A few words about the R word. You know what that is, don’t you? No, it’s regionalism. Shhh. As a washashore, I’ve learned mentioning this out loud is tantamount to shouting “Macbeth!” in the wings of a playhouse performing Shakespeare.
Regionalism is the opposite of townism. To bring it up favorably in conversation means you’re one of those people who thinks this Island can be governed as one region rather than six towns. Well, before someone straps you to the underside of the Island Queen, let’s take a closer, dryer look at the issue. First of all, the Vineyard seems to embrace a little of both isms. We may comprise six separate townships, but we have a regional airport, a regional bus line, a regional ferry line, a regional hospital and a regional high school. When we want to plan or develop anything, like affordable housing or expandable shopping, we have the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. And when we need the great overseer of everything, there’s the Dukes County commission, which governs all the citizenry of our Island and all the Elizabeths — with the exception of Benjamin Hall’s family, which apparently answers to some other authority.
The Vineyard is a land mass completely surrounded by water and separated from mainland jurisdictions. We are about 18,000 year-rounders scattered over 100 square miles. In most states, we would be considered a small town with a lot of open space. Or at least abutting tri-town areas. Doesn’t every state have them? Or is it every local newscast?
Falmouth, for example, is one town that’s about half the size of our Island with almost double the population.
Most places like ours would be ruled by a mayor or town manager with government administration and public services headquartered in one location, plus branches in numerous neighborhoods. It’s about shared funding, shared software, shared responsibilities.
But that doesn’t describe this Island, does it? Regionalism flies in the face of Newton’s law of municipality — for every town there’s an equal and opposite town. We are six separate towns with six separate governments, police forces, fire departments, primary schools, libraries and histories. We are towns of distinctive personalities and issues. We are tight little enclaves of comfort, thank you. Of course, this does not preclude being labeled chauvinistic, insular or “those people.”
Each town allows itself to be ruled by town meetings — a unique form of government that sprang from the New England fear that all politics is loco and that representation is taxation — as in “whatever you think you’re doing on my behalf I find very taxing.”
The underlying ethic is smallness is better. That’s the way things are done here. So what if there’s incompetence — it’s our hometown incompetence. And if someone in our house needs CPR, we want it administered by a neighbor we know.
I am told EMTs were at the ready when the regional high school was first proposed. The very idea of uniting behind one Island school made some people’s skin crawl and their teeth itch — not to mention their sense of rugged individualism shrivel. To this day, some regard the legacy of the regional high school as a well that’s been poisoned. It divided families and created everlasting grudges.
But seriously, folks. Is the alternative rational? Six high schools? Six hospitals? Six airports? Six ferry systems? Six bus lines? Hey, why do we only have four golf courses?
People like to control their own destiny, and for some the nature of a small town gives them that nice warm feeling. But, of course, expand a supermarket in one town or build a roundabout in another and you hear from everyone everywhere, even folks who live here two weeks of the year.
It seems to me we need coordination and cooperation. We need townism and regionalism. It’s called survival. Sometimes it even allows the state to make one phone call instead of six. But I know what you’re thinking — who uses a phone to call anyone anymore?
To many, regionalism is on a par with fiscal cliff or frankenfood, at least in terms of vocabulary. One way to sell regionalism is to stop calling it that. I believe the new code word here is “Islandwide.”
The real problem is breaking with what we think is tradition. Change is something Americans always vote for, but never really want. But we forget that we are always changing. Just look at the sea levels. Or our restaurants.
Sometimes, I’ll grant you, trying to impose regionalism is like trying to impose democracy. Sometimes and some places it just doesn’t fit. Witness Iraq. Basically, this is an artificial country created by people who do not live there — the British. Why should we expect three religious sects to function as one nation? It’s hard for westerners to wrap their minds around centuries of tribal disputes in the Middle East. For most of us, it sounds like an old song — You Got Me, Babe, sung by Sunni and Shia.
By comparison, the Vineyard is closer to Eden.
Tune in next time for our next R word. Will it be reinvention or retirement?
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.