Invisible People, Invisible Places

- Aaron Marcavitch, Yesterday's Island, 2004

Perhaps one of the more amazing things about Nantucket is that there seems to be a lack of historical sites dedicated to the fishing and water based trades. During a recent conversation with my wife I was struck by this lack of acknowledgement of the invisible people of the island's history. I believe this conversation was caused by a visit by my family. My father, who is obviously the holder of the "Marcavitch wandering gene," was walking around some places on the Cape and would constantly ask us "why is this town/place/building here?" After they had left, Andrea and I had much of the same conversation about the island. Most who come here recognize the whaling industry and its major impact on the island. The current industry is the tourism trade, evidenced by the large amount of tee-shirt shops. Unfortunately, the question we were left with was the question of what happened to the people in between. Furthermore, where are the places that honor them and their work?

First the question of what people did between the downfall of the whaling industry and the rise of the tourism trade is perhaps a bit flip - they lived as best they could with little industry to sustain themselves. During the whaling industry, the population was nearly 10,000, almost the same as today's off-season population, peaking near 1842. After whaling, generally the later parts of the Nineteenth century, the island was at its lowest population point. Houses, farms, and ships were left abandoned. People in this period did what they could to make ends meet. They fished, they farmed, they sold their homes and moved. Houses were sold to be shipped off island - in an odd reversal of fortune from the days when houses were shipped to the island. The sad truth is that this economy saved many the buildings of the island. Historic preservationists are often very concerned with economic vitality and revitalizing a place. However, without economic stagnation the buildings we seek to preserve would not have lasted as long as they have. Its an odd irony that preservationists deal with daily.

Then the island was discovered as a tourist destination. (Reflecting upon the fact that tourism arrived about 1880, one must consider that tourism has been a way of life on Nantucket for over 100 years. In most places tourism is only 50 years old.) Railroads were built, people arrived, and the tourism boom began. This meant that many of the old whaling and fishing buildings were transformed. Auld Lang Syne in 'Sconset and the surrounding buildings were once simple fishing cottages that became fashionable summer homes. For better or worse, this preserved the historical characteristics of the building, but may have destroyed the evidence of their historic use. Those are the trade-off's that must be made in historic preservation. (The parallel situation on the mainland is often the conversion of a mill into apartments. It saves the building, but destroys the evidence of the people who worked there. Adaptive reuse, its technical term, can be a preservationists friend and nightmare.)

Out on the wharves in town, fishing and scalloping were still very much in action during this time, now feeding many of the new resorts and hotels on the island. Old North Wharf was one of these places and today only one of those buildings remains in use, 4 Old North Wharf, owned by Virginia Andrews. Today, it is currently being hoisted onto new piles and will eventually be restored to a bit of its former glory as a scalloping shanty. This is one of the very few reminders of the historic legacy of fishing and scalloping on the island. It is exciting to see this being retained and preserved for those interested in the people who existed between the whaling and the tourism booms. I hope that this building is used as a historical interpretation of the fishing and water trades legacy on Nantucket. If it were, it would be the only such site I know of on the island to interpret the work of these groups.

As scalloping and fishing waned into the 1960s, it was the work of the Sherburne Associates that rehabbed much of the wharf areas. Building With Nantucket in Mind says that "In 1963, Sherburne Associates purchased Straight, Old South, and Commercial Wharfs, a collection of broken down docking remains, old and rotting pilings, and some ramshackle buldings - all the last vestiges of a romantic era, to be sure…[T]he fact remains that two undeniable and significant accomplishments were the fruit of Sherburne's vision. First it achieved a classic example of adaptive use…Secondly…it single-handedly turned the island's economy around. Sherburne built its marinas to lure yachtsmen and boaters to Nantucket…The net result of the waterfront's rehabilitation was to bolster the island's principal source of revenue - tourism."(19) These changes were such that they destroyed much of the legacy of those who worked on these wharves. The argument will always be that this saved the island and made it what it is today, but for me I feel something lacking in that there is no historical interpretation of what was there before.

Then largely out of the new ability to pack and ship the products to the mainland, fishing and the water trades increased in popularity. Many of these boats were serviced in the three modest warehouse style buildings on Washington Street Extension. Buildings in one form ore another have been on that site since the early part of the Twentieth century serving the boating and fishing world of Nantucket. Today these buildings are slated for demolition for the construction of the Great Harbor Yacht Club - perhaps just the next step in the legacy of this land. This change goes back to the irony preservationists must deal with daily. The buildings of Washington Street Extension have survived because of the "downtrodden" feel of the area. However, now that the area has been "discovered" the preservationist must seek ways to acknowledge the history of the area. The new owners are seeking to recognize the history of the place and I only hope that the people who made the boatyard part of Nantucket's history are not forgotten.

I hope that more work is done to recognize those that are invisible. Those people and places, which have been overlooked in the island's rush from the whaling industry to the tourism industry, are important elements of the history of the place where we live. I feel strongly that more interpretation should be done on the island. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania there are interpretive kiosks around the town across from buildings showing a historic photograph and some text about the history of the building. Something similar to this might be an excellent tool for those exploring the island. However, I also understand the protest by those who live here that this is a living, breathing island. It is not a museum. By putting in these types of interpretive signs the place becomes a museum. This question is my constant quandary.

Until then, I encourage you to wander around a bit to find out why Nantucket is here. There may be more to this rock than the whaling and tee shirt shops. Enjoy our wharves, but wonder why they are there. Ask questions about the obvious. Maybe then we can learn to acknowledge the invisible people and the invisible places.