The Working Waterfront

Island complexity explained by four islanders

The Working Waterfront’s four island columnists answer questions about the complex nature of these communities

Tom Groening
Posted 2020-04-01
Last Modified 2020-04-01

By Tom Groening

Consider the extremes in how islands are portrayed in literature, film, and on TV. The island setting often is used to show how the very best of community values can thrive, or how the very worst of human nature can fester.

In Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, the protagonist’s daughter flees to a Martha’s Vineyard-like place to heal from the trauma of surviving a school shooting. In the recent film The Lighthouse, the isolated island serves as a petri dish for madness.

We at the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront, know that island communities are neither of the above, and yet they hold elements of both scenarios. Though the organization now works in many coastal communities, Institute president Rob Snyder asserts that islands remain our North Star. We believe islands are proving grounds for new ideas about sustainability and places where residents immerse themselves in their shared community welfare.

News media are turning to us to understand how our island communities are responding to the pandemic. Two of our islands have been in the news recently, as those with seasonal homes are fleeing there to escape the high incidence of COVID-19. North Haven’s board of selectmen voted to ban those who are not year-round residents, then reversed that move. On Vinalhaven, law enforcement was called to deal with an apparent threat by locals to enforce the quarantine of some recent arrivals.

These incidents do not reflect the best of our island communities, which in fact are complex places where the social fabric is very much strengthened by seasonal residents.

To better explain these complexities, we turned to The Working Waterfront’s four island columnists: Barbara Fernald of Little Cranberry Island, Sandy Oliver of Islesboro, Courtney Naliboff of North Haven, and Phil Crossman of Vinalhaven.

Working Waterfront: Islands are seen by many as sanctuaries from the bad things in the larger world (violent crime, homelessness, etc.). How is this true, and how is it not true?

Oliver: Well, we are sanctuaries from lots of bad things: muggings and murders are pretty rare. It is quiet here, not much traffic compared to the mainland. When we have a homeless individual, we take care of them and get them some place safe. No one is sleeping on the library porch.

There are drugs, drunkenness, domestic abuse among year-rounders, whose effect tends to be pretty confined to the year-rounders. There are break-ins for sure, especially summer houses, but most of us don’t know where the keys to our own house are, and we leave keys in our cars. Pretty idyllic.

Crossman: It is largely true. Vinalhaven, for example, the largest of the inhabited islands, is essentially free of violent crime, and while we can count among our 1,200 a handful who do not have a home or rent of their own, they are fairly well looked after and do not often find themselves without a roof. Other bad things, less obvious things, like apathy, contemptuous politics, mindless patriotism, do exist in equal measure. Still others, homophobia, for example, are morphing away.

Fernald: I think this is true in some ways but not in others. We are a sanctuary from traffic lights, the sound of sirens, the constant noise of traffic. We provide an escape from noise pollution most of the time, due to our geography.

In the off-season there is not much going on. I bet in almost every house, when a car or truck drives by, people stretch their necks or tilt their heads to see who it is. There is a kind of group awareness of who is on or off the island at this time of year. I think this keeps crime to a minimum since it’s like we’re all related to each other as “islanders.”

Naliboff: The geographic isolation an island provides sometimes gives a sense of separation, and at other times a comforting, insular sense of security. Right now, our 12 miles of water feels like an opportunity to actually practice social distancing and perhaps avoid becoming infected.

Bad things do happen here, just like everywhere else, but when you have food, shelter, and natural beauty within easy reach it feels more manageable than weathering the pandemic—or other crises—in cities.

WW: Those who own or rent seasonal homes on islands develop a perception of island life that is very different from those who live there year-round. What do seasonal residents miss? What do they get right?

Fernald: Honestly, this question irks me a little bit. It assumes there is no social connection between summer people and year-rounders. Most of us are in touch a lot via Facebook, Instagram, and email. We send photos back and forth, talking about what it’s like here, what it’s like there.

On Islesford (Little Cranberry), most of the people who own homes have been coming here for years and years. Many of us see each other during the winter when we have time. We want to hear from them. Even if they aren’t registered to vote, the motion to allow non-residents to speak during discussion is one of the first we pass at our annual town meeting.

Here is what first time renters, or especially day trippers, miss. We are not a dog park. Our roads are not 20-foot-wide footpaths. No, if your child does not have a driver’s license they may not drive golf carts or any other vehicles.

We have laws and ordinances and a town office, and high-speed internet. We might go for a few days without mail or electricity, but many people have generators to get by, and we all look out for each other. Our small town functions year round.

Crossman: Seasonal residents who’ve been coming back for years or, in many case, generations, are much more attuned to what’s going on behind the scenes, although there are a very few who exist during the summer months exclusively in their own world. The itinerant among our seasonal visitors too quickly conclude that we are entirely wonderful.

Naliboff: I am sometimes surprised at the sense of suspended time that some summer friends have. It’s as though they believe we don’t exist from August to June, while we’ve had a full school year, theater productions, concerts, births, deaths, work, town meeting, and all of the other normal activities of a year.

What they are correct about, though, is that this is a particularly wonderful place, and the challenges posed by island life are, to me, worthier than the challenges posed by city life.

Oliver: When you are on vacation, life seems pretty smooth and pleasant so summer visitors are having that kind of pleasant time which we islanders have when we go away, too. The main thing is to remember that wherever you spend the main part of your life is going to be full of complexity and the daily grind.

If a family has been coming here for generations, they have a different, often stronger, commitment to the place and the people which reaches back generations. Newcomers don’t have the depth of experience and understanding about the people who work with them or for them, and so may not be as responsive to the islands and islander needs.

One of our Grand Dames, sadly now deceased, used to visit wealthy newcomers and remind them that if they want the island to keep on being the way they like it, it is up to them to support the important parts of infrastructure, including workers, the community fund, etc.

Fortunately, many get that without having had a visit of instruction. Others merely look for the least expensive option. But if your caretaker lives on the mainland, who will check your property during a storm?

WW: What are the contributions that seasonal residents make to the community? What burdens do seasonal residents put on year-rounders, perhaps unknowingly?

Oliver: Taxes, taxes, taxes. Generous contributions to the community fund, scholarship funds, various endowments for everything from pre-school to elder-care housing, food pantry, fire and ambulance. They gave money to the legal defense fund during the ferry fare debacle, and they are helping us now equip our health center for a potential onslaught of sick people. I am constantly astonished at how much our summer people give.

Then, too, they serve on committees and boards (library, community center, historical society, concert series, etc., etc.). Sewing Circle doubles in size in summer because of summer residents who like to participate. The only downside is that if any organization has mostly summer people on its board, the ball is dropped as soon as summer is over, only to be picked up and dribbled madly for July and August again which creates a kind of frantic feeling to summer when the rest of us also have to work for our living, much of which is earned in summer.

Our health center is heavily taxed in summer, and the ambulance crew has to respond to many more calls. The stores are crowded, and while it means that they are making money, the demand can be kind of relentless.

This is the point of concern right now for many—the ferry has curtailed runs and so resupply here is tougher than it used to be, and with on-line ordering and curbside pick-up, it is more labor intensive for the store staff. I can’t imagine that they could keep up with this if our usual complement of summer residents were here.

And we’ve asked everyone who comes here to self-isolate for 14 days, yet some have shown up in the exercise room of the community center, having just arrived. One household greeted the plumber as he came to turn on their water. People need to plan ahead if they think they want to come here, have their house and supplies in place then stay there for two weeks before poking their nose out in general. It isn’t responsible to risk infecting us. Sheltering in place is increasingly the mantra across the country and if you aren’t here already, and or don’t own a house here, maybe staying in place where you are now is best. And besides, so much is being closed and cancelled, that this is going to be a very quiet, very strange kind of summer.

Crossman: Without their contributions in taxes and the anonymous contributions of many of them, we would not exist in a form that bears any resemblance to the entirely pleasant and well-provided-for lives we enjoy.

Fernald: Seasonal residents totally enrich our community. They bring the bigger world to us in person. They provide employment for caretakers, house painters, cleaners, cooks, and carpenters. They are a breath of fresh air. They are someone new with whom to interact after a long winter. They make me feel proud to be a part of the community that is so special to them too. Their homes are worth quite a bit of money and so, while our town’s mil rate is low, they still pay a lot in property taxes. Many of them are extremely generous when it comes to fund raising for various island non-profits. 

The burden is an increase in demand for services that we all need. There is more trash to handle, there is more need to provide mainland parking options, the ferries are more crowded, and there is a need for extra floats at the town docks during the summer. There is a strain on the EMTs and first responders.

Which brings us to the current Covid 19 situation, and circles us right around to your first question.

If anyone who has not been here this winter thinks they’ll just come to the island to find sanctuary from the virus, I would urge them not to come. Yes, they might pay more taxes than I do. Yes they have a right to be in any property they own. But they are endangering lives by coming here.

Most of the people on the island are trying not to leave, at all. We can order groceries from two local stores and so far we’ve been able to get most of what we need. If more people arrive that will just put more demand on our small suppliers.

One grocer I talked to yesterday said she was having trouble getting things. Her supplier could give her 70 cases out of her order of 100 various cases of product. Seasonal residents in the time of Covid will put a burden on our food supply.

If this virus gets to our island it will no longer be a sanctuary for anyone. Most of us miss you and can’t wait to see you, but please don’t burden us with a visit at this time.

Naliboff: North Haven is particularly enmeshed with its summer community. Property taxes fund the school, donors provide crucial support to our community nonprofits, and many of us are employed as caretakers, landscapers, keyholders, servers, bartenders and cooks.

Many members of the summer community are artists, architects, authors, actors, or otherwise contribute to the island’s creative environment. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the friendships we enjoy in the summer community as well, people whose arrival we look forward to each year. My daughter, too, loves and misses her summer friends dearly.

Most challengingly—and this isn’t indicative of the whole summer community by any means—is the classist attitude that a few have towards year-rounders. I’ve been told that I’m “not a theater professional,” my husband’s musicianship has been called into question because he certainly couldn’t be a classical musician (he is), and in the many years I spent as a server, bartender, and cook I encountered probably the same level of obnoxious behavior as a server, bartender or cook does anywhere.

Boors are boors, on and off North Haven.