It's a common question, so don't be embarrassed about asking it. You might be on Martha's Vineyard, or traveling through a pastoral Vermont valley, or exploring an island off the Maine coast. You'll see houses and people. And you'll wonder: "What do these people do to earn a living?"
As recently as a few decades ago, the answer was probably living off the land. They might have fished, harvested timber, or managed a gravel pit. Of course, many still do operate such businesses, but this work is no longer the economic mainstay it once was. Today, scratch a rural New Englander and you're just as likely to find an editor for a magazine that's published in Boston or New York, a farmer who grows specialized produce for gourmet restaurants, or a banking consultant who handles business by fax and e-mail. And you'll find lots of folks whose livelihood is dependent on tourism.
This change in the economy is but one of the tectonic shifts facing the region. The most visible and wracking change involves development and growth. For a region long familiar with economic poverty, a spell of recent prosperity and escalating property values has threatened to bring to New England that curious homogenization already marking much of the rest of the nation. Once a region of distinctive villages, green commons, and courthouse squares, New England's landscape in certain places is beginning to resemble suburbs everywhere else -- a pastiche of strip malls dotted with fast-food chains, big-box discount and home-improvement stores, and the like.
This change pains longtime residents. New England towns have long maintained their identities in the face of considerable pressure. The region has always taken pride in its low-key, practical approach to life. In smaller communities, town meetings are still the preferred form of government. Residents gather in a public space to speak out about -- sometimes rather forcefully -- and vote on the issues of the day, such as funding for their schools, road improvements, fire trucks, or even symbolic gestures such as declaring their towns nuclear-free. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" is a well-worn phrase that aptly sums up the attitude of many longtime New Englanders -- and it's the polar opposite of the designer-outlet ethos filtering in.
It's still unclear how town meetings and that sense of knowing where your town starts and the next one begins will survive the slow but inexorable encroachment of Wal-Marts and Banana Republics. Of course, suburban Connecticut communities in the orbit of New York City and Boston have long since capitulated to sprawl, as have pockets elsewhere in the region -- including mall-heavy areas outside Hartford, Connecticut; Portland, Maine; and Burlington, Vermont, not to mention Maine's Route 1 or the outlets along interstate highways in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
But the rest of New England is still figuring out how best to balance the principles of growth and conservation -- how to allow the economy to edge into the modern age without sacrificing those qualities that make New England such a distinctive place.
Development is a hot but not necessarily inflammatory issue -- this isn't like the property-rights movement in the West (at least, not yet). Few seem to think that development should be allowed at all costs. And few seem to think that the land should be preserved at all costs.
Pinching off all development means the offspring of longtime New England families will have no jobs, and New England will be fated to spend its days as a sort of quaint theme park. But if development continues unabated, many of the characteristics that make New England unique -- and attract tourist dollars -- will vanish. Will the Berkshires or the Maine coast be able to sustain tourism industries if they're blanketed with strip malls and fast-food joints, making them look like every other place in the nation? Not likely. The question is how to respect the conservation ethic while leaving room for growth. And that question won't be resolved in the near future.
Except for a several-year slump in the early 1990s, New England has been enjoying a generally rosy period of economic growth since the mid-1980s; even when the economy has dipped back downward, as it has done of late, property values continue to rise as city folks increasingly seek a piece of what makes rural New England special. Commentators point out that this change, while welcome after decades of slow growth, will bring new conflicts. The rise of the information culture will make it increasingly likely that telecommuters and info-entrepreneurs will settle in New England's most remote and pristine villages, running their businesses via modem or satellite. How will these affluent newcomers adapt to clear-cutting in the countryside or increasing numbers of tour buses cruising their village greens?
Change doesn't come rapidly to New England. But there's a lot to sort out, and friction will certainly continue to build, one strip mall at a time.
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