Thursday, June 11, 2009

Gentrification In A Recession

We took a recession-style vacation: one night at the beach. It was grand, despite a soggy, cold, blustery second day. The first night, after two trips to the beach, we decided to follow the sound of the waves to another beach and were rewarded with the rising of a blood red moon. Magnificent.

The beach is at Watch Hill, Rhode Island, a place I've been running to for years when my need for waves becomes overpowering. KB had never been there and it was fun to share it with him.

But it has changed.

It's always been wealthy. The yachts docked in the harbor are not your average, "Hey, we got a boat!" models. One of the regulars is the Aphrodite, a yacht with beauty, class and history. That's a pretty good description of Watch Hill, too. Hidden behind hedges of beach roses and boxwoods are mansions only rivaled by the castles of Newport.

But Watch Hill also has a state beach so long and lovely that it draws day visitors from everywhere. There used to be four parking lots where, for under twenty dollars, you could leave the car, grab the plastic pails and peanut butter sandwiches, and watch your children build sandcastles and frantically dig moats to try to protect them from the waves.

I haven't been there in a couple of years - it's a long drive from where I live now.
But when I had some time off and we realized we hadn't seen the ocean in two years, it seemed the right place for a quick trip.

It has changed and is still changing.

Gone are three of the parking lots. They are now private, permit-only lots for residents or guests of the only hotel in town. Gone is the massive, decaying Victorian Ocean House - or rather gone is the original run down dowager as it's being rebuilt into a luxury spa/hotel/condo complex that only the top one percent will be able to afford.

The run down shack that housed the used book store and pizza joint? Remodeled into a lovely building with condos on the second floor.

Two hour parking is the rule on the streets, which means you'll be getting a ticket if you can't find a spot to park in the last remaining lot.

A little town that once had perhaps two real estate offices on the main street now has at least five. Each of them has pictures of multi-million dollar homes and condos for sale or rent plastered on their display windows.

What's it mean?

Watch Hill, already pretty rarefied, is becoming a private enclave. Slowly, quietly and deliberately, the majority of visitors are being closed out by the simple act of leaving them nowhere to park and nowhere to stay.

There is one reasonably priced place to stay left, but even that is being eyed hungrily by a developer who, once the recession is over, hopes to buy it, tear it down and build luxury condos in its place.

Just a few miles down the road is Misquamicut, the state beach that welcomes the common folk. And no doubt the developers who are gentrifying Watch Hill point to that beach as a reasonably priced alternative for those who can't afford sixty thousand dollars for a July rental in Watch Hill.

Misquamicut is great for teenagers - it's a long, bare beach with great waves that boils over with humanity and offers shack after shack of lodging and beach shops.
It depresses me beyond all telling.

What I love about Watch Hill beaches are their comparative emptiness, even when there were more places for visitors to park. I loved that my children could run free even when they were small because it was easy to keep an eye on them there.
I loved that Watch Hill was well kept, a little exclusive, a little beyond my reach. I respected its class and I think there was a certain tone there that demanded more of its visitors. There were undoubtedly drunken beer parties on the beach sometimes - but it sure didn't look like it was a common occurrence. The beaches weren't littered with broken glass, with old condoms, with garbage. Watch Hill's beaches are so lovely that no one could stand seeing them defiled. I didn't get that feeling at Misquamicut.

Soon, unless you're one of the lucky few that can drop five million dollars on a summer place, Watch Hill will be closed. There will be no signs or gates demanding you prove your financial status, but it will happen just the same.

And don't think that because we're in a recession that anything is changed. The mansions of Watch Hill are under construction, under renovation; new mansions are being built on the rocky shore. The summer folk of Watch Hill are just fine, thank you.

I'm a bit jealous, yes. I'd love to be able to claim a piece of that ocean. But I'm angry that I'm going to be locked out. I love it there, too.

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