Nantucket Thoughts

The Nantucket ferry whistle just announced its departure for the mainland thirty some miles to the north.  Friends know we are partial to islands.  I have no idea where that comes from, but we seem to be drawn to islands.  The islands of Hawaii have been our momentary respite from winter for over thirty years, and “Oh to be in England” (at any time of year). Whidbey and the San Juans establish the epitome of Pacific Northwest beauty.  Nantucket, thirty miles off the coast of Cape Cod, is a family destination for us a couple of times a year.  We love them all.

This week on Nantucket I’ve been struck by an observation I had not made before.  It’s about community health and the value of ethnic and economic diversity.  Summer is the big season here.  The population swells to claustrophobic proportions of wealthy visitors, people who want to look like wealthy visitors, and people who want to look at wealthy visitors hoping for a celebrity.  They come for the sea, beaches, and colonial charm too of course.  We come to visit family during the shoulder seasons in the spring and fall when the weather can be brisk, windy, and wet.  Most places don’t close for the winter until after Thanksgiving, opening up again in April, so avoiding the summer season provides access to all the shopping and dining amenities minus the crowds.  Hiking and biking trails are uncrowded, even solitary.  What struck me as I walked around the city center is that the island’s diversity of people is more obvious in the off season.

I’m told that during the summer season the glare of sunshine on a sea of white faces makes it hard to see much diversity.  That’s too bad.  Black families have been fixtures with a proud heritage in this community since colonial days.  Today’s island population has been supplemented by immigrants from the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.  Without the horde of tourists it’s a pleasure to walk around among the ebb and flow of greater diversity who greet each other, stop for brief sidewalk conversations, and exchange small talk in the shops.   Not to overstate it, there is still a large gap between those who earn their living here, and those who can afford to make it their vacation or retirement home.  There is a large gap between those who own successful business, and those who work for them.  It’s not an an inexpensive place to live, and those on the bottom rungs have a hard time finding decent housing.  Just the same, the off season brings out a community that gives the appearance of real authenticity.  So what does that mean?

It means that I believe communities are healthier where ethnic and economic diversity mix freely in the public arena, and work together with mutual trust and respect for the welfare of the community.  Not that segregation ceases to exist.  Some is the echo of imposed segregation from former times.  Some is self imposed.  Some is the product of economic difference.  But all barriers are permeable, existing as much as possible within the walls of homes, and not at all in the public arena.  The summer season brings economic largesse to Nantucket, and that’s good, but the off season brings community.

It’s one of the things I like about living in Walla Walla.  There are wrong side of the tracks neighborhoods, and neighborhoods thought to be snooty, but in a small rural city, even one with several colleges, there is not much room for exclusivity.  Rich and poor mix because there is no place to be exclusive.  It isn’t always easy.  Tensions can flare.  But the community is healthier for it.  We experienced some of the same in parts of New York City, where we lived for a few years.  Chelsea, for instance, was a neighborhood where mixing with each other in the community, and working with each other for the community, was the normal way of living in the place.  We’ve had experiences in other places where that was not true.  We’ve lived in communities where the exclusivity of the place gave the illusion of living by right in an elite world apart from the unpleasantness going on elsewhere, apart from the unpleasantness of mixing as equals with people not like us, in expectation that the purpose of people not like us is to maintain the life style to which we are entitled, and that this is the best of all possible ways to live.  If Dr. Pangloss had hung on a little longer, he might not have been wrong after all.  That’s not healthy!  It’s not even sane.  On Nantucket, and in Walla Walla, there are plenty of people who think like that, but they cannot live like that because there is no place for it in the public arena.  

Who knew walking around Nantucket’s city center would bring all that out?  Ridiculous isn’t it.  Maybe we should go someplace exclusive for dinner.

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