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Friday, August 21, 2015

August 21, 2015: Cape Cod Stories: The Changing Cape

[For many up here in New England, summer means a trip or twelve to the Cape—Cape Cod, that is (with no disrespect to the beautiful Cape Ann). So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy five Cape Cod stories—share your own summer favorite places and their stories for a crowd-sourced weekend getaway, please!]
On what the Cape isn’t any more, what it is, and what’s next.
The plentiful fishing that gave Cape Cod its name (or rather that led Bartholomew Gosnold to give it its name, as I highlighted yesterday) has been perceived as endangered for at least a century. Take David Belding’s 1920 Report upon the Alewife Fisheries of Massachusetts, for example, which dedicates much of its attention to “causes of decline” in the industry (and, to be fair to Belding, to proposed “remedial efforts” to reverse that decline). By the time Billy Joel sang, as the fisherman speaker of “The Downeaster Alexa” (1989), that “they say these waters aren’t what they used to be” and “there ain’t much future for a man who works the sea,” those historical, environmental, and economic trends were becoming clearer and clearer, and perhaps were already irreversible. Cod may well deserve to be called “The Fish that Changed the World,” that is, but the world has changed since, and Cape Cod has had to change with it.
The Cape has done so mostly through embracing tourism and all that it brings. As Thoreau’s mid-19th century sojourns to the Cape illustrate, such visits have a longstanding history of their own; by the late 19th century, it was a fact universally acknowledged that wealthy Boston families like those on whom William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) focuses hadn’t achieved true social prominence until they had a summer home on the Cape. Yet just as it has on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to the South of the Cape, tourism to Cape Cod has absolutely exploded in the last century or so, reaching a 21st century crest that shows no signs of abating (just ask anyone who tries to drive across the Bourne Bridge on any summer Friday afternoon; they’ll be easy to find, as they’ll still be in traffic as of Saturday morning). It’s a fine and arbitrary line to be sure, but I would argue that the Cape has in the last half-century or so gone from being a touristed area, one popular with visitors but with a distinct, longstanding identity and economy of its own, to being a place defined by tourism, one whose primary identity is as a vacation destination.
Regardless of how we narrate or define those historical and social stages and evolutions, the more vital question is where the Cape goes from here. If tourism is going to continue at such record numbers, preserving both the natural landscape and the historic identity of the Cape will become more important than ever; the former is especially salient given the striking and ongoing effects of global climate changes. Entities like the Cape Cod National Seashore offer a template for such preservation efforts, and deserve the support of anyone who agrees with Thoreau (and me) about the Cape’s amazing and unique treasures, human as well as a natural. None of these challenges are limited to Cape Cod, of course; they are in many ways the fundamental questions facing both the post-industrial United States and a world dealing with climate change. But national and global challenges often benefit from local frames and responses—and in this as in so many other ways, Cape Cod offers a vital American setting and story.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Summer favorite places you’d highlight?

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