Thursday, September 27, 2012

Saving Nantucket: An Open Letter to Wendy Schmidt


Dear Ms. Schmidt
First of all yes, I’m glad you saved Mitchell’s Book Corner, and I’m sure the new arts center will be very nice. The bus system is a convenient way for the working class to get to work.  But your shiny new bakery belongs on a movie set and only serves to make old Nantuckers pine for the real French delights of the long-gone Patisserie Marti. 
The new Dreamland  – the cornerstone of your efforts here so far -- is ill-conceived, uncomfortable  and generic , just like any other mall multiplex,  except that the off-island  theatres don’t treat the audience to five minutes of self-congratulatory promotional videos and fund-raising before the movie starts. You tout the place as a ‘game changer’, whatever that means.  So far all it means is a lot of rich people drinking cocktails on a deck with the best view in town. You claim you’re  out  to ‘save’ Nantucket. The one chance Nantucket had to be truly saved was Ted Kennedy’s  Nantucket Sound Islands Trust bill, proposed back in 1974. But locals fought against it, fearing for their property resale values. Fortunes would have been lost if that bill had passed, but the idyllic island many of us remember so fondly would still remain.
Walter Beinke didn’t ‘save’ Nantucket by making the harbor a tourist hub and you aren’t going to ’save’  it by building a parking garage or turning lower main street into a shopping mall. It’s very simple: people with money will mess with this island at will, just because they can. Some are more sanctimonious about it than others. But the mess remains.
You profess to be shocked and saddened by the empty streets downtown in the off season. What you don’t get is that the people who actually live here are counting the seconds until that yearly “apocalypse” arrives again, and we get some inkling of the way this island used to be. In fact our winter population now is bigger than the summer population was in the old days. Maybe you think that’s progress, but most people don’t. Nantucket isn’t some crumbling rust belt city that needs a rescue. It was doing fine before you showed up and will continue to do fine after some other place strikes your fancy and you move on.
Here’s what enormously wealthy people like you don’t understand, and will probably never understand as long as everyone around you is groveling for your money and allowing you to feel like some creepy new uber-Capitalist royalty. Money alone isn’t enough. Taste is required if you want to help a unique and beautiful town like Nantucket, and not simply make it over in your own image. You have to respect  its history and love its traditions.
A customer of mine once ordered a full garden imported from England, complete with the strutting, self-important ‘landscape engineer’ who promised to install an instant botanical fantasia worthy of the garden club back in the days when the women who belonged to it actually worked in their own backyards.  It was perfect except for one thing: no one had bothered to consider the pattern of light and shade behind the big mansion. It was diabolical, and funny in a nasty way: the plants that needed light were placed in the shadows and the flowers that needed shade were  left to wither in the August sun. Perhaps this imperious plant expert thought he was ‘saving’ my customer’s yard.  But that ruined landscape told a different story. Just dowsing things with money can backfire in grotesque ways, tragic or comic, and occasionally both at once.
That being said, and in the spirit of full disclosure … I must admit that if you were giving away a hundred thousand dollars to writers who could, I don’t know …  ‘chronicle and celebrate’ your adopted island, and wanted them to line up with  proposals and flattery, just  as the various would-be book-sellers did, scrambling for a piece of Mitchell’s book corner, I would  be first on line. I grovel with the best of them and would  gladly retract this entire letter. I might even deny I wrote it in the first place as I busily crafted a fulsome apology,   written in blood and hand-delivered on my knees. Money makes a gutless boot-licking toady out of me, I confess.
But I’m not proud of that.  And no one else should be, either.

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