Category Archives: Cape Cod: Contrasts and Contradictions

Cape Cod, a Place of Contradictions and Contrasts

I live on Cape Cod, whose attributes, such as its environmental history and its current population, are misunderstood by many. This blog is going to be me learning, sharing and connecting with others about sustainability on Cape Cod, so I think it’s important to start with a clear view of what life on Cape Cod is like. Or at least my experience here so far. So here’s my spiel about Cape Cod’s people and nature.

Who Are the Real Cape Codders? 

Many friends of mine who don’t live here assume Cape Cod is a wealthy area. In fact 13.5% of children under age 18 live in poverty. The economy is largely a service economy, feeding and otherwise taking care of the people who might spend a few months or even just a few weeks or days here in the summer. Many – perhaps most – young people leave to find work elsewhere, our year round population is decreasing. I have contractor friends, and have heard of many stores and restaurants who cannot find workers. Some of those friends say we have workers, but they don’t want to work. You hear anecdotes about people who were let go of jobs due to drug problems, or who had new employees abruptly leave because they didn’t want to work – but I don’t have any real stats of how many Cape Cod kids are living in their parents’ basements eschewing work and playing video games. That would be an interesting study. We have a major opioid abuse and overdose problem, (Barnstable County is one of the 2 worst counties in the state) which primarily affects working class people here according to a 2018 study by CACCI.

There are jobs on Cape Cod, maybe just not in your industry


Barnstable has been named the city with the second lowest poverty rate in the U.S. But 50% of the students in the Barnstable Public School District receive free or reduced-rate lunches. Like our US unemployment rate that – if you dig deep is actually meaningless but every President likes to brag about – this simply doesn’t add up. 27.8% – almost a third – of the population of Barnstable County is 65 or older. Spend some time with some of these folks, you’ll find out that many of them are snow birds who spend fall or winter through late spring in Florida or elsewhere. So when we take a deeper look we begin to see the real (or at least the year-round) Cape Codders. The people who don’t have a second home, but who struggle to pay the rent or mortgage for their first one.

I’ll give a couple examples. Say you’re a marketer, I know from Mass Employment data that there are two marketing jobs here each year. If you’re a computer programmer, my guess from scouring LinkedIn many times for a friend, there are probably maybe 10 jobs, at most. So if you do the math, there are 177K residents (not counting MV or Nantucket) over the age of 18 fighting for those 12 jobs. Now my math is a bit wacky I am no social sciences professional, but just trying to give an idea of what we’re looking at. Yes you might remind me that there are over 60K people, give or take, over 65 on CC – but if you’ve been reading the headlines lately something called “unretirement” has been growing where people return to work. 20% of Americans over retirement age are either working or looking for work.  1 in 5 workers will be 55 or older in 2020 – next year!! So there’s a lot of people and very few of certain types of jobs.

So I am one of those people fighting for those 2 marketing jobs. Spoiler alert – I haven’t had the luxury of getting one here on Cape Cod, and I tried off and on for about 8 years. Not surprisingly, Cape Cod is well known for (wink wink) hiring friends and family. I am a washashore – the name given to people who live full time on Cape Cod but who weren’t born here – so I won’t benefit from that nepotism. But it’s ok, it’s a tradeoff. I trade not being able to get a job in my field within 90 miles for the beauty and the nature, the peace and quiet.

Cape Cod is Heaven, At Least for Me

Yes, peace and quiet. I benefit from that. With all the ranting and raving about how Cape Cod is losing our young people – you won’t hear me complaining – I enjoy the quiet. I lived in a college town when I was way past college age. It had a great nightlife, was affordable and close to public transport (which honestly sucked 99% of the time so not sure why I am even including that as a benefit…). But that’s where the benefits ended. There was barf on the sidewalks, graffiti and trespassers in and on my building any given day, loud weeknight parties until 4 am (and my house had paper thin walls to boot), vandalism, decaying old apartment buildings that required thousands of dollars of maintenance, break-ins – yeah Cape Cod is a nice change of pace. The young people here – and this is not something I pulled out of the Cape Cod Times or some study – they are simply more respectful than any young people I have ever met. Many of them serve in the military, those kids are extremely polite. After dealing with the upper middle college kids in Boston who would sooner start a fight or urinate on my building than greet me with a ‘hello’, it’s a nice change of pace. All of the ones I have met work extremely hard, in landscaping, nursing, sales, fishing, offshore oil rigs, energy conservation, environmentalism, bartenders, servers, shopkeepers, retail clerks, grocery store clerks and entrepreneurs. These people – including me – are Cape Cod. We find a way to make a living – somehow. We love it here, we stay here year round and we especially love the fall, winter and spring. Something everyone seems to share, that feeling of your shoulders lowering as you breathe a sigh of relief when you drive over the Sagamore Bridge, that wink the bartender gives when she sees that the regulars are back at the bar (we hide in the summer.) Not all of us are treehuggers (like me), some of us really hate seals (definitely not me), but one thing we all agree on – we love Cape Cod passionately and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

A Wild, Rank Place

Picture beautiful wooded Cape Cod, it wasn’t always the paradise it is today – it was as desolate as an abandoned mall parking lot in the 1800s. Cape Cod was clear cut, for farming, homes and ship building, but mostly for wood to
“boil seawater and extract salt that could be used to preserve cod for the Cape’s booming fishing industry”. This clear cutting radically changed the landscape, perhaps most notably on the Outer Cape. The book Cape Cod Modern describes the dunes of the Province Lands “they were woodlands just a few hundred years ago. Humanity’s appetite for lumber scraped them into bare dunes, which had to be manually replanted to keep the drifting sand from smothering Provincetown.” Cape Cod was industrial, it was made up of fishermen, people who worked the saltworks; the type of people who flock here now wouldn’t have been caught dead there. If you’re ever read Thoreau’s description of Cape Cod as a “wild, rank place” – he might have loved it – but most people avoided the marshy, mosquito infested Cape Cod like the plague. If you are familiar with the way artists started the rejuvenation of mostly abandoned neighborhoods in Boston and NYC and ultimately found themselves priced out – you would recognize the stories in “Cape Cod Modern” by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani – really interesting stuff about famous European architects and artists escaping persecution and finding a home in 1930s Cape Cod, places like Wellfleet and Truro. They made Cape Cod fashionable, and the trees growing back – beautiful nature recovering where it had been ravaged and destroyed – helped too. You might be surprised to know that New England and The Pacific Northwest are the most wooded areas left in the US. It’s no wonder we have seen the Black Bear, Coyotes (or coywolves) and all manner of wildlife never seen here since they (or their habitats) were all killed off and made extinct in the 1700 or 1800s. Everyone wants to be here!

Photo from Truro Historical Society: “Forest to Farm: Truro’s Landscape Before and After Thoreau”. One of the better images I could find showing how many fewer trees we had in the 1800s than now on Cape Cod. I’ve come across some way more dramatic in Barnstable, and will try to track more down for this blog.

So now we have all of these people who want to retire here. And of course the people who have 2nd, 3rd or 4th homes here. I ride by these homes on my bike, there are hundreds, thousands of homes that go unoccupied for months. It’s eerily quiet in these neighborhoods, in the one I ride my bike through it’s just me and the properties’ caretakers enjoying the gorgeous views and solitude.

I don’t mind people who live here just for a week or a couple months, without them we wouldn’t have the wonderful restaurants, and many people wouldn’t have jobs as Cape Cod is, after all, a service economy. I guess my main concern is that I hope we don’t remake the mistakes of the past. Overuse, misuse of land. There are some ponds that are toxic to humans and animals here. Our tap water is not safe to drink due to all the pollutants we have put in the water. I now buy spring water where I used to drink filtered water. My cat won’t drink the water, he has a better nose than I do. I plan on writing a few blogs about the water issue. It’s super complicated, but I want to know more. I am sure there are things we can do on a small scale to make a big difference.

People escape cities and even the burbs to live here, but then they try to make it into what they left, widening roads, cutting trees, pouring all manner of poisons into their lawns, overusing water by planting trees and flowers that aren’t naturally grown here, that don’t benefit birds or insects. Even sadder is those developers who want to destroy marshes. The more I learn about marshes, the more I realize that our loss of them is literally killing us – all for more development, more profits and more boring green lawns. The US Fish and Wildlife says: “Alarmingly, 22 states have lost 50 percent or more of their original wetland areas. California leads the nation, with an estimated 91 percent wetlands loss since the 1780s, while Florida has lost the most wetland acres of any slate-approximately 9.3 million acres-or 46 percent of its 1780s total.” Forget plant and animal diversity, you might not give two hoots about that – but think about all of the billions of dollars we will ultimately lose because we don’t have marshes to filter pollutants and improve water quality, absorb excess nutrients that lower oxygen levels in the sea or absorb heavy rainfall and reduce the magnitude of flooding from storms. Maybe all the destruction of marshes, mostly made into urban sprawl and farmland have something to do with the horrible wildfires, I don’t know but it dawned on me when I saw how badly we’ve destroyed them in California. Cape Cod is a wild, rank place, let’s try keep it that way if at all possible. I am going to try my best to show how one can live sustainably on Cape Cod with this blog.