by David Colman, The New York Times
For a new visitor to ride a bicycle down Commercial Street on a summer evening here is to get a one-two punch of beach town tourism and colorful bohemia that can’t be found anywhere else.
Gliding past the small historic houses of the East End, you come upon a pile of wood, furniture and rubble in the yard of George Bryant, a local historian. Farther along, as people start to crowd the narrow street, you pass art galleries, the Womencrafts store and the Freak Street boutique.
Soon you’re pedaling through the town center, an outdoor stage for street performers like Ellie Castillo, a plucky 73-year-old transvestite. You pass the drag queens in front of the Crown & Anchor and the bed-and-breakfasts flying the rainbow flag. Near the tail end of the commercial area is the Boatslip hotel, where the early evening tea dance is letting out, spilling hundreds of gay men into the street.
Friendly, flamboyant, overwhelmingly gay: Provincetown is still all these things and first impressions are not wrong. But stay for a bit and you’ll find a less happy picture. A real estate boom has spread unease, pitting wealthy newcomers and developers against the townies, artists and free spirits who give the enclave its bohemian character and who now fear it is being gentrified out of existence.
Friction between new money and old ways is nothing new in summer retreats. But what makes the battle for Provincetown unusual is that it is largely a class struggle within a gay world. For nearly 30 years, Provincetown has attracted the spectrum of people that the rainbow flag represents: gay and lesbian, old and young, rich and poor. Now, many people here say, with its widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots, a town that prided itself on its inclusiveness is beginning to resemble the rest of the United States.
“It’s a microcosm of a broader shift, of the slow seepage of gay culture into mainstream culture,” said Andrew Sullivan, the gay writer, who bought a small apartment here years ago when real estate was more affordable. “It’s the bourgeoisification of the gay world.”
Mr. Sullivan has seen the wharf where he lives go from a seedy sex-and-drugs party spot to a spiffy condominium peopled almost entirely by straight and gay couples. Marriage has intensified the transformation, he said. With nearly a sixth of all gay weddings performed in Massachusetts taking place here, Provincetown, he said, is reinventing itself as a utopia for upper-middle-class gay couples.
“What we’re seeing is more and more guesthouses and restaurants turning into condos, and the reason is clear: real estate values have increased,” said Gary Reinhardt, chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals. “What that means is that down the line there are less places to stay and less things for transient visitors to do, and so the transient market will gradually go away.”
The average cost of a single-family house surged by 33 percent in the last two years, according to the Warren Group, a real estate records company in Boston. More and more privately owned jets are landing at Provincetown’s small airport.
Bed-and-breakfast inns are vanishing, as they are all over Cape Cod. In Provincetown, B & B’s are being bought by wealthy gay men and lesbians and converted into single-family homes or condos. Many have sat empty for weeks during the prime season, further hurting a soft retail and restaurant market. With property values paramount, privacy fences and hedges are going up.
While many here are envisioning a gay version of Nantucket, Mr. Reinhardt said he was not so sure that the transformation would stop there. “I expect P-town is going to become less gay,” he said.
Change is nothing new to this historic village at the tip of Cape Cod, where the Pilgrims first landed in 1620 before moving on to Plymouth. Squeezed into slightly more than eight square miles, Provincetown has been a fishing village, an art colony and, since the late 60’s, a largely gay resort. The town still draws many well-known artistic types, including the director John Waters, the playwright Tony Kushner, the humorist Kate Clinton and the novelist Michael Cunningham.
But most bought homes here years ago, when prices were more reasonable. Some could afford a place, but say they are demoralized by what is available and so content themselves with renting.
“I would love to buy property here,” said Mr. Waters, who has summered in Provincetown for 41 years. “I have seen the most pitifully condo-ed places, just jerry-rigged, for a price that just makes you laugh. I wouldn’t want them for a third of the price.”
Almost no one disputes that the town is changing. The question is what, if anything, to do about it. “This is a conversation we’ve been having, how to keep P-town P-town,” said Cheryl Andrews, the chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen. “We’re in transition.”
Town government, she said, has been famously hands-off when it comes to commercial activity and will probably remain so, even with hotel-to-condo conversions hurting the tourist trade. Besides, she said, “Some people are looking at the change and saying, ‘This isn’t so bad.’ ”
“Some of these older folks don’t want to bump elbow to elbow with a gazillion people all summer,” Ms. Andrews said.
David Martin, a commodities trader who bought a house here eight years ago and now pilots his own plane back and forth from New York, says complaints about gentrification are often just sour grapes.
“The population of Provincetown is aging, like it or not,” he said. “It’s about complaining about the situation versus accepting what’s inevitable.” Mr. Martin owns a liquor store in town and says he has noticed that customers are buying more expensive liquors and wines. “It’s an age-old real-estate cycle that’s common everywhere,” he said. “Woodstock is totally upscale now and it used to be hippieville.”
The simmering tensions in Provincetown boiled over in July, when a local newspaper, The Banner, published a letter by Brian Farley, a mortgage broker, criticizing Mr. Bryant’s cluttered East End yard and referring to Mr. Bryant as “undeserving of homeownership.” Mr. Farley said that the town’s newly vested homeowners deserved better, adding, “The pride of Provincetown is reflected in their real estate.”
Mr. Bryant has refused to remove the rubble and says he feels persecuted by those telling him what to do with his property.
Tia Scalcione, a 32-year-old painter and printmaker who has lived here year-round for four years and who works four jobs to make ends meet, said a real estate agent woke her the other day insisting that she move her surfboard and wet suit from outside her apartment. The condo next door was being shown to buyers, she said, and the agent considered her equipment an eyesore.
“It’s becoming less appealing to me,” Ms. Scalcione said of Provincetown. “My friends that used to come say, ‘I can go to Europe for a week with what I spend in P-town.’ So the people that come have more money, and they’re less interesting. They’re not the artists and misfits that have made this place what it is.”
Complaints about Miss Ellie and other street performers are forcing the town government to consider restricting their activities. Meanwhile, many of the drag queens are no longer merry wags dressed up for fun; the ones here now are professional, with shows to promote and bills to pay. Chasers, the town’s last totally lesbian bar, is closing this summer. A large East End hotel, the Best Western Tides, has been sold to developers who plan to subdivide the property into large lots for big houses. A family-owned campground is also up for sale, raising the prospect of another housing development.
And most symbolically, the Boatslip may be gone by next summer. Built in 1969, the 45-room hotel is not only the town’s largest employer during the summer but a social hub for gay men, offering a lively daytime pool scene along with its crowded tea dance. In July, the hotel accepted a $14 million offer from a group of developers. High-price condominiums are expected to go up on the site.
But the sale has been challenged in court by hotel’s managing director, Richard Ferrell, a 40 percent owner, who says he reached a verbal agreement to buy out the other owners before the higher offer was made. He says he would preserve the hotel. He has allies: a Provincetown couple, Roland St. Jean and Orlando Del Valle, have been gathering signatures for a petition to prevent the sale.
The Boatslip deal has only intensified anxiety about the rising real estate market. Buildable land is scarce; beachfront property, in extremely limited supply, is priced as high as $1,500 a square foot, outstripping prices in the Hamptons and even Nantucket. Many people say that the market took a decisive turn last summer when Robert Duffy, the president of Marc Jacobs, paid $4.3 million for a modest waterfront house on less than an acre. The house was promptly demolished and a new one is going up.
High prices are even more pronounced at the lower end of the market. The toeholds that most buyers want are hard to come by. Small condos regularly go for $300,000 to $400,000.
The red-hot market and the social changes it has wrought is meeting with everything from anger to dry wit. “Provincetown Welcomes Millionaires” was the theme of a Fourth of July costume party given by John Dowd, a landscape painter. Earlier this summer during Family Week, Ryan Landry, a popular performer and nightlife impresario, sang a tartly rewritten version of the B-52’s song “Private Idaho,” retitling it “Private Provincetown.”
But Mr. Waters, who has himself gone from underground filmmaker to household name, said the changes here have happened all over America. “We live in a much less bohemian time,” Mr. Waters said. “Outsider is such a tired word. There’s no great youth movement happening; there are no hippies today, no punk rockers. The world has changed. Some gay people are straighter than my parents.”
Still, he said, he finds it encouraging that the unapologetically flamboyant Provincetown is not giving up easily. The fact that Miss Ellie is still belting out “My Way” in front of Town Hall is enough, he said. “To me,” Mr. Waters said, “it’s still the P-town I like. You still see families come here to have their pictures taken with drag queens and to stare at gay people. I find that hilarious.”
Others are more wistful. Patrick Lamerson, a high school teacher in Boston who has been coming to Provincetown for nearly 10 years, said that the rift in town was less between rich and poor than “between gays who need community and gays who don’t.” And those who don’t, he said, will probably prevail in the end and the Provincetown that he has known will go the way of other bohemian bastions that had their moment and then faded.
In any event, he said, gay Provincetown has had a good, long run. “It should be documented and mourned and remembered,” he said, “and then people can move on.”