Whither My Provincetown?

When we were in Provincetown, we saw this brief essay by Nicholas Messing in the “Rants & Raves” section of Provincetown Magazine (which doesn’t really have a Web site yet):

As summer draws to a close, it’s as good a time as any to look back on this past season of sun and fun at a very special beach where vacationers of all shapes, sizes and proclivities have learned to coexist in a delicate balance. Legend has it Herring Cove Beach used to be like Old Berlin except divided into three territories: straights to the right, lesbians in the middle, and gay men to the left. But today the old world rules no longer apply, and for much of the season straight tourist families with their loud and garish children have been thoughtlessly exceeding their boundaries, carelessly intruding on the lesbian love cove. This in turn has forced the Sapphic sisters who want to express the full bounty of their womanhood by going topless or even bottomless to migrate further down the beach into gay men’s territory. The guys seem to tolerate their presence partway into the gay men’s zone as a show of solidarity, but seeing a fully nude female parading out in the open can be a bit much for some sensitive men’s sensibilities. If any of these exhibitionists ventured further down to the far side of the beach, they would no doubt be equally reviled by shocking exposure to nudity of the opposite sex. The further one journeys into the wilderness of Herring Cove, the more rough and ready the men become. In this erotic hinterland, nature, by its very nature, rejects the presence of women and children as unnatural. For here, at the far edge of American turf, is a man-on-man land where only men in the buff or open to the possibility of nudity need apply. Though the old truism that only people you’d never want to see naked are the ones who choose to flaunt their folds of flesh, at least there is a somewhat protected territory where men can be among other men, an all-natural Eden free of the constraints of child-rearing and clothing. A complex system of communication consisting mostly of loaded stares exists here among the savages, but no translation is needed for the shouted warnings announcing the threatening presence of a Park Ranger. In a modern day tragedy akin to the plight of the American Indian, the gays are steadily losing ground to the predominant group of heterosexual families who continue to selfishly reproduce and heartlessly encroach on their land. Where orgies were once rampant, now children play Frisbee, as a tear runs down the unshaven, sweaty cheek of a lone, balding, 55-year-old, 300-pound grizzly…

This reminded me of an article by David Colman that was in the New York Times just before our vacation (which the people we spoke to up there suggest is accurate), the basic point of which was:

Friendly, flamboyant, overwhelmingly gay: Provincetown is still all these things and first impressions are not wrong. But stay for a bit and you’ll find a less happy picture. A real estate boom has spread unease, pitting wealthy newcomers and developers against the townies, artists and free spirits who give the enclave its bohemian character and who now fear it is being gentrified out of existence.

Friction between new money and old ways is nothing new in summer retreats. But what makes the battle for Provincetown unusual is that it is largely a class struggle within a gay world. For nearly 30 years, Provincetown has attracted the spectrum of people that the rainbow flag represents: gay and lesbian, old and young, rich and poor. Now, many people here say, with its widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots, a town that prided itself on its inclusiveness is beginning to resemble the rest of the United States.

Though I’m no three-hundred-pound grizzly witnessing the loss of his beloved habitat (in fact, I’m more likely contributing–at least indirectly–to the gentrification and homogenization of Provincetown and its environs), this nearly caused me to shed a tear:

The simmering tensions in Provincetown boiled over in July, when a local newspaper, The Banner, published a letter by Brian Farley, a mortgage broker, criticizing [George] Bryant’s cluttered East End yard and referring to Mr. Bryant as “undeserving of homeownership.” Mr. Farley said that the town’s newly vested homeowners deserved better, adding, “The pride of Provincetown is reflected in their real estate.”

Mr. Bryant has refused to remove the rubble and says he feels persecuted by those telling him what to do with his property.

Tia Scalcione, a 32-year-old painter and printmaker who has lived here year-round for four years and who works four jobs to make ends meet, said a real estate agent woke her the other day insisting that she move her surfboard and wet suit from outside her apartment. The condo next door was being shown to buyers, she said, and the agent considered her equipment an eyesore

That’s not the Provincetown I grew up with and always try to get back to. But in the end, it all comes back to community:

But [John] Waters, who has himself gone from underground filmmaker to household name, said the changes here have happened all over America. “We live in a much less bohemian time,” Mr. Waters said. “Outsider is such a tired word. There’s no great youth movement happening; there are no hippies today, no punk rockers. The world has changed. Some gay people are straighter than my parents.”

Still, he said, he finds it encouraging that the unapologetically flamboyant Provincetown is not giving up easily. The fact that Miss Ellie is still belting out “My Way” in front of Town Hall is enough, he said. “To me,” Mr. Waters said, “it’s still the P-town I like. You still see families come here to have their pictures taken with drag queens and to stare at gay people. I find that hilarious.”

Others are more wistful. Patrick Lamerson, a high school teacher in Boston who has been coming to Provincetown for nearly 10 years, said that the rift in town was less between rich and poor than “between gays who need community and gays who don’t.” And those who don’t, he said, will probably prevail in the end and the Provincetown that he has known will go the way of other bohemian bastions that had their moment and then faded.

It is, I suppose, nothing more than a recipe for suffering to become attached to a version of Provincetown (or anything else) at a specific point in its history. Everything will change, but that’s especially true of a town that has been so many different (and seemingly incompatible) things to so many different (and seemingly incompatible) people.

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