John Whelan: Striking A Nerve

“Another op’nin,’ another show

In Philly, Boston or Baltimo’

A chance for stage folks to say hello!

Another op’nin,’ another show”

In 1948, Cole Porter opened his great musical “Kiss Me Kate” with “Another op’nin,’ another show.” The song has become a Broadway anthem. The musical, which was based on William Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” was one of Broadway’s most enduring shows.

I’ve been thinking about the news on the Monomoy Theatre, thus the reference to “Kiss Me Kate.” The idea that the Monomoy Theatre could be sold and closed is a terrible idea. Chatham and the Monomoy Theatre have been a wonderful winning combination since 1932. Today I am away from Chatham so I’m not completely up to date on fund-raising efforts to purchase the property, but I am aware of the time constraints. I would hope that there could be an agreement allowing several months to raise the money. The successful effort to restore The Orpheum has been an absolute success, and I believe a similar effort to bring back the Monomoy is in order. If not, Chatham will have lost a significant cultural asset. Ever the optimist, I fully believe we will see “Anothe Op’nin.’”

As a periodic newspaper columnist, one of my great pleasures is getting a reaction to something I've written. It seems that my column last month apparently struck a nerve, or more accurately, more than one nerve, here in Chatham. So, in the weeks after that column appeared, I got a variety of comments from over 25 local people. I was surprised, but perhaps I should not have been, after the incredible reaction to the now infamous Beverly Nelson letter. Ms. Nelson obviously scored a direct hit on the sensitivities of many Chatham residents. If ever anyone wondered if the reading public paid attention to what appears in The Cape Cod Chronicle, the number of responses to Ms. Nelson’s letter made it clear that the readers are paying close attention.

I am certainly not comparing the reaction to my column to that afforded Beverly Nelson’s letter. But I admit to being pleased when a number of you were moved enough to let me know just what you were thinking. The comments focused around two subjects mentioned in that column. I wrote that in the past seven years, two-thirds of the new homes built in Chatham were offset by demolitions, full or partial. The total in 2017 was 30 demolitions, compared to 24 in 2018. I went on to say that if that number continues in the next few years, Chatham will soon look dramatically different. I think the sheer number of demolitions shocked people and the most common reaction was that Chatham should do whatever it could to reverse that trend as soon as possible. Most people wanted the changes to historic homes in Chatham to be limited, if at all.

I called the chairman of the historical commission, Frank Messina, to ask about the subject. He told me that only houses over 75 years old were referred to the commission. Newer homes could be demolished if the owner chose to do so. When an application for demolition is received, the commission has a standard procedure. The first step is to determine if the home is of historic significance. The second step relates to the condition of the structure. If a home is determined to be of historical significance and in relatively acceptable condition, the commission can deny the homeowner and place an 18-month delay on demolition. In certain cases, the application can be referred to the Cape Cod Commission for a determination. A homeowner can wait out the 18 months and proceed with the demolition. More and more new Chatham homeowners are only put off by the delay and go ahead with demolishing the home when the time is up. My read on this is that to preserve Chatham and its historic look, we will have to make it more difficult to get permission to tear down a home. We will have to provide more tools to the historic commission so that they can do their job more effectively.

The second area of reactions was the disclosure of the poverty figures here in Chatham. I can tell you there was a wide variety of comments. Some people simply doubted the statistics. They said that the 2016 estimate of 780 people living in poverty in Chatham had to be overstated. They claimed they hadn’t seen or known many poor people here in our glamorous summer resort town. My response was that many of those folks were aging seniors with fixed incomes. They may have been financially comfortable at the time of retirement, but their fixed incomes just cannot keep pace with the ever-increasing cost of living. Housing and medical expenses were now beyond their means. Some difficult choices were necessary, and by any measurement, they now fall into the poverty category. And I said I thought that many in that group are proud people, unwilling to openly admit their actual need. We can’t see them, but they are here.

I also pointed to the significant number of people who work in seasonal industries, often with lengthy periods of unemployment. Add to that the diminishing incomes of many of those in the fishing industry. Fishermen love their lot, but it is a hard go for many. Personally, I don’t doubt the statistics and I do know that Chatham has a significant number of residents who need help. The town is fortunate because there are so many churches and non-profits working to relieve the situation as best they can. Clearly, the need for some of our neighbors is great. I am happy to say that not one respondent suggested that the poor move on, perhaps to a place they could afford, a la Ms. Nelson. The overwhelming feeling was that people who have lived here for generations surely should be able to stay in their home town.

Chatham is facing a number of significant problems. Preserving the historic look of the town and acknowledging the poverty within the town are just two of them. The housing crisis also comes to mind, and certainly the plight of young families who would like to be able to live in town. To solve or alleviate those issues, our selectmen and town officials will have to demonstrate effective leadership. I believe they will be aided if residents of Chatham make it clear to them their opinions. Your willingness to participate is particularly important at this time. I hope the people of Chatham are willing.