Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Fire that Transformed Nantucket


When we first moved to Massachusetts, we were very focused on our new baby and jobs. Then we started thinking about filling in our county map, and pretty soon we had visited 12 of the 14 counties. After a while we managed to get to Dukes County, otherwise known as Martha's Vineyard, by taking a day trip on the ferry from Fall River. The passage through the complex currents in the strait known as Wood's Hole was quite memorable.

But Nantucket, also known as Nantucket, was a bit more of a challenge. (That is not a typo -- it is the only place in the United States where an island, a county, and a town are coterminous and share the same name.)

The ferry from Hyannis to Nantucket takes a few hours each way, so a day trip seemed out of the question. And as a woefully paid professor and librarian, we did not see any way of affording an overnight stay. Then we discovered that a good friend grew up on the island, where her family still operates a guest house that is reasonably priced. So over the past several years, we've become somewhat addicted to the place, especially if we can go mid-week or in the shoulder seasons when it is not too crowed. We have also enjoyed doing some coffee education on the island.

Why do we love it so much? Aside from the quaint shops and tranquil beaches, my favorite thing is that it a place one can go without a car. In fact, the pedestrian-friendly nature of Nantucket is, according to James Howard Kunstler, one of the reasons it is so expensive. Suburban sprawl has been both the cause and the consequence of automobile dependency, as the cars and the need to provide space for them has resulted in a spiral of positive feedback that has pushed us ever-farther from our neighbors. In Nantucket, lot sizes are small - tiny, in fact - and mixed uses are allowed. As Kunstler argues, these are common-sense arrangements that are all to rare, and as fuel prices escalate, the sprawling suburbs are going to become slums (we've already started to see this) while the elites converge again on walkable downtowns. Smart communities are paying attention and trying to find ways to re-concentrate their land uses. (We do sometimes do cheat and borrow a car if we want an evening dinner elsewhere on the island or to go shopping at Bartlett's Farm.)

Prior to moving to Massachusetts, everything we knew about Nantucket -- which is to say not very much -- we had gathered from the old television show (back when we watched television) Wings, which of course takes place almost entirely on a sound stage, teaching very little real geography. During  every visit we have considered going to the Club Car, which really is a restaurant on the island, a short walk from our friend's guest house. Every time we have been deterred either by the prices posted outside (beware the Nantucket restaurants that do not post prices -- lunch for two can run $700 at one of these places).

What does all this have to do with the headline? Just this: in 1846, Nantucket was beginning to decline as a whaling center. On July 13, a great fire swept through the town, erasing most of the infrastructure associated with that industry, and laying the groundwork for the place it is today. The serious money did not return for almost another century, but the fire did play a pivotal role in creating the townscape we see today.

1 comment:

  1. James, I never could watch that show Wings. I was once in a plane heading to the island and the wheels would not come down. They wouldn't let us land because there was no real hospital on island. It took me 10 years before I tried to visit Nantucket again, but my favorite spot is Seaside village. I love the rose covered cottages along the beach.

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