Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
Martha's Vineyard
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Dear Mr. President

The Obamas are coming! The Obamas are coming! On Martha's Vineyard, the rumors are flying. Everyone's got advice for the Obamas about what they shouldn't miss. I've got some advice too. Don't come in August, Mr. President. August is crazy here. Come in October, or January, or March.

In August most Vineyard residents are working two or three jobs and/or entertaining a continuous procession of guests from off-island. Imagine, Mr. President, if you had tourists traipsing through the Oval Office 24/7. You're trying to meet with congressional leaders, study a complex document, or just think things over, and all the while total strangers are looking at you, talking about you, and asking you for directions to the Lincoln bedroom.

Day in, day out, you and our other elected representatives deal in trends and policies that affect large regions and huge numbers of people. Come to Martha's Vineyard in the off-season and let's talk about how macro trends play out on the micro level.

U.S. policy makers talk as if "growth" is an unmitigated good thing. Living on an island gives you a different perspective. There's only so far you can grow before you reach first the sand and then the water. True, if you fly over the island you'll see plenty of trees and fields; there's plenty of land left to build on. But growth requires water as well as land. The more land is paved or turned into lawns, the more houses are built, each with its own septic system, the greater the threat to both the groundwater that we drink and the ponds, bays, and coastline that sustain our fish and shellfish. When the fledgling United States was a string of cities, towns, and farms concentrated east of the Appalachians, growth did look like an unmitigated good thing. Now the United States looks like an island, albeit one with a 3,000-mile-long midsection. And ever since humanity got a glimpse of our Earth from outer space, there's been little doubt that it's an island too.

Prosperity is another one of those things that everyone wants. What's not to like about prosperity? We on Martha's Vineyard have a ringside seat for observing its side-effects. When prosperous people have money to burn, they buy land in nice places and build themselves nice big houses. Here's where it gets complicated. Most of us who work here year-round are directly or indirectly dependent on those prosperous people. We clear their land, issue their permits, build their houses, provide their services, and sell them goods. The more jobs, the better, right?

Well, Mr. President, there's a catch. Many of the houses we build are occupied less than two months of the year. In our seasonal economy rental units go for thousands of dollars a week in the summer. As a result, year-round rentals are hard to find, and moving twice a year has been part of island living for many of us. Come here in the off-season, and we'll tell you what it's like for kids to have to pull up stakes once as the old school year is ending and again as the new school year begins.

One way to escape "the Vineyard shuffle," as some call it, is to buy yourself a house. A dozen years ago you could buy a livable house -- not fancy but something a family-size group could live in -- for less than $200,000. Given the island's median income, this was still a hefty, hard-to-attain goal, but now, after the maniac growth of the last decade? Listing prices have come down a little since the bubble collapsed, but it's still a rare livable dwelling that lists for less than $600K. The island's median income has gone up, but it sure hasn't tripled.

And here's another catch: Vineyarders who've had their homes for a while have benefited from the rapid growth in real estate values over the last decade or so. Some have borrowed against the equity in their houses to send their kids to college. The kicker is that now their kids can't afford to buy land or even rent here. As a result, an exodus has been going on for years. School enrollment is shrinking, and that's probably just as well, because it's very hard to live here on a teacher's salary.

Dwindling along with it is community. Everybody talks about community, and nearly everyone says they want more of it. To be sure, community isn't dead here, not by a longshot. But I've noticed over the years, Mr. President, that growth and prosperity are very hard on community. What brings disparate and often contentious people together in community is need. When we need each other to get by, we manage to get along pretty well, most of us, most of the time. When tragedy strikes one, many rise to the occasion. But when people have the wherewithal to buy or hire whatever they need, there's little incentive to barter the use of the lawn mower for vegetables from a neighbor's garden. Plenty of people on Martha's Vineyard these days don't even know their neighbors.

So do come to Martha's Vineyard, Mr. President, and bring your family too. Just make it in the off-season -- October, January, or March would be good -- when we have time to talk.


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