Who Will Take the Baton Next: One Boomer Ponders Future
By IAN FEIN
It took V. Jaime Hamlin almost an hour to get to Edgartown from her Vineyard Haven home on Wednesday.
And the traffic congestion on this rainy day after the Fourth of July highlighted one of her primary concerns about the fate of the Island. She worries that the Vineyard is becoming too popular for its own good.
"Today is a perfect example," Ms. Hamlin said in an interview at the Gazette. "With all of the gridlock out there, we're trashing the very thing that we all came here for in the first place."
She remembers when everyone lived in modestly sized houses, and people prided themselves on never driving anything but so-called Island cars.
"It used to be, the rustier the bucket the better. Now everyone thinks they need nice new SUVs," Ms. Hamlin said. "And excuse me, but have you seen the size of some of these new giant homes that they're building? Does anyone really need 20,000 square feet for a family of four? I don't think so."
She said the Vineyard needs to scale back the size and numbers of its cars and homes.
"Sometimes I feel like the Island is going to sink under all this weight," said Ms. Hamlin, 55, her coat still wet from the rain. "How much more will we be able to absorb?"
It is the type of question the Martha's Vineyard Commission will attempt to answer in its ambitious Island Plan, which will draft a blueprint for the future of the Vineyard based on feedback from the community. Ms. Hamlin described the planning effort as timely, and praised the commission as one of the organizations she relies on to help preserve the identity of the Island.
"People need to sit up and pay attention if they care about this place or plan to live here a long time," Ms. Hamlin said. "That ideal beauty we all had when we came here - it's not going to stay that way if development is allowed to continue like it has been."
But Ms. Hamlin quickly acknowledged the difficulty in solving what she called a huge conundrum. She said the Vineyard economy runs on the construction business during the winter, and noted that her own livelihood - as the proprietor of a premier Island catering company - is tied directly to the kind of lifestyle about which she is complaining.
"I feel completely hypocritical sounding off about it when my entire financial stability depends on it," Ms. Hamlin said. "But when you see these air conditioned McMansions and huge lawns that are green all the time, you can't help but feel bad. There's no way to reconcile it."
Originally from Westchester County in New York, Ms. Hamlin started coming to the Island as a teenager with her family in the 1960s. She began working in the food industry here 30 years ago, and moved to the Vineyard full time in 1980, when she and her then-husband opened a restaurant and catering business.
Her story mirrors those of many others like her, who came to the Vineyard in the 1970s to pursue an alternative lifestyle and live closer to the land.
"We were the boomer generation; there were lots of us. We all had kids at the same time, we all had small businesses, and we really did support each other," she recalled. "We all felt like the quality of life here was better than anywhere else we could think of. We had clean water, clean air, a beautiful environment. We thought we could make a good living out here - and we did."
She dates the big shift on the Island to the first visit of the Clinton family, in the summer of 1993, which propelled the Vineyard into the national consciousness.
"Now you can't open The New York Times or The New Yorker and not find some mention of Martha's Vineyard in there," Ms. Hamlin said. "The Vineyard has become a symbol of where the rich and powerful play, which has brought a whole set of problems."
Her catering events have gone from modest, down-home country weddings to huge, upscale endeavors - often for people who have no real connection to the Vineyard.
"They come here because they read about this storybook Island. And it is a boon to the economy. But as more and more people come here for events, more and more of them want to keep coming back," she said. "Everybody wants their own little acre of privacy, tranquility and beauty - and that's what the Vineyard offers."
The Island is the last place on the coast between Boston and Washington, D.C., that is still relatively pristine and accessible, she said, noting that other beautiful retreats - like Nantucket - are much harder to get to. She suggested that the Vineyard should consider making itself less accessible.
"The Steamship Authority has a huge part to play in this," Ms. Hamlin said. "Maybe they could guarantee spaces on the boat for Islanders, but then only sell a certain amount of tickets beyond that. Cut them off - that's it. Come back another day."
She admitted that the last decade has been very good for her business, but noted that the last few years have also taken their toll on the Island.
"We're faced with the problem of: How much is enough?" Ms. Hamlin said. "My business is big enough. I don't need it to get any bigger. I have all I can handle right now," she continued.
"And it has really been a double-edged sword. As more people came, it made our businesses more prosperous. But on the other hand, we all needed more to keep up with the cost of living," Ms. Hamlin said. "And then the other service sector came in behind us."
Ms. Hamlin candidly raised questions about the growing immigrant population on the Vineyard. She said the Island is a microcosm of the larger debate playing out across the rest of the country, and she is concerned by the lack of interest that Vineyard towns and regional agencies have shown in the immigration issue. She noted that the commission has no estimate of how many Brazilian immigrants live on the Vineyard, nor any set plans to study or address the issue.
"Individually, they are all great people. But taken together as a giant population, there is no question that it is changing the Island in certain ways," Ms. Hamlin said. "It's a big issue, but nobody wants to bring it up. It's the elephant in the living room on Martha's Vineyard."
Ms. Hamlin believes the changes to the economy and community are eliminating the middle class, of which she considers herself a part. She feels certain that none of her four sons, all in their early 20s (and three of them triplets), will be able to afford homes on the Island. And she said that if things continue as they have been, the Vineyard population will eventually be made up of only the very wealthy, and the people who serve them.
She praised efforts to promote small sustainable businesses that cater to the general population, including a push by some Tisbury officials to allow restaurants in town to sell beer and wine. The Vineyard must also protect its working farms, she said, noting that local food is better for the health, economy and ecology of the Island.
And it is the natural resources and sheer beauty of the Vineyard that brought most people here to begin with, Ms. Hamlin added.
"Sometimes when I'm driving to a job up-Island, I have a hard time staying on the road because I get distracted by how beautiful it all is," she said. "When I go sailing in Lake Tashmoo - with the white ibises along the shore, the hawks flying overhead, the mother swan and her five little babies - it's absolute heaven out there," she continued.
"The overwhelming beauty of the Vineyard - it has to be preserved."
She said people on the Island need to reevaluate their priorities and lifestyles.
"We've become way too dependant on things and stuff," Ms. Hamlin said. "I'm ready to go back to the camp-style living. And we can do it. We're hardy folk."
The Martha's Vineyard Commission is soliciting comment from the public for its Island Plan, a two-year project to develop a 10, 20 and 50-year comprehensive plan for the Vineyard. For more information, visit Islandplan.org or call the commission at 508-693-3453.