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Vineyard Politics Involves Clash of Villagers and Vagabonds

By Sam Low
Vineyard Gazette, Winter, 2003

Everyone, except the occasional hermit or pariah, belongs to a community. But there are many kinds of communities. Some - such as those of year round islanders - are tightly focused in a single place. Others - such as those of new arrivals who spend a week or two on island then fly off to another home far away - have almost no spatial focus.

Some social scientists distinguish "tightly knit" as opposed to "loosely knit" communities - ends of a spectrum with many varieties in between. I like to use the term "villagers" for those who live in tightly knit communities and "vagabonds" for those who live in loosely knit ones.

From the perspective of the individual, both kinds of communities provide similarly for human social needs - for affirmation, affection and standing. But from the perspective of a physical place, their impact could not be more different.

Villagers spend most of their time in one place. They live there intensely. Because they know most everyone in their neighborhood, they accommodate to each other. Villagers become deeply attached to their neighborhoods and are hugely affected by change to it. Belonging to a place summons commitment. Villagers know that a kindness given will engender - at some later date - a kindness received. The same holds true for an injury.

Vagabonds may care equally as much for the members of their communities, but that caring has nothing to do with a single physical place. Their lives are spread out. They meet and commune at events - the theater, an opera, an artist's opening exhibit - that occur in many disparate places. They are mobile. If they don't like what's happening in one of their neighborhoods, they sell and move on. They eschew one concert to attend a different one. They resign one exclusive club to join another. Unlike villagers, specific places are not particularly special for vagabonds. Rather, they are interchangeable.

Much of the recent heat on our island has been caused by a clash between those who hold radically different concepts of community - between villagers and vagabonds. Villagers inhabit places charged with meaning. Vagabonds inhabit places - if inhabit is the proper word for it - that are relatively devoid of emotional attachment.

Often this sorting into differing communities correlates with wealth. Some villagers stay put because they don't have the wealth to manage multiple homes and the costs of getting between them. Others consciously commit themselves to a place because they value the emotional enrichment they receive in return.

Because vagabonds are often wealthy, they're accustomed to imposing their tastes and values on others. Because they inhabit many places, they're not constrained by local culture, mores and values. Vagabonds don't accommodate. They sue.

Vagabonds have a potent weapon - their seemingly unlimited wealth. But in their struggles with villagers, they also have a glaring weakness - they don't really care if they stay or leave. They want to prevail, of course - to stamp their feet and win - because they're used to stamping their feet and winning. But if they meet with steadfast resistance from a unified local community they move on. That's what they do. They move on.

In recent memory, we have the Wallaces and their scheme for minimansions on property near Edgartown Great Pond. Their wealth and their determination once seemed insurmountable. But now, thanks to a combination of committed island residents, conservation organizations and two families of means - one of them with a long record of attachment to the island - this land is occupied by a large traditional farm, conservation acreage and a few homes. The Wallaces were fought to a standstill by impassioned resistance.

It can happen again.

We villagers need to remember our greatest strength. This place means something to us. We don't move on. We live here.

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