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The Shipwreck Rose: Dirty Water

Wed, 08/18/2021 - 18:31

I’m writing this in a blaze of blinding sun and white concrete, poolside at the Lighthouse Inn on Cape Cod, whither the kids and I have hied ourselves for a last-minute, three-night mini-cation. The Lighthouse Inn is a family-run resort founded in 1938, a cottage colony by the sea. A band was playing “Build Me Up, Buttercup” and “Sweet Caroline” by the water’s edge as we checked in. The singer inserted the words “I hate the Yankees” into the lyrics of “Dirty Water [Boston, You're My Home]” by the Standells and the women in their pastel cover-ups went wild, hoisting their frosty cocktails in salute as they performed what my daughter called “the white-lady circle dance.” There are outdoor movies at night by the beach volleyball net, and lobster dinners on the menu.

The wind shifts, and the deep funk of low tide wafts across the grounds of the Lighthouse Inn, reminding me not unpleasantly of the primordial odor of digging for steamers back home on Napeague. A trio of Hamptons snobs, we have spent three days comparing everything we see either favorably or unfavorably to the South Fork. 

I’ve never been to the Cape before, actually, mainly because I assumed it would be a bit like paying good money to visit my own backyard, and it’s true: We are twin coastal resorts sharing a distinct geological and cultural family resemblance. The pale shoals of the Chatham Bar, pinned between blue water and blue sky, remind us of Louse Point. “It’s East Hampton! We’re in East Hampton!” the kids shout as we slow-drive past gray-shingled colonial houses surrounded by Nikko-blue hydrangeas at Barnstable. “It’s Riverhead!” they shout, as we stroll through Hyannis unsuccessfully looking for espresso drinks and briskly sidestepping around a pair of dubious characters languorously vaping on the sidewalk outside a shuttered souvenir store. 

People here don’t wear $500 Indian block-print caftans, but favor intarsia-knit sweaters or T-shirts with words on them: “The Ocean Understands Me,” “Prepstr Harwich,” “Cape Cod 1600.” I’d heard reports of record traffic jams of cars clogging the roads on and off the Cape this second summer of Covid, but, to my surprise — even though every single hotel, motel, and Airbnb on the Cape is booked to capacity this prime week of August, and the signs at the entrances of the public beaches inform us the parking lots are full — we have not encountered any crowds at all and, by Hamptons standards, there is no traffic. It is calm up here. 

At Mac’s Chatham Fish and Lobster last night, we had our choice of picnic tables, even though the restaurant scores top stars on Trip Advisor. We ate our oysters in peace, no milling strangers eying our table hangrily. The only disturbance was from a swarm of wasps who patrolled out of a hedge of PeeGee hydrangeas to dive-bomb our plates and make off with tiny pieces of tuna. (The wasps of Cape Cod eat seafood! Of course they do.) The water laps at the rocks of the jetty, the seagulls fight over a fried clam, and we have drifted into that budget-vacation headspace in which nothing matters much and nothing can disturb our peace. I flip through The Boston Globe here by the pool as a mom plays Marco Polo with toddlers in water wings. An alligator handler nearly died in a reptile attack at a zoo in Utah? The Taliban has taken Kabul? Who cares? 

I’m also surprised to observe that the authorities here in the mid-Cape do not seem to have devoted much attention to zoning or land preservation. You don’t see much open space; there are few vistas. The cute little Cape Cod houses are crowded together, cluttering every square inch between Hyannis and Chatham. Driving to a seal-watching excursion, every mile or two you come upon a strip mall featuring pirate-themed mini golf and an ice cream parlor with a punny name. It was at one such ice cream parlor that, last night, we finally found a traffic jam. We pulled up to Sundae School in Harwich at 8:30 and were greeted by a flood of cars and a battalion of tow-headed boys in reflective yellow safety vests who waved lighted airport batons as they masterfully piloted us, one by one, safely into parking spaces. 

It was then that I realized we need crisis de-escalation back home in the Hamptons. It turns out not to be true that it’s as bad in every seaside town as it is here, that a hellscape of overcrowding must be accepted as our fate.

De-escalation, depressurizing, down-scaling, down-sizing — I’m not sure what to call it, but we need to take meaningful, concrete, concerted, urgent action on the madness that has gripped East Hampton. We need to take the cap off the steam valve. 

My mind has been preoccupied all week by the horrific traffic accident in Amagansett. You have heard about it? A nighttime party attended, according to the authorities, by up to 800 or 1,000 high school and college students was broken up by the police, and as the departing crowds wandered in the vicinity of Old Stone Highway, attempting to call Ubers or parents for a ride home — in a zone with terrible cellphone reception — a teenager dropping off friends drove through and struck someone, mortally injuring him. A boy was killed. I cannot get this out of my thoughts. The horror of it reverberates: the young driver’s life, now, too? and the grief and guilt that must be felt the police and the hosts? The phrase that keeps coming to mind is “sh-t show.” That’s what we have this summer, in this most beautiful and blessed corner of the Earth: an ugly sh-t show. Too many people, too many cars, too much pressure. 

Too much thoughtless hedonism. Too many helicopters and jets. Too much noise. Every year for 40 years we have complained that we’d crossed that line, that the crowding was out of bounds. Of course, of course, of course. But this isn’t every other year. It isn’t. Things have gotten dangerous. This is no longer a joke (“rich people being run out of the Hamptons by even richer people!”). And this isn’t just about quality of life. The overtaxed police, the overburdened emergency services, the water table, the cell service, the utilities: The strain has become deadly.

We all say these things, but who is doing something?

There is a realm of research devoted to finding ways to protect tourist destinations from an influx of too many visitors, too much admiration. The Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu. But it’s not just historic landmarks that need to be saved from overcrowding and overuse: Neighborhoods, villages, islands, and cities — from Venice and Dubrovnik to Maui — have declared an emergency. Mitigation measures are being taken in many alluring destinations to downsize the hordes who trek there only to contribute to the destruction of the thing they love. 

The Chamber of Commerce may not like the sound of it, but it is possible to take action to ease the crushing pressure on our community and our infrastructure. The problem isn’t just road rage, insane lines for heirloom tomatoes, and cell service brownouts. It's not just inconvenience. The forcing out of locals who cannot afford to live where they grew up — an old story, oft told at this point — was one of the first symptoms of the same overcrowding. It's all of a piece.

After the kids fell asleep (sand in their hair, cookies-n-cream on their faces, teeth unbrushed) in our room at the Lighthouse Inn (seahorse and jellyfish prints on the walls), I sat up in bed reading a report called “Coping With Success” that was produced as a toolkit for tourist communities under duress by the consulting company McKinsey. The “five challenges” outlined in the McKinsey report will ring a few bells: 

"Alienated local residents.” Check. 

“Degraded tourist experience.” Check.

“Overloaded infrastructure.” Check. 

“Damage to nature.” Check.

“Threats to culture and heritage.” Check.

Among the mitigations strategies suggested are “regulating accommodations supply” and “limiting access and activities.” That sounds painful. I’m sure we will argue about it. Let's argue about it! Because taking control of this situation is no longer optional. When does endless expansion and development become too much? Now. Now it when it's too much. We are in a sh-t show. You’ll have to excuse my strong language, but we need to do something. What if next time it’s your child who is struck down in the road?

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