Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 37 Issue 13 • July 19 - 25, 2007
now in our 37th season

Voting on Our Future

by Robert P. Barsanti

The air has hung about us recently.  For those of us fortunate enough to leave the arbitrage and stock picking on the blackberry, it has been a great week for a vacation.  Just as the fog lifts and the dew burns off the screens, you can go off to that little spot west of Miacomet, dole out the boogie boards and pick sand out of your potato chips all day.  For those of us who measure the day in register tape and two by fours, we watch you head off with unbridled, green-eyed jealousy.  There is a tension among us pale folks at this time of year, especially the when the air clings like a three-year-old.  We’re glad you are having a good time, but we still darkly smile at the beach umbrella somersaulting over the dunes.

The last thing we should all do is town meeting.  When Town Meeting usually rolls around, in April, we have all that we can do not to hop the chairs and throttle the speaker and her balloons for the sea turtles or to hurl the town books at the millionaire carpenters who complain that “Ain’t no one carin for the workin man.”  We slip off the straining leash of civility when a lawyer picks up the microphone.  Norman Rockwell did not paint our Town Meeting.

Now, when this special Town Meeting comes in July, our summer friends, customers, and employers will come in sporting their Westmoor Pool tans while we palely look on in our work clothes.  It will not come to a good end.

For most of the island voters, Town Meeting passes on the calendar with all of the fanfare of Flag Day and Arbor Day.  We see the cars parked at the high school, we remember the droning and repetition interrupted by the sparks of spluttering anger and we avoid it like office detention.  Others go with the highlighters and their knitting,  The worst come armed with photocopies, the rules of order, and their letter to the editor posted in the trophy room of the mind.  We hope for rain and a low turnout so that we can go home and catch the last few innings.  It’s hard to take the whole process seriously when Ortiz is up with two on and nobody out.

Yet, every year something comes up that is serious.  This year, the town is looking to buy the Dreamland, Island Spirits, and Madaket.  Not too long ago, anyone proposing purchase of the Dreamland would be met with Peter Pan jokes and the knowing look of a builder.  Then we saw Westmoor.  A few years ago, the town was presented with a proposal to buy the Westmoor properties.   And, through recalcitrance and irritability, the town decided it would be more trouble than it is worth.  Since then, dozens of multi-million dollar homes have sprouted while our children and colleagues go away for jobs and housing.  The Builder’s Association may not admit that they were wrong, but everyone else can see the fading promise clearly.

The Builder’s Association has no monopoly on wrong-headedness.  When they saw the future, they saw the present, but with more money in their wallets and a Grady White at Madaket Marine.  They didn’t see the monsoon of money that built an Alabama of Preppy Plantations (all with their own pennants).

Nantucket’s past is littered with good ideas that got road blocked and moronic ones that got green-lighted.  Nantucket was one of the last places in Massachusetts to open a public school and waited one hundred and twenty years after the start of whaling before they paved the roads and lighted the streets.  For every Land Bank and Historic District Commission, you have a railroad train and a building cap. 

Because we are so far out to sea, Nantucket tends to see itself as isolated and special.  It will do what America does only if it wants to; we are the wallflower of the nation.  We look at America’s trends as an anthropologist in the jungle would study a primitive tribe of tanned faces.  Our isolation, our wealth, and our desirability make us different (and better).  But we are just a lot more vulnerable.  When Wall Street sniffles, we get pneumonia: when Wall Street roars, we get new houses.  The top 1% of the country have done very well in the last seven years; they like brownie ice cream, sunsets in Madaket, and club memberships.  That top 1% likes Nantucket very well within their privet.

So, I hope that enough of the town comes to town meeting with an eye for buying and keeping.  In the words of a famous island farmer, you can only control what you own.  The Dreamland may look a little dreary to us now, but out there, someone with a hedge fund sees it as a great clubhouse for the Easy Street Yacht Club.

The hot days of July also call to mind the day it all ended; July 13, 1846.  That night, a small fire started out in the top floor of a store on Main Street.  Two private fire companies arrived on the scene promptly and promptly squabbled about who would get it paid.  The fire spread until it burned all of downtown, the docks, the warehouses, and even the boats.  In one night 300 families were homeless and proud Nantucket had to go to the state and the towns hat in hand. 

Many see that day as the day Nantucket’s whaling prosperity ended.  It wasn’t.  Whaling had been moving to New Bedford for years, crude oil was about to be found in Pennsylvania, and slow business had already forced many to leave the island.  Further, the fire could have been a lot less dangerous if the houses hadn’t been jammed together, the roof wasn’t made with flammable tar paper, and the fire companies were organized.  At the time, no one thought to do those things because brighter times were right around the corner.  Just like the Builder’s Association, the future would be just like today, but with better boats. 

Even the Guernseyite Quakers felt that way when they built their meeting house for three thousand; the island would return to Quaker prominence with one huge meeting house.  Then that huge meeting house became a factory, then a hotel, then a Redman’s Hall, and finally a movie theater.  I would hate to see it end its life as another yacht club.

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