Islander's Blog

Nirvana Blues

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I saw the ghost of Walter Beinecke the other day. No, it was not during one of those bogus ghost walks. He was part of the standing-room-only crowd in the Great Hall at the Atheneum, as a panel of experts talked about the future of downtown.

The Urban Land Institute came, saw, and offered its considered insights. It was all good stuff. There was talk about traffic patterns and about the move toward mid-island, talk of special events that might draw people downtown and help stimulate a creative economy.

There were the inevitable comparisons to places like Aspen. There was the inevitable talk of a street layout and architectural plans that are modeled on something planners sometimes call “The New Urbanism,” which incorporates ideas like putting housing above storefronts.

I remember Beinecke talking about some of the same things. One panel member even called downtown the island’s front door and chance to make a first impression. There was talk of this island as a place of living history. All Beinecke golden oldies.

The next day I was talking to a friend of mine. He had wanted to take part in things, offer his opinion. But he found that he did not have anything to say. He decided he is generally happy with life here. There are small things he might change, if he woke up one day to find he was emperor, but on any given weekday he is more then reasonably happy.

The thing is that in the late 1970s he was sure that this island had gone to hell never to return. The main reason? A fern bar appeared in the place of an old-time watering hole. So he left. Then he came back. Now he shrugs at the changes. He is mostly happy with life here. The fern bar was called the Atlantic Café, and now is as local a place as you can find.

The golden age of Nantucket depends on when you arrived. A good rule of thumb for his place is that it takes most people about five years of living here to begin using the phrase, “It used to be so different here.”

I wonder sometimes if we suffer from the nirvana blues. Life is good but it feels like something is missing, something we cannot quite put our collective finger on.

The ULI panel had some interesting ideas and insights. They also had some ideas and insights that let you know they had just come around Brant Point.

ReMain Nantucket has given itself an interesting and difficult task. At the center of their task is a simple answer – the third place. It is a phrase that means those places that are someplace between home and work. They are places we stop in on a regular basis to rub shoulders with our neighbors, if only for a few moments of small talk.

A couple of places like that downtown and things begin to change for the better. Knowing the answer, of course, is the easy part. Working out the equation to get to that answer is the hard part.
– John Stanton is a documentary filmmaker and writer on Nantucket

3 Responses to “Nirvana Blues”

  1. Tom Groening Says:

    At the risk of stating the obvious, and contributing nothing more than a “ditto,” I’m moved to post here that Mr. Stanton’s writing is wonderful – evocative, perceptive, insightful and even wise.

    I am a 21-year veteran journalist who lives in midcoast Maine. My wife and I honeymooned on Nantucket in 1981, and began returning every five years, beginning on our 10th anniverary (after the kiddos were old enough to stay with the grandparents). Seeing Nantucket through Mr. Stanton’s sensitive and sharp eyes confirms much of our love affair with the island (intermittent though it has been). His words also point out where our perceptions were wrong. Yet I come away from reading this blog believing I have a deeper, wiser love for the place.

    Much of what he writes about the small-town life nature of the island is the same observations I and others have made about life in small-town coastal Maine, which further supports its authenticity. Thank you for this link to our special vacation place. Your deep, mature love for your subject shows. Keep it shining.

  2. Susan Adams Says:

    Nantucket is a special place. It will remain special, if for no other reasons than because its an island with a great airport and it has great historic value. However, I must say that the attention to changing the physical details of the downtown area seems misdirected. Nothing attracts and retains customers and tourists like a sincere welcome. People often ask me to describe the difference between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, both of which we visit often. I tell them that there’s nothing like the beaches, stores, architecture and history of Nantucket. But, there’s NOTHING like the friendly, helpful, welcoming people of Martha’s Vineyard.

    Maybe its time to stop looking down Main Street and look inward if you want to improve the island.

    Just a thought in passing.

  3. Linda Sonnonstine Says:

    As a newby year-round Nantucketer (and fellow blogger) I enjoy your posts about life here from your perspective as a long-time islander. I was especially interested in finding out in your latest entry about the Atlantic Cafe being a one-time fern bar. We were there last night for the first “wing night” of the off season, which was a far cry from a fern bar setting as I know it. In the depths of winter when the winds are roaring and the streets are quiet, you can open the front door of the AC on a Wednesday night and suddenly everything comes to life with a crowd ranging from high school students to fishermen gathering for a reasonably priced meal ($.25 a wing) and a chance to say hello to friends at the end of a workday. In January and February it sometimes seems like all of Nantucket is there in that one space on a Wednesday night. Last night was the first AC wing night of the season and, though the weather was wicked (a new saying for me that I’ve adopted now that I’m a Californian-turned-New Englander), there was a pretty good crowd. We enjoyed seeing Martha-the-outstanding-soprano-from-the-Stop & Shop–deli, who is a fellow member of the Women’s Chorus of Nantucket, and we had a chance to talk about our upcoming concert taking place on Sunday afternoon. Based on the ULI’s description of a third place (I, too, was in the crowd at the Atheneum to hear the team’s thoughtful presentation), I think the AC, at least on Wednesdays in winter, qualifies.

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