Snapshot of a Changing Neighborhood: Now, Lights Go Out in Winter Months


Fifty years ago, as many chickens as children roamed the streets just behind Upper Main street in Edgartown. Payment for the services of welder Milton Jeffers were tendered in fish as often as cash. Nearly every resident of Pine street and Curtis Lane had a clunker in the side yard. The kids on those streets - as many as four dozen in the 1950s - could navigate the Indian trail all the way to Eel Pond. Cells in the county jail became the after-school playground on rainy days. Boys from all over Edgartown came to this neighborhood to play ball on the only two-hoop basketball court in town.

Now, basketball hoops are on NSTAR poles and the court is the road. At three o'clock one school day afternoon last week, a lone first-grader on Fisher Road braved a bicycle, steadied by her training wheels. A few faded buoys were scattered in front yards along Pine street and Curtis Lane. Every couple of houses, fresh cedar shingles had not yet weathered. Labor Day weekend, license plates on the cars parked along these quiet lanes read Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island, as well as Massachusetts.

This is a snapshot of a changing neighborhood.

Over the past decade, deep-rooted working class families began to lose their dominance on these streets. With each home sale, the balance in the neighborhood tips further from blue-collar Islander to part-time mainlander. Now, of 95 homes along Pine street, Curtis Lane, Clark Drive, Norton Orchard Road, Orran Norton Way and Fisher Road, the number of year-round households outnumbers seasonal households by only one.

"So many of the Islanders have sold off and moved to Vermont and New Hampshire, places where they can enjoy the money they got for the house," said Jean Andrews, who has lived on Clark Drive for more than 30 years, pausing as she tried to remember the name of a newcomer just around the corner.

"We don't know as much as we used to about our neighbors. The properties are changing hands so quickly," Mrs. Andrews said. Her husband, Howard, is unofficial "mayor" of the neighborhood.

These streets have been in the news lately because an affordable housing development is planned for two and a half empty acres in the heart of this otherwise built-out community. The so-called Jenney Lane project - currently being reviewed by the Martha's Vineyard Commission - would bring 10 Island households of low and modest income here.

Whether that happens or not, the changes occurring along Pine street and Curtis Lane these days are familiar to those living in some other neighborhoods down-Island. Real estate agents watched these changes arrive first close to downtown; now they are creeping into communities further from the center.

Even while undergoing change, there's no doubt that Pine street and Curtis Lane are part of a vibrant neighborhood. It's only five minutes' walk from the Dukes County Courthouse. At Main street, the neighborhood is flanked by two Mobil gas stations - sometimes a sore point for residents stuck in bottlenecks sparked by the early morning coffee rush. These streets also include a popular auto mechanic, the entrance to the Edgartown Golf Club, low-income Dukes County Housing Authority apartments, an elderly assisted living facility and the Dukes County jail.

More than two dozen old-Island families - folks like the Jefferses, Baptistes, Searles and Smiths, have called this modest community home for more than 30 years and they still remain. But a single house sale - and one is pending - will put seasonal households in the majority. Kevin Donovan, a third-generation resident, placed his Pine street house on the market this summer. The $550,000 asking price will surely hook a mainland buyer - just as the last 13 house sales nearby did. It's been five years since a year-round resident bought a house here.

"The off-Island buyers are competing with the working class, blue-collar element on the Island. The first group wins out because they're stronger financially," said Ron Walsh, real estate broker.

Even some of the homes still owned by families with old neighborhood names like Leighton and Gale are now dark all winter - having become vacation homes or seasonal rentals for baby boomers hanging on to their parents' property.

"When I came back after more than 40 years to live in the family home, it seemed so dark in the winter. Seems like no one's home. The only lights came from the jail and from [the restaurant] Atria," said Norma Rodgers, whose late grandfather, blacksmith Orin Norton, grew apples, potatoes and blueberries on land that has since filled with homes along Norton Orchard Road, Clark Drive and Orran Norton Way (named for her grandfather, but misspelled). Mrs. Rodgers now lives full-time in her family's old farmhouse on Pine street, and her sister, Arlene Baril, lives full-time on Norton Orchard Road.

Along Curtis Lane, a dozen second and third-generation owners maintain a family home, though only a few live there year-round. Sylvia Thomas, who inherited her parents' home about a decade ago, said the commitment to keep the family home may not last another generation.

"The younger people aren't in a position to keep the house because as time passes, they go far and wide. I realize it's the end of an era. We had a long stretch, though; homes on Curtis Lane have stayed within their family since the 1920s," Ms. Thomas said, rattling off the lineage of families that line her street.

As properties change hands here, the houses often get a facelift and the yards a manicure. Every year of late, a few more junk cars have been towed away. A few more fences line the perimeter of yards. A few more pots of geraniums make their way onto front stoops.

"When we bought our house, there was a dump truck in the backyard that had been there so long there were vines growing through it. The house was in good shape, but the yard was a disaster. It was totally overgrown; you couldn't even see the property line," said Delos Lander, who bought a 900-square-foot bungalow on Pine street several years ago for $350,000.

John Best, a real estate broker, said, referring to similar trends in Tisbury: "People with money will take a chance, buy a beater-upper and fix it up. There is the impulse to gentrify the neighborhood. They think, ‘If I do it, maybe my neighbor will do it as well.' "

"Everything seems to get a coat of paint or some shingles when these houses change hands. But it's just a sign of the times. There's a lot of fresh money coming in," said Philip (Jeff) Norton Jr., an Edgartown attorney who spent a lot of time trying to work his way onto that two-hoop basketball court as a child.

These spruced up cottages are a far cry from the Pine street and Curtis Lane of yesteryear. The look of the homes, the rhythm of the days and the interactions among residents all resonated from the shared class identity now disappearing.

"We all had dumpsies - old cars that only started some of the time. But that was us. We used to be called the worst street in Edgartown. Not any more," said Gloria Jeffers, now in her 70s, who has lived in at least four homes along Pine street in her lifetime.

"If you think there are run-down houses now, there used to be many more. But poor folks owned them, and it was the best they could do," said Don Haberstroh, who has lived seasonally on Norton Orchard Road for more than 30 years.

"You used to have to slow down when driving through the neighborhood so as not to hit a rooster. I don't think our new neighbors would appreciate chickens roaming the streets now," said Mrs. Andrews.

Some longtime year-rounders said they've felt pressure to follow the lead of seasonal newcomers and get their houses and yards in better shape.

"I tried to clean up my act, too. When Milton was alive, we'd occasionally get pressure to clean up our yard. We were more than happy to put up a snob fence if someone wrote the check," said Mrs. Jeffers, who hauled all of her late husband's scrap metal off the property several years ago. The chickens and guinea hens went as well, ending a rampant rat problem in the neighborhood - so bad through the 1980s that Howard Andrews said he used to shoot rats out the kitchen window with a pellet gun.

Certainly, what's an eyesore for some neighbors is a reminder for others of what the place used to be. Mrs. Jeffers, who lives next door to the Al Noyes auto repair shop, keeps refusing the mechanic's offer to put up a fence between their lots to block her view of his business. She turns him down every time, saying she likes to see who's coming and going from his Pine street shop.

Why this neighborhood became a destination for second home buyers is, real estate brokers say, the inevitable domino effect of the Island's skyrocketing real estate market.

"People selling homes in there, even those not in that great of shape, are realizing the gain of the neighborhood's desirability among seasonal buyers," said Stephanie Burke, a broker for Linda Bassett Real Estate.

So the neighborhood that for the better part of a century served as the entry point for middle-class Vineyarders has become the first step into the market for mainland buyers seeking second homes. The real estate boom brought second home buyers hunting in neighborhoods they had never before considered.

"We'd been renting on the Vineyard for 10 years, looking to buy for several years. Every year, you'd find yourself trying to catch up to the neighborhood, and every year, you'd be behind another 25 per cent," Mr. Lander explained.

It's no news to those living along Pine street and Curtis Lane that they now sit on valuable properties. In case they have tuned out, real estate brokers send them regular reminders in the mail.

"People kept telling us how much money we could get for the house. Real estate agents kept sending us notices, telling us how much a house down the street just sold for. They said if we wanted to sell, give them a call. We finally did," said Shannon Donovan. Mrs. Donovan said her family would take the half-million they've been told they can get for the property and move elsewhere on the Island and build a home from scratch.

A small cottage at the bend in the road on Pine street sold for $465,000 just a few years ago. A house on Fisher Road purchased for $240,000 in 1999 sold again in 2002 for $387,000. Norton Orchard Road has attracted deep-pocket buyers as well. One house sold for $650,000 in 2001, and another for $800,000 in 2002.

Without skipping a beat, Edgartown property assessor Will Pflüger can tick through a list of other neighborhoods attracting high-dollar sales in the last several years - Chase Road, Pinehurst, Oliver street, Green street.

"Downtown is very desirable, and downtown has spread outward to Pine street and Curtis Lane," said Mr. Pflüger.

But Edgartown neighborhoods as far out of town as Ocean Heights and Arbutus Park along Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road have begun seeing this transition as well, said Mr. Walsh.

The same patterns are seeping into areas of Tisbury, too, Mr. Best said. Properties in the neighborhoods near Midland avenue have drawn purchase prices that surprise even those in his field.

"Just recently, a tiny, dilapidated house that needed a ton of work - covered in lead paint - sold in the upper 300s. It just wasn't in a place you'd expect that to happen," Mr. Best said.

And brokers don't see this gentrification cycle breaking any time in the foreseeable future.

"Every neighborhood is turning that way," said Mr. Best. "It's a normal market impulse. I don't see what could be done about it, short of people purposefully degrading their properties."

Said Mr. Walsh, "Realtors don't like seeing this kind of thing, but I work for the sellers, so I can't discriminate against the second home buyer. But it doesn't stop me from feeling frustrated. Neighborhoods like this are disappearing."