Classism and its Role in Gentrification by Mike Cook

After I submitted my opinion piece to “Enduring Gloucester” about gentrification’s numerous downsides, and how those downsides have  impacted coastal communities I’ve lived in and loved, from Provincetown to Portsmouth, I introduced a couple of old friends here in Provincetown to “Enduring Gloucester”.

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Photo provided by Document/Morin

They lamented that a similar forum does not exist here.  As middle and lower income, largely  three season workers in the community’s tourism-based economy, they are finding basic survival here increasingly difficult—and very few among the more well to do “political class” that runs the town, as liberal and progressive as they all claim to be, seems to care not a whit.

By basic survival, I primarily mean the ability to find year round housing they can afford to rent or, if they are lucky enough to have bought something in years past, to earn enough money via the tourism and retail driven economy to properly maintain their homes and afford the ever escalating property taxes.

In the not quite three weeks since I have been here, I have been saddened to hear how many people I met and knew through the years, some of them Provincetown’s most interesting and creative residents, have  moved on. Some sold their homes because they did not earn enough in retail and tourism to maintain them, pay ever higher property taxes, and also put food on the table. Others  left because the constant fear of being asked to move, yet again, when a property is sold or another apartment is converted into a condo and the rent sent into the stratosphere, even in the dead of winter, has proven to be just too stressful—especially for people who have lived in and contributed to Provincetown for years and now feel as if the town, or at least the affluent newcomers who have bought up so much of the town in recent years and the political class that does their bidding, neither appreciate their contributions nor the town’s long history of being a place where all are welcome.

Conversations with my friends, sadly, confirmed my observation about Provincetown being a place that celebrates “tolerance and diversity” only so long as it is gay, affluent, and overwhelmingly white, was not as off the mark as I may have once thought.

That realization got me thinking about the gay community itself and what I have come to see as an issue no one in the community, or very few, ever think about—let alone talk about, at least  openly.

The issue I am referring to is classism and, I dare say, it is so pervasive in the gay “community” that it makes a mockery of the very notion that a gay “community” truly exists.

I  first thought about this “ism” within my own “community” on a warm summer night in 1991. My roommate, the late John Barnes, and I were driving home to 51 Fort Square from a swanky fundraiser for what was known then as the North Shore AIDS Health Project. The event was held at the elegant Annisquam home of a very affluent gay male couple.

As we were driving home on Washington Street, Johnny said to me, “You know, Mike, you fit in at the party. It’s that ‘preppy’ look of yours. But if I didn’t have AIDS and wasn’t needed as a ‘token’ for fundraising purposes, those two queens would never have invited me to a party at their house, unless it was to hook up for sex. ”

At first, I dismissed what Johnny had to say or, more accurately, I didn’t want to believe it. But in the years since John died in 1992, and as a result of the things I have seen in the ensuing years, I have to admit that, by and large, Johnny Barnes was right on the money.

But back to classism more generally.

I think it is very much in play in Gloucester today as the once solid lower and middle income communities the fishing industry nurtured find themselves in positions not unlike many people here in Provincetown.

The strength of those lower and middle income fishing industry related communities served as a bulwark against the kind of gentrification that has transformed Provincetown, Portsmouth, and Newburyport into mere  caricatures of their once authentic selves and into some of the most expensive small coastal communities in  which to live in the nation.

But today, that strength is waning; creating a vacuum  far too many of Gloucester’s already well heeled—be they politically liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican—seem to think will be best filled by transforming Fort Square into Louisburg Square by the Sea and “Portagee” Hill into Beacon Hill by the Bay.

Last May I attended that bastion of Cape Ann liberalism’s premier event – the Democratic City Committees’ annual Sunday brunch.

I was both shocked and saddened to hear so many people who I’d long thought of as liberals like myself expressing their support for the kind of gentrification that was then exemplified by the imminent plans to tear down the Birdseye building to make way for a billionaire’s “boutique hotel”.

mike_cookMike Cook  is a long time liberal and gay rights activist who saw the uniqueness of Gloucester from the first moment he drove over the bridge during his move from Cambridge to Cape Ann in 1991 to run NUVA’s AIDS education and services programs.

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