This has been a winter of unexpected turns of events, blinding blizzards, and a realization that Gloucester is one special place after all.
I keep a journal on my PC, of entries I share with no one, and of copies of essays and sundry rambling thoughts I’ve written down and shared with Enduring Gloucester, the Gloucester Daily Times, and a couple of other outlets that indulge me in my rants.
I was reviewing the entries and essays I’ve compiled in the two months since I wound up landing in Provincetown, in what I hope is just a temporary stop gap measure until I can get back to Cape Ann, and I realized that this transitional time has been generating an awful lot of internal angst in me that has really taken a toll.
The major factor in that angst is the growing realization that this area of the country where I was born and raised, by that I mean the coastal regions of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, is becoming such a desirable and expensive place to live that I may not be able to stay here as I age and my ability to earn the kind of income the region demands to cover even the most basic costs of living is diminished.
It’s a pretty unsettling thought.
I suppose that’s why this morning, with a brilliant sun shining down from a cloudless sky upon the oversized mounds of snow that line every street in Provincetown, in ways that are both dazzlingly beautiful and quite daunting to boot, I decided to hike out to the National Seashore to drink in the beauty of this place at Land’s End. I could no longer simply dwell on the very real socio-economic issues confronting this town that have so many people on edge and thinking about joining so many others who have already bade this place farewell.
As I walked the area of Herring Cove Beach the ocean has cleared of snow, I was struck by the enormity and beauty of the National Seashore and how fortunate we all are that people in the past had the foresight to preserve it.
However, there is also a sad irony in knowing it is precisely because of the foresight to have preserved such beauty that Provincetown is increasingly becoming a place where only those who are well to do can live.
As I walked along the road back to town, I realized all coastal communities in temperate and tropical climates, from Cape Ann and Cape Cod, to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, seem to be on the same trajectory. Living by the ocean is not just a life style choice anymore. It has become a status symbol and the age old law of supply and demand is making it more and more difficult for people who are not affluent to live the coastal lifestyle – even if they were born and bred right along the coast line.
It was on the walk back to town that I realized as different as Gloucester, Provincetown, and the once sleepy little hamlet of Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica that I called home for fifteen winters may seem on the surface, they are all being impacted by economic forces that are fundamentally changing the very fiber and essence of what made them such unique places for so long.
For an example, when I washed ashore in Puerto Viejo in 1999 one of my greatest pleasures was grocery shopping. That was because grocery shopping was an adventure. There was no “super market”, so when you wanted bread you went to the local “panaderia”. When you wanted meat, you went to see Don Jesus at his “carcineria”. When you wanted fish, you stopped by the “marisqueria”, or you went directly to the beach where the local fishermen kept their boats and bartered with them face to face and, when you wanted fruits and vegetables, you headed to the “verdura”.
The result was grocery shopping could take a couple of hours, but it was a sure fired way to get all the juicy gossip and tidbits about local politics that make small town living so interesting.
But, as the numbers of American expats coming to “retire in paradise” grew, many of them found having to go to four different locations to get their grocery shopping done annoyingly inconvenient and the talk soon shifted to the need for a real “super market” in town.
Within just a few years, as the expat community grew in size and economic influence, that “super market”, known as “Mega Super”, a Central American subsidiary of, yes, Walmart, opened its doors.
Its impact was enormous. Most of those old local establishments quickly went out of business. That rippled through the community in a big way because many of the local, low wage workers who clean ex-pats’ houses, work as chambermaids in foreign owned hotels and guest cabins, and chop the flora and maintain the grounds of such places generally get paid monthly. For most, their wages are so low they do not even bother to open bank accounts.
Those local stores used to extend credit to those workers who would pay their tabs at the end of each month when they got their wages. Don Jesus, for example, kept a spiral notebook by his cash box and recorded the items a family purchased and collected payment on an appointed date each month.
As those small businesses went under, those workers, with no bank accounts, savings, or credit or debit cards, began to find it increasingly difficult to feed their families because the “Mega Super” was not going to extend credit to those workers, and keep track of it in spiral notebooks by the cash registers.
As the gentrification brought by the expats escalated, the cost of everything in the community escalated right alongside it.
Increasingly the workers who clean those expats’ homes, tend their gardens, cook in the restaurants, and change the sheets in hotels and cabinas have been forced to move inland from the coastal towns they were born in because demand for housing near the ocean has sent rents to unreachable heights for the workers given their low pay.
It is, in many ways, exactly what has happened in Provincetown, Newburyport, and Portsmouth, and could well happen to Gloucester in the wake of the decline of the middle and lower middle income jobs the fishing industry and industries related to it provided workers for so long.
People working in the tourism and hospitality industries , for example, in the years ahead, may find themselves having to move to Lynn because the new gentrified Gloucester will be just too pricey for them to afford on the lower wages those industries generally pay.
It all can get overwhelming and make one feel really powerless, but then that’s when you need to get out and see the beauty that is all around in coastal communities and be grateful for any time and opportunity you have to enjoy it.
That’s what I did today, and it has made all the difference in the world.
Mike 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.