by Mike Cook
If I were not working this summer in Provincetown, I, after reading Peter Anastas’s most recent contribution to “Enduring Gloucester”, (read it here,) would be at the forefront of a draft “Peter for Mayor” movement.
Now, that news might not thrill or excite Peter. But the issues he spelled out in his recent essay, and the way in which he proposed they be addressed, was in, many ways, a manifesto of what is needed, not just for Gloucester but for many other seaport and fishing communities around the country who are seeing their economies devastated by burdensome federal regulations, and the very things that made them such authentic and unique places threatened as some in positions of power chase what Peter called the “chimera” of tourism and the illusion of a sustainable “visitor based” economy.
The morning Peter’s essay was posted, I received a news story in my inbox about a survey conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition documenting the hourly wage needed to rent a two bedroom apartment in the various fifty states.
In Massachusetts, in order to be able to just afford a two bedroom apartment, a person needs to be earning just under $25 an hour. That is more than three times both the federal and state minimum wage.
As Gloucester’s fishing industry, and other industries associated with it decline, there are a lot of eggs being put into the tourism and hospitality baskets and the belief that high end, boutique hotels, marinas filled with luxury yachts, and a harbor rung by chic, over priced restaurants, coupled with once working class neighborhoods like Fort Square and “Portagee” Hill being transformed into “Louisburg Square by the Sea” and “Beacon Hill by the Bay” respectively, lie at the heart of Gloucester’s salvation and renaissance.
Well, folks, let me tell you. It ain’t so.
I, by choice, have chosen to work in the hospitality/tourism industry these last seventeen summers because doing so earned me enough money to save several thousand dollars each summer so that I could spend the winters exploring Costa Rica and its Central American neighbors. I worked in coastal towns from Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod to Camden on the Penobscot Bay in Maine.
To be sure, in July and August, I often made much more than twenty five dollars an hour but such earnings were, truly, limited between, in Gloucester, Fiesta at the end of June and Labor Day. In the weeks and months before and after that time span, there were days when going home with tips that did not even meet the state’s minimum wage for the hours you worked were not uncommon.
In short, tourism in coastal New England is very much a seasonal industry and in no way provides an individual, never mind a family, the $25 an hour
wage year round that individual or family needs just to rent a two bedroom apartment – never mind cover life’s other expenses like transportation, food, and health care.
In addition, the industry is notorious for not only low wages but also minimal to no benefits, long hours, and very little concern for the well being of its employees.
In the off season, many industry workers, from Provincetown to the Penobscot, either migrate somewhere to follow yet another tourist season in another milieu, or they hunker down to a long winter struggling to pay their bills while living off their summer savings and a meager unemployment.
It is, except perhaps in July and August, as we say in the gay community, “not pretty”.
All this is not say tourism and hospitality and some gentrification do not have key roles to play in a community like Gloucester’s economy. They do. But neither can they be the mainstays of such a community’s economic base. Anyone who thinks they can is either living in a fool’s paradise, or one of the lucky few who stand to make a killing in a trend that from Provincetown to the Penobscot has greatly enriched a select few at the expense of the hard working many.
So, Peter thank your lucky stars I am marooned at Land’s End this summer, otherwise – well, Mayor Anastas, I think it has a nice ring to it.
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.