Tuesday July 27, 2004


Front Page lead: Threat to Community


“When the values of consumption replace those of community, we've entered the terminal phase of a disease that threatens our island culture.” So writes Sam Low of Harthaven, a contributor to our commentary pages, in an essay this morning. See page eight.


Cultures of Community and Consumption

By Sam Low


To say traditional Vineyard culture is threatened is to express a cliché. But what is the threat? And more importantly, what is threatened?


To begin, let's assume there exists a culture of community as opposed to a culture of consumption. One emphasizes commonality, the other distinction. One is cooperative, the other combative. We know well the culture of consumption because we live in its midst. So allow me to look back to our earlier communal culture.


As a teenager, I remember large Vineyard parties open to us all, joining islanders and summer visitors across potential barriers of class and prospects. The islanders knew things we (I was a summer person in those days) did not. With their fathers they swaggered the docks off-loading swordfish, for example, kings of their universe. This security in competence is not as fulsome today.


Menemsha is still a commercial port. But in the inner harbor, once thronged with fishing vessels, you'll now find “picnic boats” - the seagoing equivalent of a Porsche. Tied to piers semi-permanently as status symbols, these vessels cost up to a million bucks. Bow thrusters and water jets allow them to be maneuvered with malevolent ease by a tiny joystick like those children use to play video games. So not only are the fishermen gone, gone also are the skills that bred their sense of competence in the face of newcomers.


In an earlier time, you could walk anywhere. Today, keys to South Beach sell for 300,000 dollars. Open Vineyard lands once fostered chance meetings between residents of every island town. Friendships, the building blocks of community, were forged across boundaries of residence, class and status. That rarely happens today as we turn inward behind burgeoning barriers to free movement.


The island still offers open spaces, of course, all those reserves established by our conservation organizations. Yet in a perverse way they emphasize just how fragmented we've become. “Park here,” the signs tell us. “Follow this trail.” “Stop, the reservation ends here.” Paths marked by arrows move us along. How often do we stop to chat with a passer-by? By channeling our walks and telling us what we can and cannot do we are reminded, in the midst of a preserved forest or dune, of our limits to free movement.

Our harbors, once blending places of commercial fishermen and island residents, are now “engines of development” as one Oak Bluffs selectman fervently put it. Fueled by tourist dollars, they've become free trade zones where bars joust for our attention. At least one inebriated Oak Bluffs visitor has stepped off his boat and drowned without a sound being heard. Where once we stopped to gam with fishermen we're told to move along. Did I say fishermen? They, of course, have been expelled by the need for docking fees to build more slips for yet more floating summer homes - ersatz replicas of real boats.


Our downtowns are places of consumption - not community. Do you remember when the person manning the register lived here, perhaps even owned the place? Do you recall pleasant conversations over cans of soup? Those who purvey the goods today - and those who consume them - are often from different worlds. There's little in common to discuss and little time given the press of others in line. All up and down our main streets a sea of goods is forced on us by folks struggling to pay their taxes – pushed up by the need for more police to keep us moving. Where once we traded and chatted as neighbors, we're now consumers stranded on a commercial conveyor belt.


Need something fixed? Forget it unless the job carries a hefty price tag. “I charge what the market will bear” one tradesman once told me, “you'd have to be a fool, not to.” Indeed, and the market will bear outrageous prices because some will pay them. When the electrician finally arrives, forget the chitchat – at his prices there's no time for pleasantries. It's an invisible barrier to communication and community. It exists in your head and your pocketbook, yet it's no less real.


How many of your neighbors have sold out and left because of soaring taxes? How many rent their homes to get by? Renting turns a home into a business. A place where families once gathered is now occupied by rotating groups of strangers. They consume our island's amenities and depart – leaving behind a social vacuum where was once positive communal energy.


How about that house you almost bought for a pittance that's now worth two million dollars? Do you shun the real estate pages because they remind you of the upward surge of prices? There's an irony here – two contrasting instincts. One is disgust at the commodification of our landscapes. The other is a sickening feeling that you missed the gravy train. Soaring prices call attention to our greed. It's not a good feeling.


Is there an answer to all this? You can move to Maine , of course, and many are doing just that. You can attend town meeting and question the need for yet more “engines of development.” You can help conserve open lands. But I fear we've reached, and gone beyond, the tipping point.


Every elder is a prospective curmudgeon. The ways of yesterday are always superceded by those of tomorrow. But when the values of consumption replace those of community, we've entered the terminal phase of a disease that afflicts our island culture.