It’s crowded in Wellfleet. But is it too crowded?

This town of Wellfleet always feels crowded in summer to locals. After all, most of the year most of our houses are unoccupied. The population, we’re told, swells by a factor of seven or more in summer.

But the word on the street is that it is more crowded than usual this summer. Unprecedentedly crowded. A drive to the harbor gives you the idea: stop and go traffic on Commercial Street on a midweek late afternoon? Isn’t that something new? Restaurants bulging, spilling crowds of those waiting to get in. The pier, a vast and traditionally vastly underused parking lot, is at times close to full. One can begin to imagine parking meters.

I consult our town assessor and a longtime resident and she readily agrees: way more crowded. She has a story or two of her own of our unprecedented popularity this summer.

But how can that be, I ask. Aren’t we always chockfull this time of year, every bed in every house, hotel and motel occupied? Where are the surplus visitors housed?

We conjecture. Probably has something to do with the pandemic and its recent loosening. But what? Maybe owners are renting to larger parties? Relatives and friends living in tents?

I’ve seen a few big RVs parking day after day in driveways. Is that an explanation?

In any case, it’s crowded. But is it too crowded? When you live here you hesitate to pronounce it “too crowded” because so many of us make money from the crowding. Too crowded is fine, and therefore not too crowded. The more the merrier. Feel the love.

Locals have long had differing reactions to summer busyness. The reaction of some is to head for their getaway shack someplace in Maine where it’s more like it used to be here.

Others enjoy the summer action: everything open, music on the harbor breeze, the old ritual of Wednesday night square dancing. The spectacle of so many at their vacation pleasures, enjoying us.

But has it gone too far?

There are the recent stories of UpCape restaurant the infamous Brewster restaurant story of a week or two ago, a restaurant that shut down to protest abuse of waitstaff by customers made nasty by the crowding exacerbated by pandemic-reduced staff. They apparently see struggling servers who wont let them sit at a table that appears empty, or serve them faster, as the enemy of the vacation happiness to which they are entitled.

An effect of summer crowding that I’ve observed in myself is what I think of as city sidewalk behavior when walking by others. It has always felt unfriendly, and a little weird, not to say hi, or wave, to people walking or biking by. It seems a minimal decency. But there are so many people biking and walking on my route to my usual pond that I’ve found myself reverting to instructions I was given as a child for walking in New York City : look straight ahead . (It’s a behavior a lot of visitors seem to be practiced at).

But are we in fact overpopulated in summer? Or are we underpopulated the rest of the year? Surely it can’t be a bad thing for the two-thirds of our houses empty—abandoned, as it can feel—for two-thirds of the year to be lived in by fellow humans?

And how can Wellfleetians complain of the crowds when the National Seashore preserves around two-thirds of us as the sparsely populated (around 1000), mostly undeveloped place we were back in the 1950s when Patti Page was singing her song about Olde Cape Cod’s quaint little villages. The world had only one-third the population then that it has now and hadn’t gotten around to overdeveloping this area.

I keep waiting for someone to come up with a computer-imagining of what a Seashore-less Wellfleet would have looked and felt like with 9000 year-round and perhaps 60,000 in summer.

And yet. Though in a sense a town that makes most of its money in the summer can’t get too crowded, and in a sense we are not really crowded, thanks to the Seashore (and we are bordered on both sides by considerable bodies of water), we may be hitting a limit. At least the part of town not preserved by the Seashore feels overused, a bit polluted by popularity. If a serene, pastoral getting-away-from- it-all is part of the tourist draw, that seems a harder sell these days.


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