Thursday, July 03, 2008

gentrification woes

It occurred to me yesterday, as we drove into Southwest Harbor to catch the Cranberry Island ferry, that gentrification ultimately destroys a place—or at least risks changing a place irretrievably. The thought hit as I watched a late-model Mercedes SUV pass an old man walking his dogs. The SUV belonged to the new Southwest Harbor, the town that has evolved as newcomers looked for new places with the appropriate "character." In this case, character comes in the form of real working fishermen and other year-round residents. Of course, as money pours in and Southwest Harbor becomes the new Northeast Harbor (beautiful burg that hasn't been a "working" place in years), the people who created that character (that old man with his working pants, massive white beard, and aging mutts, for example) are crowded out.

The flip side of this equation happens in towns like Winter Harbor. Winter Harbor has its fair share of moneyed summer communities nearby, but it is very much a working town that has been hit hard by the ups and downs of the past ten years, including the closure of the nearby naval base. The rough patches were exacerbated when Roxanne Quimby came in with grand plans to gentrify the town and make it into a "destination." Central to the plans were a massive restaurant built at the center of town. The place was designed and built to stellar specifications, and was designed to become the flagship restaurant for her thirty-something son and his chef-girlfriend. Unfortunately, running a restaurant on the coast of Maine wasn't their bag, and when they tried to turn management and part-ownership over to new people, the beautiful restaurant proved to be too costly to run. It didn't help that the place stood no chance of connecting with most of the year-round population. Result: a multi-million dollar white elephant at the heart of a town that's already holding on by its callused fingertips.