Russ Allen: Strangers In Our Midst?

Recently overheard in a nearby store:

Local man (with a tone of disgust): “Well – they’re here again. I saw them yesterday.”

Store owner: “Who?”

Local man: “Them. They had bicycles on the back of their car.”

The local man: a retired resident of the Cape. Them: Visitors. Tourists. Early vacationers. People he was not terribly happy to see. Was he thinking as he spoke, “I wish they would close those bridges!”?

Not everyone shares the sentiments expressed in that conversation, but as another summer season approaches reflecting on what we will experience between now and early fall is in order. For as we prepare for the inevitable influx of people and often-unwanted changes that occur as the weather improves, some of us may respond as did that local man. However, is that the healthiest, best, or only attitude we should have?

Consider these demographics. Just as the Cape is made up of towns, and many towns like Harwich are comprised of villages, all merging into single entities, their populations consist of equally definable and integrated groups.

The members of the first group are the “Native Peoples” whose genealogy goes back to before any European immigrants arrived on this peninsula. Then there are the true “Cape Cod Natives” whose ancestors purchased land from the Native Peoples, or immigrated here long enough ago not to be called “washashores.”

The third group is comprised of “Retirees” who, like this writer, moved here more recently, often having first vacationed on Cape Cod for decades. A subgroup are “Snowbirds” who flee south to avoid winter weather while maintaining legal voting residence here. Generally classified as “Residents,” members of these first groups, who can vote at town meeting and in local elections, may share the negative attitude expressed by the local man toward the following groups.

A fourth and newer group, whose members are responsible for much of the new housing construction in Harwich, are “Second Homeowners” whose primary and legal residences are off-Cape. Mainly here for weekends, holidays, and summer vacation, as non-voting taxpayers they may have a limited sense of community identity or involvement in local government, organizations and activities.

The fifth group of people living in Harwich and throughout the Cape consists of refugees, immigrants (documented and non-documented) and foreign (J-1) students and domestic young people who, while having no or limited legal status, nevertheless fulfill a vital role in the economy of the Cape, especially by serving the needs of the next group. This category also includes volunteers and interns in several non-profit programs, singers in groups like Cape Harmony and Hyannis Sound, as well as players in the Cape Cod Baseball League.

The sixth and final group is comprised of summer visitors, whether called vacationers, renters or tourists, who significantly increase the demographics of Cape towns from after Memorial Day through Labor Day and beyond, cause restaurants, motels, recreational and other facilities to reopen, and foster summer activities such as craft fairs, sporting events, and outdoor concerts. In essence, this is the “Them” of the opening conversation, often blamed for summer woes such as more crowded roads, long lines at favorite places and limited parking at beaches, despite the significant amounts of cash their presence funnels into the Cape’s economy, increasing the level of summer employment for, and often subsidizing the lifestyles of, those in other groups throughout the year.

So Harwich, and in fact all of Cape Cod, is far more diversified than we may think, especially during the summer when all groups are at their peak membership. Yet this is a fact that can elude those who live here all year as well as those who are only on Cape in the summer. Before I retired, I was part of the last group, vacationing with my family for two or three weeks every summer. Only when I took up permanent residence in Harwich did I realize that I knew virtually nothing about my new hometown or its people, for over those years I had little to no contact with most of other groups with whom I now share the Cape.

These demographics are not only a fact but pose some significant questions. How do these groups live together in community? How do they relate to each other? How do we all play nicely in an area known for, and dependent upon its tourism attractions? How do we balance our individual, family, group, and town needs in order to create the best experiences of the Cape for all involved?

One way is for those of us who are among the residential groups to see ourselves as “Hosts,” and to view people in the latter groups as our “Guests.” Hosts offer hospitality and support to guests, and guests respect their hosts and appreciate what they offer. This is especially true for the relationship of Harwich residents to those in the fifth and sixth groups, but it is also a key to how all members of a much-diversified population such as the Cape’s might experience community all year round.

For the next few months, we will have strangers in our midst. All of us will benefit from the community we can create together.