So You Want to Move to Martha’s Vineyard

A month or so I received an email from someone who was considering moving to the Vineyard year-round. She had liked my “10 Reasons Why I Like Living on Martha’s Vineyard” and wondered if we could meet for coffee when she was on the island the next week.

I emailed back:

Heh. I’ve been thinking about updating them. The creative
opportunities are fewer, the place is less friendly to dogs (or maybe
there are just more stupid dog people), but Facebook has added a
wonderful dimension (or maybe dementia) to island life. I call it the
grapevine on steroids.

Coffee is a definite possibility. As to moving here full-time — it’s
a HUGE leap. My advice is don’t even *think* about it unless you have
(1) either year-round housing or a solid place to live in the summer,
in which case winter rentals may work for you; (2) a job or jobs that
will cover housing and the very high cost of living, or another source
of income (e.g., family money or investments) that will do likewise;
and (3) family here, at least the beginnings of a support network. It
is possible to develop a network from scratch, but it helps if you’re
either working island jobs and/or have kids in the school system. Or
are very gregarious, which I’m not. 🙂

Lucky for me my correspondent wasn’t scared off by my email. A few days later we had a delightful conversation over coffee at the Black Dog CafĂ©. She had decided against moving here full-time, at least for now. My warning had made her think, she said, and there was something else: At present Martha’s Vineyard was a place she could come to for occasional respite. If she moved here year-round, that would no longer be an option.

Very perceptive, I thought, and as I mulled it over later something else occurred to me. For years I’ve been muttering about the “year-round summer people.” My one-line description: “They live here year-round but they think real life is happening somewhere else.”

What dawned on me was that — in general, mind you; I’m talking stereotypes here — the year-round summer people are here for respite from the “real world,” not occasional respite but permanent respite. And that would apply to those who retire here after spending their working lives somewhere else, maybe summering on the Vineyard.

Demographics are on everyone’s mind these days. The Vineyard population is aging, and not just because those of us who’ve been here a while are getting older. Not just because summer people and others are retiring here either: a big factor is that younger people, those between, say, 25 and 35, are leaving because they can’t afford to raise their families here.

So the other day at a social event I fell into conversation with a fellow who’s involved in the effort to solve, or at least ameliorate, the affordable housing crisis. (For more about this see “Housing 101,” my summary of an excellent talk given last May by David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.) I hadn’t met this guy before. I don’t know how long he’s been around. “This is a resort community,” he said. “Not everyone can afford to live here.”

I’d heard this line before. Once again it struck me as a cavalier way of telling working people who can’t find housing “Tough luck, bye-bye, have a nice life somewhere else.” As if the place had been turned into a “resort community” by an act of God or natural disaster and made uninhabitable for everyone else. But this was a social event and I didn’t know the guy, so I noted that when teachers, shopkeepers, tradespeople, and others essential to the functioning of the community can’t afford to live here, we have a problem.

More people will have to commute from off-island, he said, or so I understood him to say. This struck me as not only cavalier but as totally clueless about what makes Martha’s Vineyard a place worth living and, yes, a place that provides respite for those who come here seeking it: this isn’t a bedroom community or a gated community; it’s a place where most people live within a few miles of where they work, and vice versa.

And that’s what sent me back to “Ten Reasons Why I Like Living on Martha’s Vineyard.” It’s a good list but although other year-rounders relate to it it’s still my list. As a general list, it’s missing something big: family. My family isn’t here, and in any case I come from the kind of family that one’s better off keeping one’s distance from. I knew before I got here that other kinds of family existed, but I didn’t understand how crucial they were to the survival of individuals and the life of a community.

“Without family you’re nothing.” I was startled the first time I heard that. I’ve heard it, in different words, many times since, and more important, I’ve seen it in action. And I think of it every time I hear the statistics about young people who grew up here (and, often, whose parents and grandparents grew up here) but can’t afford to raise families here, every time I hear of a friend’s kids or grandkids leaving the island for good.

Because nearly all of my “10 Reasons” have been made possible by the tightly woven fabric of island life: from the grapevine (whose vines and tendrils now extend through the online world), to the informality, to our willingness to entertain ourselves, to the attentiveness needed to negotiate single-lane roads, to the ability to sleep soundly at night with all doors and windows open (or, in cold weather, at least unlocked).

That fabric is fraying, and along with it most of the things that have made this a good place to live — and more, I think: a place that has more to offer the rest of the country than pretty beaches and summer R&R.

But this country doesn’t know how to reckon value that can’t be measured in money. So if you can afford to live here, you’re in, and if you can’t it’s “Tough luck, bye-bye, good luck somewhere else.”

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to So You Want to Move to Martha’s Vineyard

  1. Having misspent my youth working in many a resort town where they wanted your cheap (and dedicated) labor, but didn’t want you to actually mess up the illusion and LIVE….I think I can honestly say you are 100 percent right about resort towns and the people who want to live in them. What we all need to remember is that 1) it’s only a secret getaway if it stays a secret, and 2) the best fantasies are fantasies because we don’t try to make them reality. I find I am much happier “planning” to move somewhere than actually getting there and discovering I’ve made a personal or professional misstep. Sometimes the dream is what gets you through. It’s also much less costly. Lastly, it sadly sounds like the Vineyard has finally caught up with the rest of the world in being spoiled by the deluded outsider….I’m not surprised, but definitely disappointed.

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  2. Charlotte Heckscher says:

    I love your straight talk, but it’s so incredibly depressing. I’m experiencing a similar transformation in my hometown of Princeton, NJ, where the demographics have shifted dramatically, property taxes are shocking, and all but the very wealthy are unwelcome.

    Back in the 70s, it was possible for my mother—a single parent on a secretary’s salary—to buy a little house on Otis-Bassett Rd. Almost inconceivable, right? (And do secretaries even exist anymore?)

    I spent every childhood summer on the Vineyard and I’ve always dreamed of living there year-round, especially now that I’m middle-aged and being squeezed out of Princeton. When I pretend to meditate, sometimes I find myself in Alley’s picking up my mail and a copy of the Times and walking down to the pond to check out the ducks. But it’s Alley’s before they started selling mugs and T-shirts.

    The only Vineyard land I can lay claim to now is a burial plot in West Tisbury. So, eventually…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Something similar was happening in my hometown (Weston, Mass.) as I was growing up, only I was too young to understand what was going on. A smallish town was growing into a suburb, and its location — where Route 128 hits the Mass Pike and Route 30, with Route 20 not far off — made it a sitting duck for big money, big houses, big snobbery. I sometimes think fate brought me to Martha’s Vineyard so I could watch the whole thing play out again, with my eyes open this time. And there’s no damn thing I or anyone else can do about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. islandgirl55 says:

    Hi Susanna, I read your blog “Ten Reasons Why I Like Living on Martha’s Vineyard” and could tell by that it was written a while ago. I appreciate the updated blog, “So You Want to Move to Martha’s Vineyard.” It sounds so much more like the Vineyard of 2015. At one time dog’s ruled The Vineyard, no so anymore, I am vigilante (although my husband is lax) about keeping my very friendly, but incredibly barky chocolate lab on a leash. I don’t want anyone to (as one woman has already tried to do) accuse my dog of being a nipper, he’s not, he’s just overly gregarious with an (admittedly) awful bark, I keep him on a leash to protect him from dog haters. I have ALWAYS locked my doors, house and car. Granted, I am a native New Yorker (no cracks), but find that locking gives me a sense of security and now that things have changed on The Vineyard (home invasions, burglaries etc.) I am convinced I have been doing the right thing. When I first moved to The Vineyard back in 1994 with my late first husband, I came here kicking and screaming, I had a successful career in New York, my close-knit if neurotic family lives in New York and not to sound like a clichĂ© but, “I LOVE NEW YORK!” Luckily for me, I stumbled upon a great job at our local radio station, WMVY. My co-workers became family, it was heaven. When first my husband died from heart disease almost three years to the day that we arrived on The Vineyard, my radio family rallied around me with love and unconditional support, I love them all still. That is not how it works on The Vineyard anymore, it’s every man (woman) for themselves I am sorry to say. You’re also right about the need for a huge bankroll or the great good fortune of being a “Trust Fund Baby,” not this working class stiff. Oh! And the “Islanders Talk” page on Facebook has been a real eye-opener, it really shows the good, the bad and the ugly of The Vineyard in a extraordinary unfiltered way. Yikes! Yes, I love The Vineyard for many reasons, its natural beauty is still something I thank God for everyday, but I’m glad you talked that person out of relocating here, she’ll be better able to save for her retirement!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for writing! As a chronically single woman, I’ve survived in part because of the family-like groups I’ve been part of over the years: the theater community, Wintertide Coffeehouse, the Martha’s Vineyard Times when I worked there from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, etc.

      I’ve thought since that conversation with my correspondent that she would be a wonderful addition to the Vineyard, but only if she’d come about 20 years ago. She’s sensible and unpretentious, she’s got useful skills (with the potential of making at least part of her living from freelancing, as I’ve come to do), and even though she hasn’t spent a lot of time here she’s very perceptive about the place. So not only is the economic situation driving away people who grew up here, it’s discouraging people who would be real assets to the place. It’s discouraging.

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