Rich island retreat = good; Obscenely rich = ?

Just back from Martha’s Vineyard.  If you’ve flown and driven the entire East Coast you realize how unspoiled the Cape and Nantucket/MV are.  No concrete high-rises, lots of woods, cheesy tourist strip malls mostly confined to the main roads and the occasional town.  Maybe it is the coldness of the water that has kept development from ruining this area.  That doesn’t mean that Martha’s Vineyard isn’t changing, however, and those who knew it when aren’t entirely happy.

1970s:  the Vineyard was a year-round working-class town of fishermen and boatyard workers supplemented by a summer season where rich New England WASPs spent weeks or months in small simple cottages near the shore.  The place was isolated, the only access being by ferry boat from Woods Hole on the Cape Cod mainland or in little propeller airplanes from various points.  It wasn’t practical to remain in the fast lane in New York or Washington, DC and also spend weekends on the Vineyard.  Crime was non-existent.

2000s:  The corporate jet has changed everything.  KMVY has a 5500′ runway and an instrument landing system.  That plus a Gulfstream puts most of the population of the East Coast within about a one-hour flight from Martha’s Vineyard.  And all on the shareholders’ dime!

Ease of access has made the Vineyard both more and less democratic.  It is less democratic in that you better show up with $2-5 million if you want to buy a house.  It is more democratic in that anyone can buy a house now if they have enough money; you don’t have to be a WASP.  For example, Harvey Weinstein, a Jewish movie producer, was able to purchase a house in a formerly exclusive area (people did not want to sell to a Jew but eventually the siren song of a suitcase full of 100-dollar bills was irresistable).

It is also become more democratic in that poor people have arrived in large numbers.  Why?  Rich people attract poor people.  A middle class person with a vacation house will tend to keep it up by himself.  He comes out for a couple of weekends in May to turn on the water, patch up any broken screens, and cut the lawn.  Then he tinkers a bit for the rest of the summer.  This isn’t practical if your vacation house is a 10,000 square foot mansion set in 4 acres of formal gardens.  You could hire the local working class folks to maintain your garden and clean and repair your house but that would get expensive, even for a rich person.  The solution is to import serfs from the Third World.  Martha’s Vineyard is filling up with foreign workers, mostly Brazilian, sleeping 5 to a room at night and preparing the estates of the rich for July and August.

The old-timers are worried.  Violent crime is on the rise.  The children of the serfs seem to be forming gangs.  It looks as though Martha’s Vineyard is on its way to becoming more like Rio de Janeiro:  fantastically rich in spots but also not very safe when you step out of your enclave.

More: (M.V. section is about halfway down)

Full post, including comments