Little town, big tourist summer op-ed CCT [7 August 2012]

Midsummer’s evening, the sounds of summer wafting dreamily over the tree tops on the warm summer southerly. It’s irresistible. We are drawn, like the kids at the Pied Piper’s piping, to the tourist life over at the harbor. This romancing of us that transforms our town each summer.

And it’s a familiar refrain each year: doesn’t it seem more crowded? Everyone seems agreed, it’s pretty crowded. Too crowded. But how crowded is it here in Wellfleet? Well, it’s so crowded that you cant find a parking space to go to the downtown bank, or pick up that six pack at the Main street liquor store. Or get a space in a pond parking lot. Someone says: I can’t remember ever waiting so long for a break in the traffic to make a turn onto Route Six traffic to make a turn.

But that’s all anecdotal. How crowded is it, really?

Our year- round population has levelled off. It rose from 1000 during the 1930s and 40s slowly to around 2000 in the ’70s and around 3000 at the turn of the millennium, at which point it has more or less flatlined. So we fulltime residents not making it more crowded.

As for the number of visitors packed into our sometime little town over the summer, that’s not so easy to find out. I had heard the figure 17000 bandied about for years, but when Icalled the Chamber they didn’t know whether it was 17000 all summer or any given day. Sort of a crucial distinction.

More recently I’ve heard 33,00. 35,000. This is a city of 35 000 people? Is that possible? But where did those figures come from?

I called our town clerk, who is said to know everything about the town. The figure they’ve been using is 21000 on an average day in season. Having talked to the town assessor, I gather that something like that figure is arrived at by taking the number of houses, determined by number of tax bills sent out, multiplying by the average number of bedrooms, adding the number of hotel, motel and B &B rooms.

(But one friend I ran this by objected: Yeah, but houses could be overflowing, people sleeping in tents, on couches, on floors. Another friend said he’s impressed with the number of houses that unaccountably seem deserted in summer, so that 21,000 figure could be inflated. )

One thing seems clear: the ratio of fulltime residents to summer p eople has radically shrunk over the decades. Likewise, the ratio of houses lived in full time to those that stand empty most of the year.

We’ve been a tourist town of sorts until not too long after Thoreau w alked the Outer Beach in the 1840s and 50s. Over the decades the tourist trade slowly increased, but until well after World War Two few bought second homes to leave empty to haunt fulltime residents for the off-season. Presumably until WW2 almost 100% of the houses in Wellfleet were occupied by native Wellfleetians. There was at that time hardly a need for the term “washashore.” (It would be interesting to know when that mild putdown of a non-native resident came into use.) We were more or less the same little self-sufficient country town in all seasons sharing our town life with a few summer folks.

Now maybe one -third to one-fourth of the housing stock is lived in fulltime. You could say, I guess, that we’re two-thirds to three-fourths a ghost town.

It’s not just a matter of numbers of houses and occupants. As should be obvious, there’s been a big change in how living here feels. It amounts to yet another revolution in this traditional-looking town. (Along with our dependence on big stores in other towns, the percentage of those who wash ashore in retiree mode, among other changes.)

How much more of all our town life exists for consumption by others. How much of our summer consists being vastly outnumbered by summer visitors having their way with us. In the nicest, fondest kind of way of course.

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