Most of the time, there are one or two raging controversies on the Vineyard. The last few years, however, have been quiet. The only polarizing conflict was a roundabout in the center of the island. I never understood that one; it really didn’t matter much either way. I thought it would be fine to have a roundabout, but I thought it would be fine not to, as well. What’s the big difference?
Now it’s built. It’s fine. I like it. Nobody really cares that much, as far as I can tell. So be it.
But now there are two big controversies, and both seem important to me. One is the Squibnocket Beach parking and access re-design in Chilmark. The beach and its parking lot, and an adjacent roadway that is the only access to a number of valuable properties, are threatened by coastal erosion.
The town selectmen, together with the property owners, a land conservation non-profit, and coastal biology and geology experts, have fashioned a unique partnership and plan. The plan has generated intense controversy. I don’t know if it’s a good plan, or the best plan, but it makes sense to me.
Nobody knows what the precise outcome will be, but something is going to happen, because it must – it’s in everybody’s interest to solve this problem. I’m particularly interested in the outcome because it foreshadows many such efforts to come. This is about climate change adaptation and mitigation. It is the future, right now.
The other big controversy is the efforts of Stop and Shop and its parent company, Ahold, to significantly expand their shabby downtown supermarket in Tisbury. There are many issues – scale, congestion, community character, the need to raise the building to stay above the flood zone now and in the future – and the debate has become highly emotional. My knowledge about this plan is limited too, and I haven’t been inclined to wade into the sea of accusations, wild inaccuracies, and finger pointing.
But then I read a letter in the paper from Henry Stephenson, the co-chair of the Tisbury planning board, a good thinker with a broad design background. He quietly suggested important ways to make it a much better project. His solutions rang true, and I had also been noticing something missing from the debate, so I wrote the following to our regional planning agency, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which is the primary regulatory decision-maker for the project, and to the local papers:
It’s hard to imagine anyone who cares more about Tisbury than planning board co-chairman Henry Stephenson. He thinks deeply about the town and he has a nuanced and practical sense of design. His Stop and Shop letter several weeks ago was right on the mark, in my view.
No hyperbole, no careless inaccuracies – just the most cogent and thoughtful alternative plan to date.
I hope the Martha’s Vineyard Commission will heed his specific suggestions about decreasing building size, increasing setbacks, re-designing the municipal parking lot, Water Street congestion, Union Street traffic flow, and added transportation services. I hope the MVC will condition the project in the realistic ways he suggests.
I also want to call attention to something that has been sadly absent from the Stop and Shop discussion. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has a responsibility to promote appropriate economic development. I hope the MVC will add to its conditions – if and when it approves a better, scaled down version of the plan that is before it – that Stop and Shop will be required to provide full time jobs with full benefits at Living Wages.
We need good jobs. Part-time jobs at low wages are harmful and unprincipled. Stop and Shop and its parent, Ahold, can afford decency. It is within the powers of the MVC to require such decency. And we cannot afford to accept less. Thank you.
I hope this letter brings support to Henry’s excellent suggestions and, at the same time, opens up a new – and very important – topic of discussion.
But aside from the particulars of these controversies, there are two things I particularly like about both of them.
First, it’s the passion.
The downside of passion is that it can bring out hostility – people attack, personalize, demonize, distort, and falsify. But that’s part of the deal, part of the inherent messiness of democracy.
The upside of passion is that it brings people out. People put themselves on the line. I recently watched a good talk called Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count, by Brene Brown, a researcher and author who studies vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. She is the author of The Gifts of Imperfection (2010) and Daring Greatly (2012).
In it she says, in part, “Show up. Be seen. Be brave. If you do show up, in the arena, there’s one guarantee: You will get your ass kicked. That’s the only certainty. “ My experience over decades bears that out. Brown goes on to say that “if you’re not in the arena, getting your ass kicked like I am, then I’m really not interested in your feedback.”
Along with “showing up”, she honors the importance of vulnerability. She points out that vulnerability is the gateway to love, belonging, joy, trust, empathy, innovation, and creativity. Without vulnerability, she says, you can’t create. We need to enter the arena, and we need not hide our vulnerability.
I like seeing so many entering the arena, warts and all.
The other thing that interests me is the essential importance of the issues at stake. In the scheme of things, these are minor controversies in small towns. But they both have elements of two of the great issues of our time – climate change and income inequality.
Climate change is certain to test our democracy in ways we can’t foresee. Nobody will be un-affected, nobody will be able to stand on the sidelines. That much is clear, and here are two examples of the issues, in a nutshell, in our small outpost. Such examples, close to home, may promote greater engagement in the larger arena of public policy that our future depends on.
And two sides of the income inequality issue are visible in these controversies. At Squibnocket, land owners are showing what’s possible when it serves all interests for the wealthy to enter into public-private partnerships. At Stop and Shop, we see a major multi-national affecting a small community in ways that corporations do, and the community exercising its will to make sure that local benefits come first.
In her book The Sixth Extinction, author Elizabeth Kolbert says, “Chimps are smart, and can do all kinds of clever things, but they don’t have collective problem solving ability. You’ll never see two chimps carrying something together. Only humans do that stuff.”
Whatever the outcomes, Squibnocket and Stop and Shop are vibrant examples of humans fully engaged in collective problem solving. Doing that stuff. Good stuff.