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A Tradition of Looking Behind the Curtain
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 Post subject: ptown
PostPosted: Thu Jun 29, 2017 8:25 pm 
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Joined: Fri Apr 04, 2008 10:48 am
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Location: Broomfield, Colorado
It’s sad but almost universally true that any persecuted group will turn around and become persecutors themselves if they gain power. Author Peter Manso chronicles this in Ptown, a collection of linked stories about Provincetown, Massachusetts. Provincetown is on the very tip of Cape Cod; for most of its history it was a quiet village, mostly populated by Portuguese fishermen. Henry David Thoreau visited and commented on the isolated beauty of the place, but by and large it was both a figurative and literal backwater. Starting around the 1920s or so, it began to attract artists and authors and others of “bohemian” lifestyle, who could live inexpensively in driftwood shacks on the dunes and sculpt and paint and write. The local government was tolerant of eccentricity, and Provincetown gradually acquired a reputation as a place where you could be gay or smoke dope or engage in other practices that were Banned in Boston as long as you weren’t too flagrant about it.

Manso describes the change with the stories of Tony Jackett, a straight fisherman, and Jay Critchley, a gay artist, plus interspersed chapters on other aspects of Provincetown history and culture. Jackett can’t make a go of it as a fisherman, a result of his own casual work ethic and increasing government regulation on where and how he can fish, and makes a stab at drug smuggling instead. Critchley starts out an altar boy – his family is “Catholic Family of the Year” in Massachusetts – and ends up as an artist and activist; his art consists of encrusting various objects in beach sand and his activism involves protesting pollution by dressing up as the Statue of Liberty with a gown made out of tampon applicators washed up on local beaches. While they are going about their lives, gays and lesbians gradually take over Provincetown. Wealthy gay couples buy up all the available land for trophy homes, leaving Provincetown in the weird position of having some of the lowest per-capita incomes in Massachusetts combined with some of the highest property values. The local government is entirely taken over by gays and lesbians; the town has over 40 citizen boards that must permit applications for building permits, business licenses, and zoning changes and those permits simply aren’t granted to straights (the tactic is not to deny the permit outright but to keep requesting more changes or information until the applicant gives up). The local tennis pro, a straight, has his lifetime club membership revoked and then is forcibly removed from the property as a trespasser. The local doctor, a straight, says he doesn’t feel welcome in his town anymore and refuses to patronize any business that displays a rainbow flag, comparing it to Confederate or Nazi banners. People opposed to local government programs – the case cited is widening the road to the local airport to make it easier for wealthy airplane owners – are accused of homophobia. The “old-time” local gays are appalled by this, but are priced out of the market; many of the newcomers don’t live in Provincetown, making enough money from summer and weekend rentals to pay their mortgages.

I visited Provincetown once, about the time Manso was writing this book (published 2003); I didn’t feel unwelcome but it was definitely an interesting place. The glacial geology was fascinating, and several species of whale sported offshore. Manso’s arguments are mostly anecdotal and could be cherry-picked; they resonate with me, though, since I’ve seen exactly the same thing he describes in the Chicago area where I grew up (except it was the Democrat political machine rather than gays and lesbians). People obsess about national politics, but if you control the local zoning, business, and building departments you control who lives in your town and what they do.

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