There’s less and less here here

There isn’t any there there,” said Gertrude Stein in 1933, in her inimitable way, to characterize what had become of her home town of Oakland California.

Well there’s less here here in Outer Cape Cod every day.

When on the road Starbucks is our home-away -from-home. Always a welcome sight, coffee the way we like it. But I find I look at that familiar icon differently when one wants to locate in my actual home.

When I read (as I did the other day in these pages) that Starbucks is bent on occupying the old Hearth ‘n Kettle spot in Orleans I find some NIMBYism kicking in.

For one thing, what about all the existing local coffee spots in town the news story mentioned. Won’t they lose business? Don’t we want to encourage local business?

But perhaps even more important is the further dilution of this place that happens every time a chain, or franchise decides to share territory with local businesses.

With the location of a Starbucks in our midst we will, to some appreciable extent, be less this place and more an indistinguishable part of everyplace,

Same with the news story of a couple of months ago that Mid Cape Home Centers had been annexed by a huge company based in Detroit. They say they plan no big changes; we’ll see about that. But meanwhile, just the knowledge that its ownership is no longer local–that its profits will be flowing elsewhere is only part of it– is another dilution of this as a place.

We are at a stage in human evolution where “place”, which has always seemed too commonplace to need defining, needs to be defined because it’s disappearing. A place is a spot on earth with a distinct identity, geographical, social, economic. As such, place is an endangered phenomenon. With computers, social media, international capitalism, airbnb, places as such all over the world are disappearing.

Pretty soon, the word “place” may have nothing left to refer to.

We here in the Outer Cape are still enough of a place to worry that we aren’t as much of one as we once were. That the je ne sais quoi that makes this place what it is, as distinct from all other places, is becoming diluted, that Wellfleet isn’t as fleetatious (!) as it used to be.

The Cape, including the Outer Cape has resisted this dilution more strenuously than many places. We resisted Home Depot for years, successfully fended off a Truro Stop & Shop.

Wellfleet went so far as to pass a bylaw banning non-local chains. (We discovered that the desire to stay local thus directly expressed doesn’t hold up in court. )

We even for a few years quixotically fended off cell phone towers, sensing a threat to the je ne sais quoi of our town.

The dilution of place takes many forms. A moment this past summer at the pond: four beach chairs lined up occupied by young women all absorbed in their cell phones. The day and the pond were glorious but the women weren’t there; they were connected to other places.

Like tourist destinations all over the world fighting for their survival as places, we are facing the conundrum of the short term rental boom. A great place attracts tourism which at a certain point dilutes the placiness of the place (so that, in an extreme version, all tourists find in the place is other tourists; the place becomes a museum version of itself.)

A big part of the dilution of course is the secondhome market that is rapidly making both ownership and renting by the traditional local demographic a disappearing phenomenon.

To the extent that the push of the past two decades for non-resident taxpayers to play a role in local government is successful, people who live mainly in other places will be helping to run this place.

The spiffed-up new Cumberland Farms in Wellfleet, vigorously but unsuccessfully fought by locals, is a very visible dilution. The Cumby’s that had been here for years was no less a chain, but over decades had, in its down-at-heels modesty, come to blend in and seem more local than not. The company seemed almost to take dead aim on that modesty with its grandiose and uniform exteriors deliberately making it stand out as more obviously part of a big multi-town company than of this particular place.

It will be objected that things change, that this place is not disappearing but only changing. Stein meant by her famous pronouncement only that Oakland was no longer as rural as it had been in her childhood.

The difference is that the disappearance of the local is a change, in ways Stein could not have dreamt of, a disappearance of the very idea and human experience of place.

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