versus new money. He talked of democracy, even, bed and breakfasts on South Beach catering to those who could only spend a few days But still, he reminded me, a few days is better than no days. We covered a lot of ground.

Then came the email. The title of the article he sent is: "Nantucket Worries That Its Past Is Being Renovated Away." The gist is in these two sentences: "Once treasured by a relative few for its cobblestone streets, its picket fences bathed in icy-pink roses and its isolation, Nantucket is awakening to the din and clash of construction, threatening both its look and its historic integrity. Wealthy visitors who crave a piece of its weathered charm are buying up houses and ripping them apartů"

What do you think?" Ron asked. I wrote: "Nantucket has been taken over by the rich and famous. It started when Beinecke bought the entire harbor front, then it passed into the hands of a mall developer. They both did good work in trying to keep the architectural character of the harbor intact but the real character goes when a single person owns anything that important to a town. It becomes an autocracy not a democracy; a Disneyland not a town. Nantucket was always a snobby place - 'better than thous' - and they have now reaped what they have sown. The Vineyard has rough edges - many constituencies - six separate towns - which has prevented a take-over - but the fight continues. For many long years the town of Edgartown has fought a wealthy Boston family who wants to break zoning and develop a piece of property into big houses - undergone an expensive lawsuit - and prevailed. It also turns out that the family had signed an agreement with the people who sold the land NOT to develop it until 2010. They are trying to break that deal, too. These are the kind of people you have to fight. They have a lot of money and want more. They do not understand what attracts them to a place and they destroy it when they get there."

Ok, but this was the epiphany that occurred as I wrote the email. "Or, perhaps," I continued, "it was always their intention to remake the place into their image of a pleasure dome. I don't know."

It made me think. What if the people who are trying to develop this island, and have already taken root in Nantucket, have really learned most of what they know at the knee of the tube? What must they think? Is it possible they don't care about trashing what is here on the Vineyard and in Nantucket? Is it possible they really have an image of perfect people solving life's problems while driving BMW's? What a thought.

A few days later, Ron emailed me back. "Do you think you can beat them?"

What shall I tell him?

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