Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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November 30, 2008

Sometimes the juxtaposition of two apparently unrelated stories provides more incisive commentary than any editorial or op-ed could. Case in point: the front page of Friday's Vineyard Gazette. Just below the fold we have a follow-up on the story that's the talk of several towns, not to mention the virtual Vineyard: "Heroin Bust Cast a Spotlight on Island Addiction Problems."

(In case you live off the rock or have been hiding under one: Tuesday before last, six young people were busted in a Vineyard Haven house with $70,000 in cash and illegal drugs. Three of the young people and the house belong to the same family whose Siberian huskies caused such a ruckus in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs earlier this year. On Martha's Vineyard we love this shit. The hot air generated by yammering, blathering, and pontificating about it keeps us warm all winter.)

The follow-up story extrapolates from the original that if people are dealing heroin on Martha's Vineyard, then  people must be using heroin on Martha's Vineyard. And that if a significant dealership gets busted, then its customers must be going without, at least temporarily. One of those interviewed for the article was Dr. Timothy Tsai, director of emergency medicine at Martha's Vineyard Hospital. After a big bust, he said, often more people will show up at the ER with symptoms of withdrawal. Hospital personnel will not, he added, turn these people over to the police. "If someone comes in and asks for help" with his or her addiction, said Dr. Tsai, "they will get the treatment they need. But they have to want to get better. They have to want help."

In brief: An abrupt shortage of an expensive drug may cause withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms are painful and can be life-threatening. Addiction can be treated successfully, but the addicts have to want help.

Just above the fold we have "Island Economic Outlook Darkens, as Land Bank Revenues Drop Sharply." Set aside the obvious implication that the drop in Land Bank revenues has somehow darkened the island's economic outlook. This is not true. Land Bank revenues have dropped because less real estate is changing hands, and for less money. James Lengyel, Land Bank executive director, is quoted as saying: "It's not just the revenue change that matters. The transaction numbers are very important, and a 20 per cent change says something."

Lengyel did not elucidate this "something," but the reporter helpfully provides a translation in the next sentence: "What it says is trouble."

The connection between these decreases, in value and in number of transations, and the island's economic outlook is not laid out in so many words. Of course not; why should it be? Everybody knows (don't they?) that the island's economic outlook and the health of the real estate industry are so inextricably entwined that it's pointless to even try to distinguish one from the other.

Here's where the juxtaposition comes in. The story just below the fold, "Heroin Bust Casts a Spotlight on Island Addiction Problems," reminds me that what "everybody knows" often isn't the whole picture. It occurs to me that the Land Bank and the clients of the busted heroin dealers have something in common: Their sources are drying up. They're both facing withdrawal, imminent in one case, impending in the other.

The Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, mind you, isn't your typical addict. I love the Land Bank. It buys up properties and manages them for the benefit of the public. I moved here year-round in 1985. The Land Bank was founded in 1986. I've been walking on Land Bank property almost as long as I've lived here. Since 1999 it's been me and my horse trotting along various Land Bank trails. For years we were accompanied by Rhodry Malamutt. Now Trav is learning his way around. Did I say I love the Land Bank?

The M.V. Land Bank is funded by a two percent assessment on most real estate transactions. OK, here is where things start getting a little dicey. When lots of real estate changes hands for lots of money, Land Bank revenues go up. The Land Bank buys more properties. I have more places to walk. However, when lots of real estate changes hands for lots of money, renters like me also have fewer places to live, and we have to pay more to live there. When real estate prices are booming, I have more places to walk, but fewer places to live. When real estate prices crash and mortgages still need to be paid, everybody loves a dependable tenant, but the Land Bank has to tighten its belt.

It's an ill wind that blows no one good, but I'm hard put to decide which is the ill wind: high real estate prices, or low?

People who own property like high real estate prices. People who don't, don't. It's high real estate prices that have been driving working people and young families off the island. High real estate prices helped kill Wintertide Coffeehouse, an institution to which I was devoted and which I still miss worse than any of my dead relatives, and ensure that no Wintertide will ever rise again. High real estate prices are what make it so hard to find anything useful on Main Street (Vineyard Haven or Edgartown) or Circuit Avenue: when rents are high, only a business with big margins and high turnover can survive. And it's high real estate prices that make monkeys of all the earnest people who support the "locally grown" movement and talk about the "rural character of the island." When land goes for $300,000 an acre, how feasible is farming? When a 10- or 20-acre parcel of farmable land comes on the market, who's most likely to meet the asking price: a farmer, a developer, or a hedge-fund exec in search of his fourth "home"?

But falling real estate prices are treated in the local press (and, I'm here to report, in many local conversations) as an unmitigated disaster. And the arrest of six heroin dealers is treated as an unmitigated triumph for law, order, and the health of the community. Addicts in withdrawal are urged to seek help.

I'm urging Martha's Vineyard to do likewise. We're addicted to some bad shit. It's killing us, though many of us can't admit it. We're too hooked on high real estate prices to see that they're destroying the community and making us sick. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt.


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