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”.


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.

From Over the Bridge, At Least For Now by Mike Cook

Well, this winter did not turn out the way I expected.

Had anyone told me when I gave up my rental share in a house in Gloucester to spend the winter working in southwest Florida that I would be writing this from Provincetown, well, let’s just say not even I would have believed them.

But the fates, a lost wallet, and right wing bumper stickers all played a role in my winding up on a northbound  Greyhound bus, one cannot fly without a photo id these days, not really knowing where I was going to land.

As to the bumper stickers, I had no idea what a bastion of right wing, fundamentalist Christian, Tea Party Republicanism much of southwest Florida, even right along the coast, is. But I do now.

The bus ride was actually an intriguing experience. It got me back in touch with just what a vast and varied land the United States of America remains.

Pulling into the Greyhound terminal in NYC at 1:00 AM on a frigid night, with a three hour lay over ahead of me, was an experience I won’t soon forget. The sitting area was full of homeless people desperate to get in from the cold. To say that it was street theater taken to a disturbing extreme is an understatement of equally disturbing extremes.

I sat, writing in my journal, wondering “How can it be that in the richest nation on earth, people who, through no fault of their own, find life unmanageable can be relegated to an impoverished netherworld that is, truly, beyond Dickensian?”

After that experience, the deep woods of North Truro, where I first stayed upon my arrival on the Outer Cape, were a welcome respite from  the ugly realities of the world we all know exists but far too few of us want to talk about, let alone do anything about.

So, here I am settled into Provincetown with plans to return to Gloucester in April.

I have ample time on my hands to contemplate the meaning of this most recent adventure of mine and what might come after.

As I stroll the deserted streets of Provincetown, I find myself wondering if the  nouveau riche, bourgeois bohemian, gentrification, albeit of a largely gay variety, that has transformed this once magical place into little more than an expensive summer resort that celebrates diversity so long as it is rich, gay, and overwhelmingly white, is what awaits Gloucester.

Of course, the dynamics will not be exactly the same. But Gloucester, like Provincetown, Portsmouth, and Newburyport, with its beautiful coastal geography, is, with the decline of the blue collar/middle class fishing economy, being targeted by the same well to do bourgeois bohemian types who have so changed Provincetown, Portsmouth, and Newburyport in recent decades.

Provincetown, like Newburyport and Portsmouth, now ranks among the most expensive small coastal communities in the nation in which to live.

The working class, whether it be the gay men and lesbians  who waited on tables and tended bar,  the struggling artists and writers, or the locally born Portuguese who harvested the sea, are largely gone.

Year round housing that can be called even remotely affordable is all but impossible to find. As a result, many of the workers in the summer tourism season who wait on tables, tend bar, prepare the food in restaurants, and  change the sheets in $300 a night guesthouses are college students from eastern Europe and Jamaicans who live in dormitory style housing provided them by their employers to whom those employees then pay rent.

I don’t know what, if anything, can be done to stop, or even temper, the gentrification that is bearing down on Gloucester, but surely pointing out some of the downsides to that gentrification, many of which are abundantly visible in places like Provincetown, Newburyport, and Portsmouth, might be a means of getting people to think carefully before they embark down a road that could bring changes to Gloucester that are only in the interests of a select few as opposed to the hard working many.

mike_cookMike Cook  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.

But then I realized liberals are not a monolithic, like thinking group of people, especially when you are talking about  “liberal laborers” and  “limousine liberals”.

Ah well, I hope this rambling of mine gets people thinking about the role classism plays, not just in what is happening in Gloucester, but throughout the nation as a whole – before it really is too late to do anything about it.