Sunday, July 31, 2016
Obamas’ holiday idyll shattered by local anger over outsize mansions. But, they're okay with sending Section 8 housing into your neighborhood!
Martha’s Vineyard residents fear the aura of their island is being wrecked by gentrification
When the Obama family start their summer holidays this week on the quaint New England island of Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, they can expect to relax in the solitude and privacy they have enjoyed during their previous five visits. The Washington Post called the president the equivalent of a vacationing Yeti: “Many have had near brushes with the leader of the free world, but only a precious few have actually laid eyes on him.”
But film-maker Thomas Bena says the house the Obamas are renting this year is a prime example of the kind of mega-construction that is threatening to destroy the character of the island.
Bena has spent 12 years making a film called One Big Home, which is being shown to islanders this weekend. It documents an issue that is as tricky for residents of the Vineyard as it is for beach destinations everywhere: how to protect small communities from the distortions created by an influx of wealthy visitors who come for just eight weeks of the year. The film chronicles Bena’s crusade against the proliferation of outsize homes in the town of Chilmark, where he lives with his wife, Mollie, and daughter, Emma.
Bena argues that the giant homes – often referred to as McMansions – are not only out of proportion with their environment but are wasteful symbols of the over-reaching vanity of their absentee owners. Over the past 20 years, what started as an aberration is now a trend – Mansionisation, or the practice of building the largest possible house on a plot of land.
“For me, this is more gross than mere conspicuous consumption,” says Bena. “It’s another type of gentrification. We need to start taking care of our communities and be more careful with land use and zoning.”
A backlash has started, with people in Martha’s Vineyard – and in the Hamptons on Long Island – questioning the wisdom of land being turned over to mansions that sit empty – but heated – for 10 months of the year. In Los Angeles, the city planning commission recently voted to eliminate various loopholes, including one that grants a 20% square footage bonus for building “green,” that has been contributing to bigger-is-better mansionisation.
But in Martha’s Vineyard Bena’s campaign to limit the size of new houses in Chilmark caused stresses in the community. Some said the plan sounded un-American: the social disruption that comes with gentrification is part of the price. “That’s America, like it or not,” Chilmark building inspector Leonard Jason Jr tells the film-maker. “Big houses are what some people feel they need. You can always leave.”
Bena believes McMansions have contributed to a new sense of “us and them”, local people and summer visitors. “In the summer you feel that tension wherever you go,” he says. “People put a smile on their face because they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, but it’s there.”
When the president takes his family out to eat, there will be 10 cars in his motorcade and a bus for the press, says Bena. “He’s vacationing on a small island where people dress down and try to drive older cars. The ethos remains intellectuals and artists living in cottages.” Fisherman Chris Murphy points out: “The more that people trickle in, the more they socialise with their own. There’s not that same mixing that used to occur. A community should be able to determine its own destiny.” In 2013 the community of Chilmark voted to introduce a sliding scale that would effectively limit house size in the district to 3,500 sq ft.
The film (and legislation) is not anti-wealth, Bena says, but pro-community. “The only power the little people have is the power of the vote. So we got together and said we want to preserve the rural character of our town. We’re not saying we don’t like wealthy people. We’re saying we have a sense of place here – and we want to maintain that.”