A sense of place
Winston Churchill is supposed to have said something like this: We shape our public spaces, and afterward they shape us. At least that is what it says on the website for a group called the Project for Public Spaces. I found the website when I Googled the title of a book I read a few years ago called “The Great Good Place.”
In one of those ironies that seem a part of Nantucket life, especially during the summer, I had just been to a get-together for a group called ReMain Nantucket. It is spearheaded by Wendy Schmidt, whose husband Eric is the CEO of Google. Only on Nantucket.
Public spaces seem to be the next frontier for this island. We have saved plenty of open space, but the sort of informal public spaces where neighbors meet each other have been left to the rip tides of market forces.
Ray Oldenburg, the sociologist who wrote “The Great Good Place,” said that places like coffee shops, bookstores, bars and barber shops are essential to community vitality. He also said that one of the keys to such places is an owner who feels a civic duty to let people hang out in his place, which sometimes runs against the instincts of businessmen. If people are going to hang out in your shop, the trade-off is low turnover of tables and probably less money in the cash register.
This is a difficult thing to expect, especially on an island with skyrocketing property values. My film “Last Call” used the Bosun’s Locker – Preston Manchester’s saloon that once did business on Main Street – as the center of a fading community. But it was Preston’s natural sense of how his place was an essential part of society’s fabric, coupled with low property values of pre-Walter Beinecke Nantucket, that made it happen.
The ReMain Nantucket people seem serious about finding a way to shape some of those market forces in favor of community over profit. After years in which everyone understood the importance of preserving open land, we are now understanding the need to preserve a social structure called “downtown.”
They seem serious about reaching out to everyone who wants to have a voice in this.
There is, however, one question that hangs over any such project. Whose vision of Nantucket will the final picture, if we get that far, resemble?
A friend of mine likes to say that every five or six years or so there is a sea change in how Nantucket is perceived. We see this island differently, depending in part on when we got here. That same friend loves to look at the black and white photo of the Bosun’s Locker regulars standing outside the bar, just before Preston closed the doors for good.
But the future will probably not look like that. It might be time to set aside nostalgia for the black and white photograph version of Nantucket. It might be time to set aside the Town and Country version of Nantucket that newcomers seem to dream about. It might be time to think about what a new place that balances market forces with community will look like to our kids.
– John Stanton