A Shoreline That Never Ends

When one of President Obama’s Democratic challengers for the job, John Edwards, traveled the country during the primaries, he had a populist stump speech that, among other things, took a swipe at American agricultural policy for wasting millions on “. . . towns like Martha’s Vineyard.” Later, when he came here to raise campaign money and pointedly left out that line, it was thought that Mr. Edwards had done some homework and learned that the Vineyard is an Island with six quite distinct towns, not to mention a centuries-old farming tradition. The Island’s many small farmers, men and an unusually high number of women, had no idea who was getting handouts. They shrugged. It was another example of that widely-held perception of the Vineyard which is something quite different from the reality of the Vineyard.

So, as the President prepares to arrive on the Vineyard on Sunday for a week’s vacation, allow us to introduce ourselves.

There are not so many of us — about sixteen thousand. But that’s more than doubled since the seventies, meaning that the Island has grown seven times faster than Massachusetts as a whole. In summer, the number of people here increases fivefold, which is easy to notice. Still, most of us don’t have a key to our house handy and never lock the car. The only time in recent memory a police officer used a gun was to fend off an aggressive wild turkey. The event made headlines. We have fought off fast-food chains and strip malls. We worry about the impact of people who come because of the Yankee fishing, farming and hunting heritage, for the land and the sea, and who then build huge homes that are out of character and burden the environment.

Such growth makes it hard for young people to stay or new families to buy a house; the proportion of children here is declining faster than elsewhere in Massachusetts. Kids who can stay have an appreciation of nature unlike most others — quahaugging in the ponds, fishing from the shore, picking berries on preserved trails, swimming in the sea. Like their parents, they enjoy a diverse and sophisticated social network that is rare for such a small place.

This comes with a cost of living higher than on the mainland. Yet the bulk of Island jobs are seasonal and low-wage; an Islander’s average wage is less than three-fourths what other folks in the commonwealth make. Poverty, depression and alcoholism are real problems for the Island’s year-round community, but though isolated, or perhaps because of it, Vineyarders take care of each other. Few other newspapers in the country print the word “benefit” so often as this one.

The benefits take the form of potluck concerts and chicken dinners in the winter, and then fund-raising takes on a decidedly different veneer in the summer. The Vineyard has thousands of seasonal visitors, many with strong, multigenerational ties to the Island, and their philanthropy sustains many critical services, from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital to Community Services to the Vineyard Nursing Association. But we worry about that; it’s not a stable way to run an economy. Moreover, as the income gap grows, there is worry about an eroding middle class. We watch as our sister island Nantucket finds more and more of its seasonal people are served by a commuting underclass.

And there are other internal distinctions.

The native Island people belong to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), with a history that dates back ten thousand years and a living culture. Many hopes, held out decades ago when the Wampanoags became the first federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts, have been dashed, and millions were lost chasing casino pipe dreams. But the generation of Wampanoags coming of age today is energized and engaged on the Island. Because of a single woman’s concerted effort, the Wampanoag native tongue is being revived; now, as not for generations, children are learning the words their ancestors spoke to the first colonists. Young men in the Black Brook Drummers perform at tribal ceremonies and cross-cultural events. A woman, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, is the tribal chairman, and a tribal conservationist was elected as a town selectman, a sign that the worst of the old tensions between the two sovereign powers in the westernmost reaches of the Island — when homeowners in the seventies worried Indians would seize their summer homes — have eased and are now a thing of the past.

English settlers arrived in the seventeenth century and became the dominant population. In the eighteenth came the original Portuguese, whose traditions remain vibrant in the community. In the nineteenth the Island became a popular place for African Americans and others seeking religious respite; this began its life as a tourist destination. In service of the visitors came waves of Jamaicans and more recently Brazilians, who are estimated to number in the thousands. This group is less assimilated, and at times the relations between them and the Island’s English-speaking population are strained.

Mostly, though, we get along. Honking car horns are frowned upon. Growing your own food is good. Bartering is common. The Vineyard is a strong community, with a rural life that you might just call small-town America.