Thursday, August 2, 2012

New England Coastal Town X

New England Coastal Town X. You know the one. Narrow streets, saltwater marshes, dog-rose bushes. Windswept rocky beaches, icy currents. The natives distinguished from the tourists by their accents, the age of their boat shoes, and their ability to go in the water (watah) without flinching. Dilapidating beachfront properties, clung to for generations before ultimately being sold because money's run out or the siblings can't decide who keeps the house.

The developers from the City are good guys, thank God, not at all like those soulless predators who would have entire blocks of historical properties bulldozed for condos. Worshipful of the town's character, they only want to update, to improve. They landscape with native plant life (they've researched this; it looks natural and wild yet subtly colour-coordinated). Gingerly and respectfully they extract Jesus and Mary statues from front yards. They remove asbestos, replace yellowed wallpaper, tear down drop ceilings to expose natural beams, liberate hardwood floors. They gut those claustrophobic interiors with their myriads of tiny rooms to create an open concept layout. They install granite kitchen counters, stainless steel appliances, add extra bathrooms (really, a 6-bedroom house with 1 bath?...).

The updated properties are resold at prices that reflect the quality of labour, the professionalism of the interior design and the local sourcing of materials. They are bought by urban escapees. Eager to live in the quaint town for a fraction of the cost of their cramped city apartment, they long to improve their quality of life with fresh air and natural beauty and a sense of community. But the economy is terrible, and their ideas of local employment opportunities prove over-optimistic. Two years later they return to the City, keeping the property as a summer house and income-generating vacation rental.

A tiny commercial street runs through a narrow peninsula. It is home to 6 ice cream shops and 5 seafood restaurants, every single one of them with water views. The seafood is freshly caught, the ice cream home made. "There's a line, but it's worth it." A woman wearing a white beach dress and straw hat asks the high school girl behind the counter if the scallops are good. Unthinkingly the girl answers that she hates seafood, then laughs apologetically and promises they are excellent. The woman asks the girl where she is from. She replies that she lives down the road, pointing in the direction. The woman is ecstatic as she carries her food away to the outdoor seating area. She tells her husband about the exchange. "You know they're locals if they hate seafood!"

Around the corner is a string of cozy little shops selling locally made jewelry, fair trade clothing from South America, organic hand lotions, antique furniture, used books. The local Art Association operates a Co-Op. Paintings, ceramics, woodblock prints. A hand-holding couple discusses purchasing an abstract seascape. "I want the lighthouse to be recognisable without the whole thing being cheesy, you know?" They study several pieces that meet these criteria, tilting their heads.

There is a yoga studio, a book club, a historical society, a concert hall, a market stall selling fresh produce thrice a week on the Green. Artist residencies are held on a bi-monthly basis. There is a mannerism and style of dress that distinguishes the seasonals from the more casual vacationers and day trippers, establishing a hierarchy of sorts.

And then there are the locals, that elusive species. They work the counters, staff the hotels, rent out the boats. But mostly, those who remain are like ghosts. Sometimes you hear the accents at the beach, or a voice calling a child in "for suppah" from an open window.

New England Coastal Town X. I've lived in one and I've visited many, and now here I am again. Memories blend with images glimpsed from afar as I ride my bike past the rocky beaches, charming shops and impeccably renovated properties.

34 comments:

  1. Oh, that was absolutely beautiful! Thank you for taking me to New England for a few moments. I love this blog.

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  2. nice to read your narratives without a product/review in mind. keep these observations coming, they are quite refreshing.
    xxom

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  3. Such a beautiful piece. I am no sculptor of words, but you have a knack of bringing a place to life for us! Don't be late for "suppah"

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  4. Best piece I've read from you in a long time. Made me smile.

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  5. Oh Velouria, you describe my home so eloquently... as much as I love it and occasionally visit it, Every time I go, I am reminded why I left.

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  6. Nothing beats Summer in New England!

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    1. I am partial to Fall in New England.

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  7. How evocative! And how typical of not only New England Coastal towns, but west coast towns, and 'resort' towns everywhere. I moved to a coastal area some years ago to live in the country, but it is largely inhabited by wealthy retired, there is no work, everything too expensive. The irony is that I rarely get to enjoy the beauty of the place(ei rarely going to the beach, never kayaking, rarely any big hikes) because like most residents I have to work and work to get by.
    Being cut off from the mainland keeps development at bay a wee bit, and people come for the day to eat gelato and fish and chips. I even saw Matt Damon last summer looking grumpy...
    I just came back from visiting my parents and spent a few days at a lakeside cottage and visited some of the summer cottage communities I grew up going to. All changed. A modest cottage is not enough, must have a massive house with all the toys. The charm is gone, as the city spreads towards the lakes, it's easier to drive to Walmart than to support local businesses, so they die. I was happy to get the old raleigh at the cottage going and follow the mup along the shore out into the wilds.
    Nice to hear that some communities are trying to maintain their charm, keep the bones of good houses and the integrity of the community.

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  8. Weekender, "There's an awful lot of very peculiar people around here"
    Local, "y'up but they most all go home after Labor Day"

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  9. Wicked good blog.

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  10. that was beautiful and evocative... thank you for the refreshing day dream.

    the poor economic situation also describes some coastal towns outside of the US. Beautiful shorelines, some that once held thriving communities, and also once sported a healthy tourist economy. But as industry, and other businesses left, as did the jobs, and thus local money and economy. And as another poster mentioned, the large superstores, while convenient, lead to the gradual decline of the smaller, independantly run shops. And when the superstore is no longer lucrative, it can simply close off, moving on to open in another town, but leaving the town it leaves empty of local shops that provide necessaties, and keep a place alive.

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  11. It seems like this is what happens to towns that attract people that want the town to make them happy, "If I could just live HERE(in a nicely renovated old house and work from home 3 blocks from the Farmers Market)I would be content."

    I've decided a dozen times to move to Manitoba, Taos N.M., the Texas Hill Country, etc. But cant imagine it working. I think the people who are really happy in those places are the ones that have to be happy there cuz' it's where they're from and they haven't got anywhere else to be. And they've decided to be content.

    The really picturesque spots always seem to get snapped up by those people plagued with the most money and the least ability to be happy where they are. Not your ideal neighbors. If we can just visit, spend a little money and have a nice time without having to settle in and then go about making it "perfect" there might be more of these near perfect places left...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Oh, and your post makes me wish I was there right now...

      Spindizzy

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  12. The larger economic context for this is one in which one percent of the people own 40 percent of everything, a trend that is only likely to increase. So, the turning of seaside charm into rich man's bauble is hardly surprising.

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  13. Describes my home town almost too well.

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  14. If that is Gloucester, spare me. It was lovely and charming probably 40 years ago. Now, in the summer, insufferable. Endless T-shirt, candle, and expensive schlock stores. Give me hardware stores any day. But glad someone likes it--keeps them away from the quiet ramshackle places that have not yet been turned into New England Disneyland.

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  15. Re questions of where this is: The description is a mash-up of several different places. The picture was taken in Rockport, MA.

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    1. senility sets in! I meant Rockport!

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    2. Rockport is a weird place. The small commercial center is dense and crowded, but outside of that there is nothing Disneylandish about it - just residential streets. Even in the center they seem intent on discouraging tourism in the evenings. Few things are open after 6pm and almost nothing is open after 10pm. A total of 2 restaurants serves alcohol. There are no bars, no movie theaters, no night life. Out walking at night, all you see are local high school kids hanging out on the rocks. Oddly there are also no useful stores anywhere nearby aside from one pharmacy and hardware store by the train station. I think it's 10+ miles to the nearest grocery store, in Gloucester.

      I like it here mainly because it is an unusually warm spot for swimming (oddly, the water is warmer here than on Cape Cod), and it is accessible via the MBTA from Boston. As for quieter ramshackle places, my favourite spot is waaaay out there in Downeast Maine. Alas, it is not realistic to travel there right now. And the water is freezing.

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  16. Your description of the home owners who live part time in such areas make us sound pathetic.

    We are not, for the most part, urban escapees. The city is wonderful. Most of us would not like to give it up. We go to these other places for many reasons. For me, I choose places close to wilderness, but that has to do with interests and sentiments connected with wildlife. We plant with native plants because they are good for the ecosystem and because we associate them with wildness and abundance of life. We even grow them where we live in the city. We don't live in cramped spaces in the city. Most of us don't convert our other homes to vacation rentals. I have never rented a home like this. Vacation rentals tend to be awful investments, and they are not the same as a home anyway.

    I have greatly enjoyed having more than one home, knowing more than landscape intimately.

    Some small communities tend to be provincial, and some of their residents are derisive of their part-time neighbors. That is the main negative to owning a home in some of these places. But fortunately, not all are like that. A few urban dwellers are derisive of those of us who spent part of our lives in other environments, just as they are derisive of those who spend their whole lives there. But most of us, I think, understand the joys of urban life and those of small towns and wilderness.

    None of this is to say that some places and people are not just like you describe. It is too bad.

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    1. Agree! in some places the "summer people" are those who still come to their great grandparents' cottages from the 1880s and whose children are playing with the great grandchildren of the 19th century neighbors/relatives next door and yes the wallpaper still dates to the 1940s. And we like it that way. But those are not the people a tourist will meet.

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    2. There is nothing wrong with owning or renting a summer home in a resort town. There is also nothing wrong with being an urban escapee. I've lived in Boston for several years at this point and when I finally get out of here, which I hope to do some day, I will be one myself.

      Things are how they are, and sometimes they are pathetic (in the classic sense of the word) because that is how life is. That does not mean that each individual party's actions are not perfectly understandable. Everyone wants a vacation somewhere nice. Everyone needs to earn income somehow. Houses that are not maintained fall apart. Renovating homes drives up prices. Locals need tourists and summer residents to survive, because the industries that arise around their presence offer much-needed employment opportunities. At the same time, locals feel displaced and 'consumed' by the tourists and new residents they encourage.

      Lots of paradoxes and no-win situations here. Lots of large scale factors involved, such as the changing nature of employment and family migration patterns. It is complicated. And of course no place has the same dynamics.

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    3. "Velouria" --I have a feeling it is very rare that we see glimpses of the real you. This post and this follow up comment show a dark streak that took me by surprise.

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    4. More from Anonymous 1:14 above:

      Re: "At the same time, locals feel displaced and 'consumed' by the tourists and new residents they encourage. "

      This is the great irony.

      It is different for those of us who are part-time residents. I think many of us would rather see fewer tourists and fewer full-time residents. The tourists and full-time residents place large burdens on stressed lands. A healthy local economy can be bad for the land, and it is the land, above all, that is special in these places.

      Personally, I would like see small and simple houses only in these places and then only at low densities - for the sake of the land its wild life.

      The treatment of such places in literature is interesting.

      One great book, about a place in New England, is The Outermost House by Henry Beston. I hope that my home in the wilderness one day is taken by the wilderness, as it was.

      Another is A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. It is a fine work about the way one can live in a wild place.

      My own most special coastal place is the Monterey Peninsula, especially in Monterey and Pacific Grove. In the summer the peninsula is flooded with tourists. The nouveau riche and upper middle class and hotel and resort developers, as well as the local working class, have made their ugly marks there, but still it is a place of profound beauty where the sea and the land meet in conflict. It is quite like your description above. In spite of its great magnetic beauty, it is a boring place to live, and sadly a place exploited by locals and tourists for more than a century. The desire to have an "economy" there has led to worse things than granite counters in the old cottages. It is led to the annihilation of whole species that once thrived in the bay. That is the saddest truth of the Cannery Row of Steinbeck's writings. But there too, Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck, and Robinson Jeffers gave us such beautiful work that now inspires a future generations to preserve lands like these and all the others and to imagine better lives for ourselves.

      What one sees and does in these wild places depends so much on the content of one's imagination. The same is true of what one does and sees on a bike. Visiting them on a bike is a great to admire them while minimizing one's destructive footprint.

      Another book that shows the great potential of imagination in and of life in small coastal towns, and other wild places, is The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett. Carrying those stories in panniers of one's mind makes for a great ride, especially when one is so fortunate as to pass through a coastal village.

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  17. I love the descriptions in your story, I think we have been given a preview of your future book. Also I am delighted to see how your blog becomes social commentary for its followers. We just spent a couple of weeks touring the Northwest coast road. The furthur north we went, the more precious it became.

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  18. As I am from such a place in NE I would suggest more parochial than provincial. But anyway. Minor point.

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  19. nice pic with the brompton casually (and ever so disapprovingly, or is that ironically?) looking on!

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    1. It was more of a curious look. A totally spontaneous picture, unfortunately not taken with a real camera.

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  20. Velouria, I just stumbled across your post and recognized the view from Bearskin Neck's bay side depicted in your photograph above and the photo atop of the "burnout" post too. Such fond memories flooded back. Yes, it's weird how one can remember such minutiae as the position of some boulders from one's childhood. Being an Ex-Rockporter, living there in the mid 70's, it's where I learned to ride a bicycle and consequently discovered the freedom, joy and camaraderie found on a bicycle. We rode our bikes everywhere. We even tied them off with some stolen clothes line to the iron loops for the crane rigging and rode them off the cliffs at Steel Derrick quarry for a big splash! Yes the bottom brackets required an overhaul about a week later, but it was worth it! Now I live in the Chicago suburbs and we frequently make the pilgrimage back to the Cape, or what I like to think of as my real home.

    Not much has changed in Rockport in the last 40 years in terms of the ebb and flow of the seasonal population. Cape Ann's hauntingly beautiful landscape, unique light, it's ghosts, the power of the sea and the struggle between the decay it inflicts and presevation contributes to an atmosphere that will always be the catalyst of desire for me to "just be there", and I assume many others feel the same way as I do.

    You should do yourself the favor by visiting the Cape during low/off season. Go after Labor Day, or in the fall when the crowds subside and the roads are less treacherous for cycling, when only the natives remain, the tourist trap shops are closed, explore the old quarry roads and Dogtown via Squam Hill Road. Then one can focus on and appreciate the miraculous beauty of Rockport and Gloucester, and less on the circus.

    As adolescents and teenagers, it was our ultimate desire to get the heck off that wretched island and never look back. Now, older and wiser, I realize our folly and just how fortunate we were to live in such a magical place.

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    1. Amazing that you were able to recognise the location.

      I have ridden all around Cape Ann, though not through Dogtown. As a teenager I grew up in a similarly spooky place. And everyone wanted to leave, though oddly most of my high school class has now returned.

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