The shipwreck rose: dirty water
I’m writing this in a burst of blinding sunlight and white concrete, poolside at the Lighthouse Inn on Cape Cod, where the kids and I hid for a last minute three night mini-cation. The Lighthouse Inn is a family run resort founded in 1938 as a seaside cabin colony. One band was playing “Build Me Up, Buttercup” and “Sweet Caroline” by the water when we checked in. The singer sort of slipped the words “I hate the Yankees” into the Standells’ lyrics to “Dirty Water” and the ladies in their pastel blankets went wild, hoisting their frozen cocktails in salute as they performed. what my daughter called “the white lady’s circle dance”. There are outdoor movies in the evenings by the beach volleyball net and lobster dinners on the menu.
As the tide turns, the deep funk of low tide floats over the grounds of the Lighthouse Inn, not unpleasantly reminding me of the primordial scent of digging for the steamboats back on Napeague. A trio of Hamptons snobs, we spent three days comparing everything we see favorably or negatively in South Fork.
In fact, I’ve never been to Cape Town before, mainly because I thought it would be a bit like paying a lot of money to visit my own backyard, and it’s true: we are twin resorts sharing a distinct geological and cultural family resemblance. The pale benches of Chatham Bar, wedged between blue water and blue sky, remind us of Louse Point. “It’s East Hampton! We are in East Hampton! the children shout as we slowly walk past gray shingled colonial houses surrounded by Nikko blue hydrangeas in Barnstable. “It’s Riverhead! They shout, as we stroll through Hyannis unsuccessfully looking for espresso drinks and quickly skirting a pair of questionable characters languidly vaping on the sidewalk outside a closed souvenir shop.
Here, people don’t wear $ 500 block print Indian kaftans, but prefer intarsia knit sweaters or t-shirts with words on them: “The ocean understands me,” “Prepstr Harwich,” “Cape Cod. 1600 ”. I had heard of record traffic jams with cars clogging the roads on and outside Cape Town this Covid second summer, but, to my surprise – even though every hotel, motel and Airbnb in Cape Town is booked at full capacity this first week of August, and signs at the entrances to public beaches tell us the parking lots are full – we didn’t encounter any crowds and by Hamptons standards there is no traffic. It’s calm here.
Last night at Mac’s Chatham Fish and Lobster we had our choice of picnic tables, even though the restaurant gets top stars on Trip Advisor. We ate our oysters in peace, no stranger looking at our table greedily. The only disturbance was from a swarm of wasps patrolling out of a PeeGee hydrangea hedge to dip our plates and run away with tiny chunks of tuna. (Cape Cod wasps eat seafood! Of course they do.) The water laps over the rocks at the pier, the seagulls are fighting over a fried clam, and we have drifted into this free space of economic vacation in which nothing matters and nothing can disturb our peace. I flip through the Boston Globe here by the pool as a mom plays Marco Polo with toddlers in aquatic wings. An alligator handler nearly died in a reptile attack at a Utah zoo? The Taliban took Kabul? We do not care?
I’m also surprised that the authorities here don’t seem to have paid much attention to zoning or land conservation. You don’t see a lot of open space; there are few views. The pretty little Cape Cod houses are crammed together, cluttering up every square inch of Cape Town. On your way to a seal-watching excursion every mile or two, you stumble upon a shopping mall featuring a pirate-themed mini-golf course and a puny-named glacier. It was in one of these glaciers that, last night, we finally found a traffic jam. We stopped at Sundae School in Harwich at 8:30 am and were greeted by a flood of cars and a battalion of tow-headed boys wearing reflective yellow safety vests who waved lighted batons from the airport as ‘They piloted us masterfully, one by one, safely in parking spaces.
It was then that I realized we needed a de-escalation of the crisis back home in the Hamptons. It turns out to be wrong in all seaside towns like here, that a hellish landscape of overpopulation must be accepted as our fate.
De-escalation, depressurization, downscaling, downsizing – I don’t know what to call it, but we need to take meaningful, concrete, concerted and urgent action against the madness that has gripped East Hampton. We need to remove the cap from the steam valve.
My mind has been preoccupied all week by the horrific traffic accident in Amagansett. Have you heard of it ? A nighttime party that officials said as many as 800 or 1,000 high school and college students attended was cut short by police, and as the departing crowd wandered around the Old Stone Highway, trying to call Ubers or parents for a ride home – in an area with poor cell phone reception – a teenage dropping off friends walked through and struck someone, fatally injuring them. A boy was killed. I can’t get this out of my mind. Horror resonates: the life of the young driver too? And the guilt that the police officers, and the hosts must feel? The phrase that comes to mind is “sh-t show”. This is what we have this summer, in this most beautiful and blessed corner of the Earth: a lousy shit show. Too many people, too many cars, too much pressure.
Too much thoughtless hedonism. Too many helicopters and jets. Too much noise. Every year for the past 40 years we have complained that we have crossed that line, that overpopulation is prohibited. Of course, of course, of course. But it’s not every two years. This is not the case. Things got dangerous. This is no longer a joke (“the rich are being kicked out of the Hamptons by even richer people!”). And it’s not just a question of quality of life. Police overloaded, emergency services overloaded, groundwater, cell service, utilities: the tension has become deadly.
We all say these things, but who does something?
There is an area of research devoted to protecting tourist destinations threatened by an influx of too many visitors and too much love. The Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu. But it’s not just historic monuments that need protection: entire communities, islands and cities – from Venice and Dubrovnik to Maui – have declared an emergency. Mitigation measures are being taken in many beautiful places to reduce the number of tourists visiting.
The chamber of commerce may not like the sound, but steps can be taken to downsize and defuse overcrowding and overuse of infrastructure in the East End. The problem isn’t just road rage, insane queues for heirloom tomatoes and blackouts in cell service. The eviction of locals who cannot afford to live where they grew up was one of the first symptoms of the same overcrowding. It’s all in one piece.
After the kids fell asleep (sand in hair, cookies and cream on their faces, unbrushed teeth) in our room at the Lighthouse Inn (seahorse and jellyfish prints on the walls), I sat in my bed. by reading a report titled “Coping With Success” which was produced as a toolkit for coerced tourism communities by consultancy firm McKinsey. The “five challenges” outlined in the McKinsey report will ring some bells:
“Insane local residents”. To verify.
“Degraded tourist experience.” To verify.
“Overloaded infrastructure”. To verify.
“Damage to nature. ” To verify.
“Threats to culture and heritage. To verify!
Suggested mitigation strategies include “regulating the supply of accommodation” and “limiting access and activities”. It sounds painful. I’m sure we’ll all fight over it. But taking control of this situation is no longer an option. We’re on a shitty show. You’ll have to excuse my strong language, but we have to do something. What if the next time your child gets knocked down on the road?