Every town deserves a downtown, a Main Street. You could argue that the downtown is what makes a town a town, or the sort of town it is. What Eastham has instead of a downtown is a 4-lane highway.
In a public meeting late last month concerned townspeople complained about life with Route 6 in the middle. “Impossible to make a lefthand turn in summer,” “cars going too fast….aggressive, distracted drivers, ” “it can be harrowing,” “I do what I can to avoid it.”
The meeting produced suggestions such as pedestrian bridges and more traffic lights, but Eastham’s basic problem was not addressed: a highway runs through it.
Route 6 used to run through neighboring Wellfleet’s historic downtown too. But its downtown was a considerable jog off the direct line from Eastham to Truro and P’town, so when in the 1940s the highway powers that were got into straightening roads they bypassed it.
Wellfleetians might like to credit our predecessors with the foresight to preserve downtown from the tourist hordes to come, but it was sheer luck, just how our downtown developed, that made us a candidate for bypassing.
If you’re old enough you can remember when highways went, logically enough, from town to town. It seemed the whole idea, getting from point A to point B. When a numbered highway would hit a small town it would have to submit to the pace of that town’s Main Street. You would slow down at the town limits from 45 or 50 to 0 to 15, and whether you wanted to or not –it could be annoying when you wanted to “make time”– look the people of the town in the eye, check out each store, the BPOE, the IOOF, and consider what the town had to offer for lunch.
But in the contest between the efficiency of highway and the speedbump of town, the highway won out. As numbers of cars increased the concept of bypassing was born. Bypass the town center and then, since cars are out there on the bypass, build a mall. The famous unintended consequence of which was the evisceration of traditional downtowns. (After a while, out of nostalgia for Main Street , some innovative mall developers began installing fake downtowns in the mall, as in Mashpee Commons.)
It’s hard to imagine Route 6 traffic today squeezing its way through downtown Wellfleet, but as much as we are grateful for the 1949 bypass today, store owners might at the time have lamented the loss of drive-by traffic. Now of course the pokey local traffic seems essential to our self-image as a charming, old- fashioned town.
So Eastham’s problem has always been that back in the 1940s it didn’t need bypassing.
The radical solution would be to assert the rights of the town and the quality of life of its citizens over the efficiency of those passing through the town. It would be a radical solution because it would mean going up against transportation experts and our era’s kneejerk worship of efficiency.
Like other Wellfleetians I have at times fretted at having to slow from Wellfleet’s de facto 50-plus mph to Eastham’s 40s because of Eastham’s reputation as a speed trap (that is, they actually enforce the speed limit). But as a neighbor, I would like to see highway efficiency defeated by the quality of life of the town.
In addressing your Route 6 problem, keep the downtown concept in mind. By all means, more traffic lights. Slow traffic to 20, 25. Rather than pedestrian bridges, let there be crosswalks
Let the highway submit to Main Street, passersthough defer to local townspeople.
Hard to imagine, after so many decades of the town being ruled by the highway, but worth the try. It’s what I wish for Eastham.