Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Gentrification, Martha's Vineyard style

One Big Home -- Trailer on Vimeo.

Thomas Bena's One Big Home was shown at the town of Chilmark Community Center last night. It is a nuanced story of how a plurality of Chilmark residents came to vote to limit the allowable size of future homes in this Martha's Vineyard community.

For context, yes -- Chilmark is where the Prez is taking his summer vacation.

The Vineyard's militant environmentalism can seem affected. After all, though it is bad form here to flaunt wealth, an awful lot of these oh-so-casual people at the farmers' markets and art galleries are gazillionaires.

But, as a leader of the Wampanoag tribe remarks in the film, there is something magical about the land here -- all the rich white interlopers may not know what it is, but he is confident they feel it.

In Chilmark, gentrification takes the form of affluent newcomers building McMansion trophy homes with over 10,000 square feet of living space, home movie theaters, tennis courts and pools, all of which they occupy only a month or so a year. The building boom makes steady employment for construction workers, contractors, and builders; supports a small professional stratum of architects, bureaucrats and middle-class service providers; and shocks and horrifies longtime residents who choose life on the island because they seek a less ostentatious life in a bucolic setting. Some people are born in this lovely place, but they are a dwindling minority.

Bena chronicles the long civic discussion/struggle that led to a democratic decision to prevent the building of monster houses. Though pretty much everyone in the film qualifies as a privileged winner in this society, the elements of the process are analogous to gentrification conflicts everywhere: when big money obliviously tramples communities, it can take years of hard conversations before people will risk acrimonious conflict in order to say "no."

At least Chilmark's voters may be able to make their decision to curb development stick. This is not often the case when people fight to preserve their homes. The film smartly warns in its conclusion that the struggle never really ends. That's a sad truth that needs re-emphasis after any organizing victory.

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