Our Changing Island

Traveling the Island in the late spring, one sees anew its remarkable natural variety. Along South Beach, leaves are just unfurling; in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, roads are sprinkled with apple and cherry blossom petals like the aftermath of a ticker tape parade. We call our friends in Chilmark during a rain shower in Edgartown only to find they are out gardening. As we listen hopefully to the weather forecast, we hear updates for the Cape and Islands and make our own mental adjustments to the aggregate report. We know the Vineyard as a place of microclimates, and we revel in the diversity.

If we’ve thought about it, we’ve probably known there is a similar socioeconomic phenomenon on the Island. We often hear and use easy shorthand for describing our population: wealthy versus working class, old versus young, homeowners versus renters, summer residents versus year-rounders, whites versus nonwhites, haves versus have-nots. There have been important changes over our lifetimes to each of these broad categories that can be described statistically and anecdotally, and each gives us insight into the issues confronting the Vineyard now and in the years ahead. Taken as a whole, we find the Island is more crowded, older and more ethnically diverse than it was just a decade ago. These large trends have critical implications for our tax base, for how our towns and countywide entities allocate precious resources, and how we think about preserving the things we value most about the Vineyard.

But digging more deeply into the numbers offers a nuanced and perhaps more useful picture of what is happening here. Steamship bookings are up, new businesses are opening and summer rentals seem brisk, but other signs point to a decidedly uneven recovery. It’s more rare than not to find residents surviving on income from a single occupation; ever resourceful, Islanders are piecing together a living any way they can. Last week, local banker Chris Wells talked about the Vineyard’s “diverging economy,” noting both a resurgence in new mortgage lending and an increase in delinquencies. In today’s paper, we begin an occasional series delving into the 2010 U.S. Census figures, putting faces and stories on what the numbers say — and don’t say.

Among other things, the census appears to have undercounted our population by a few thousand people. Given the ebb and flow of visitors and the federal government’s practice of relying on personal interviews in rural places, it’s not surprising that some residents eluded the count. But a relatively small undercount amounts to a meaningful loss in much-needed federal funding, which is often based on the census figures.

Similarly, census numbers don’t provide much insight into a vital new aspect of our population: the Brazilian community. Because most Brazilians identify themselves as white, it is difficult to quantify their prevalence, though we feel their presence in many ways.

Looking at the Vineyard close-up, a social scientist might well describe it as a collection of microcultures and microeconomies. We prefer to think of it as a rich assortment of people with an endless combination of stories to tell. Like our climate, there is much to celebrate in our socioeconomic diversity, but there is also pain and struggle too. We all need to know the facts, and then we need to look them in the eye.