by Louise Rafkin
Boston Globe - Sunday, June 24, 2001
Where Have All the Artists Gone?
The angel on the phone had called to offer a gift: seven months of free rent, plus a monthly stipend, plus the support of a community of artists and writers. One of eight selected from over 600 applications, I had been offered a writing fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the only longterm artist's residency program in the country.
It was October 1989, and I was ditching San Francisco just days before the big earthquake. I packed the Honda and headed east, dead-ending at Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown late one afternoon. As the purple bruise of sundown spread across the sky, overtaking the much-lauded lingering Cape light, I dove into the icy Atlantic, shocking my native-Californian constitution into clarity. My muddled mind, which had been fretting over what I would actually do for seven long, dark, and sometimes dreary months - only write? - suddenly cleared. I knew exactly what to do. I would follow the tradition of artists and writers who had perched themselves on this same spiraled spit of sand in order to find space and peace to express their creativity.
In the early days, there were the artists: Charles Hawthorne, Hans Hofmann, Edward Hopper, to name a few. Then playwright Eugene O'Neill and his gang. Later, artists Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell and poet Stanley Kunitz. More recently, poet Mary Oliver and some of my writing predecessors at the Work Center: Michael Cunningham, Marie Howe, Richard McCann.
My fellowship - and my first real winter ever - passed slowly, and with each passing month I felt more writerly. Even outside the tight Work Center community, Provincetown was chock-full of committed artists and writers, folks who waitressed or hawked T-shirts during the 10-week summer season, squirreling away enough dough to make it through the winter doing what they loved. The woman schlepping lobster at the clam shack was a published novelist, and she - along with the guy stacking canned peas at the A & P who had recently published poems in the prestigious American Poetry Review - easily claimed "writer" as their profession.
I discovered the rhythm of the place. During the off-season, the creative types did their art and rented cheaply, a poorly insulated shack or studio, or a room in one of the large dilapidated homes in which a shift of other like-minded artists and writers rotated from year to year. A few people even lived scot-free, minding the swank homes for off-Cape owners during the winter. In the summer, most of the creative worked service jobs, dropping the pen or brush and picking up the plate or vacuum.
At the end of my own seven-month fellowship, I had published a few stories, written some essays, had a book incubating at a publishing house. I applied for another gift - a second year is available for two of the lucky - and apparently I was in favor with the gods. By the end of my second year at the Work Center, I was hooked: Not only had I grown into my vocation, but I had made deep friendships and fallen in love with the natural beauty of the Cape. But that June, I found myself brethren to the others in town without stipend or home.
So I entered the tide of year-rounders, securing the first of what would, before I left town 10 years later, add up to seven different living arrangements, ranging from a luxury condo (at $300 a month) to an unheated pond-side barn (free, an offering from an arts patron). During the winter months, I wrote. In summer, I waited tables and cleaned houses. I lived cheaply, spent no more than $600 a month at any point during my sojourn, and experienced growing success with my work.
This is a personal story, but I wasn't special. There were a bunch of "me's" living in P-town during the late '80s and early '90s. In the winter, we gathered for card games or video nights, or we shared work and attended readings together. Sometimes we put on plays or read Shakespeare.
Slowly, however, we began to leave, some of us because other options began to open up, and it became difficult to bear the zigzag of the summer scramble and winter lull. So I'm writing this from the Bay Area. I returned, reentered the teaching world in academia, and have managed to augment my creative-writing income by scribing for magazines and a pack of dot-coms.
I wasn't exactly forced out of town, but a bunch of folks were, those without trust funds or family help or real estate in their pockets. For most, the exodus was the direct result of being unable to find a roof under which to paint, write, sculpt, or mix up a 39-cent box of macaroni and cheese. In the early '90s, housing became P-town's underground murmur, outshining sex as the number one topic. Hushed rumors of a decent year-round rental would spread from one end to the other of the 2-mile town in a nanosecond; cocktail-party chitchat would veer toward real estate prices in a matter of minutes. Even a New Yorker claimed that our rental obsession was worse than in Manhattan.
Then, as the once depressed economy bloomed into the boom time of the '90s, dumpy Cape houses were snatched up for second homes by pairs of groovy gay gals and guys whose two paychecks made owning a holiday haven in gay mecca quite possible. (The town's assessor, Dana Faris, figures that a little over half the town's population is gay.) Property owners who had previously been willing to rent year-round for reasonable rates became fewer and fewer. New owners either had no need for a monthly pittance of $300 or $400 or were, more likely, concentrating on renting to people who would pay four times what used to be charged for an entire off-season month for a single high-season week. Most drastically, during the last 10 years, more than 400 mostly rental residences were converted into condos.
Faris, a resident for 10 years, is concerned about the recent shift in P-town's population. He supplies the somewhat frightening figures that support the growing housing-shortage hysteria: Of the town's residential properties, 3,235, more than half, are second homes owned by off-Cape residents. The median price for any residence - condo, house, shack, or barn - is now $375,000, a hefty $100,000 higher than in the next most expensive towns on the Cape, Chatham and Orleans. What artist or writer can afford these prices?
"This is a typical situation for artists," says photographer Marian Roth, a 20-year resident of Provincetown. "We flock to gorgeous, affordable places, and because we are interesting and bohemian, other people - a lot of them with money - follow."
About two years ago, Roth, who recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship for her pinhole photography, was forced out of the darkroom and studio space she had rented in the downtown post office. Since then, Roth has been working out of her bedroom and borrowing a darkroom from the Fine Arts Work Center. Now, with the grant money and family help, Roth is thrilled to have just purchased her own work space, an art studio located in one of the town's new affordable-housing developments.
"Being an artist is hard in this society," Roth says. "Our work isn't as valued as other work is, and in recent years, government support has mostly dried up, thanks to guys like [US Senator] Jesse Helms." Still, she notes, the flush of money moving to town does have an upside: a churned-up art market. As she says, "These new condo owners have to hang something on their walls."
Community Housing Resource, with founder and developer Ted Malone at the helm, is the force behind some of these new affordable-housing proj ects. Since 1996, Malone has been working with federal Housing and Urban Development grant programs, giving folks like Roth hope in a hot real estate market.
Qualified candidates enter a lottery, and winners are prohibited from turning their properties over for profit for 40 years. Malone currently has 34 units at various stages of completion and 29 more in pre-development. Though the properties are open to all who qualify, some are geared to artists because studio space is included.
Malone is lauded as a visionary in town, though his properties still don't come cheap. Bobby Redic, who works as an assistant to a local fashion designer, spent $133,500 for a one- bedroom unit. His monthly costs run $932, including insurance and condo fees - not cheap but not outrageous. "And no one can sell it from under me," he says.
Meanwhile, amid the changes, the Fine Arts Work Center continues to try to reseed the town with creative talent. In addition to the fellowships, the center now offers a popular summer program in which weeklong classes are taught by nationally known artists and writers, some of whom are former fellows.
Still, once the aficionados get to P-town, there are few places for them to gain footing. Who's to blame? The economy? The gay boomers? Better not to lay blame, says Hunter O' Ha ni an, the center's director, who cites the influx of newcomers as the result of the graying of the gay community.
"No one is the enemy," he says, "but off-Cape residents don't see the local community and its problems in the same way that those of us who live here do." O'Hanian sees the potential for P-town to turn into a place where the folks who come have lost sight of what they came for. "We could end up with everybody who came here to find an artist's haven looking at each other wondering where the interesting artists and writers have gone," he says.
I miss P-town enormously. I return several times a year, in both summer and winter. For the past few summers, I've joined the ranks of tourists, renting a little house with my mother for the month of August and paying more for a week than what I pay per month in the costly Bay Area. This year, however, my mother and I won't be returning to our cottage; we've been priced out. Because we are return renters and former year-rounders, the kind owner of the house did offer us a deal - only a $300 increase per week - but I know she'll have no trouble renting her little two-bedroom for $1,500, $200 more than she would have charged us.
Still, I'll be back this summer, teaching at the Work Center, camping in the corner of a friend's house. Provincetown provided an environment in which I could nourish my vocation and follow my dream. Plus, my most valued friends have deep roots there (and also, luckily, real estate). As long as Provincetown is peopled with individuals who care about self-expression, the written word, and the quality of light at sunset, I'll return. I have found it impossible not to.