Whitcomb: Summer in Rear-View Mirror; Newport North End; Real Estate Trap

Sunday, September 20, 2020


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.’’


-- From “Lines Written in the Days of Coming Darkness,’’ by Mary Oliver (1935-2019). She lived in Provincetown for most of her adult life.



 “The purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present.”

-- Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.), Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar and orator


(I thank Dennis Duffy for reminding me of this quote, which I vaguely remember from Latin class. It’s germane in discussions on whether to do such things as taking down statues and paintings because some complain that they’re insensitive in the current social and political climate.)


“I hope I am wrong about the future. That’s one excuse for my throwing in the towel now, in the midst of one of the great news stories of our time. I am a man of the 20th Century, but we are now facing the problems of the 21st Century, which demand new policies and norms. Goodbye and good luck — you’ll need as much help as you can get.’’

-- Robert Samuelson (born Dec. 23, 1945), longtime (and conservative-leaning) economics columnist of The Washington Post and book author in a pessimistic-about-America column last week announcing his retirement. He also wrote for Newsweek and National Journal.



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PHOTO: Karen Wargo

As we slip into the mellow season (except for politics), and we start to crunch dry brown fallen leaves on the sidewalks, I’ve been thinking about how we lived during this pandemic summer.


Yes, it was sometimes claustrophobic and included far too many repetitive activities (recalling the movie Ground Hog Day) but the warm weather made it easier to spend a lot of time outside, when it wasn’t too warm. It was also easier because there’s been little rain, which is mostly bad: We’re in a severe enough drought that woodland fire warnings were posted last week for southern New England. (You start to unduly worry about global warming and something like the West Coast fire catastrophe happening here. The lawns have looked as if desertification is getting started.)


Thank God that the pandemic didn’t start last November, at the start of our mostly indoors season.


Many of us fortunate enough to have a porch or backyard have found seeing friends there very pleasant, and safe enough to please most worrywarts about COVID-19. That’s not to say that social distancing and marks don’t make it harder to understand each other.  I wonder if hearing-aid sales have surged since last winter.  I hear a lot of shouting, including my own.


Meanwhile, we walk, walk, walk and wear out our dogs.


As for dining out at restaurants, we’ve done it inside and out. I prefer inside to avoid the street noise, car fumes, yellow jackets, jackhammers, leaf blowers, sidewalk lunatics and other distractions. Ignore the theatrics of “deep cleaning.’’ The chances of getting COVID from touching something are remote. It’s an air problem! Does the restaurant has a good HVAC system? Can all its windows be opened wide? Of course, some people won’t go to any public places. How long will they keep that up? I confess I’m not much of a COVID alarmist and do have claustrophobe tendencies. But often when I suggest meeting people at a restaurant or coffee shop the response is an anxious “no, not yet.’’


It’s been tougher than we had expected early this summer to travel even within New England because of testing rules, with frequent delays in getting results, and the 14-day quarantine orders. Maine is particularly draconian – very heavy fines. Still, after adjusting to that challenge, consider that there’s lots to see in our compact region, a relief for those for whom the pandemic makes traveling further afield impossible. Consider that maps show that Americans aren’t welcome in most of the world now, including – how embarrassing! – Canada. Close to home, the likes of the Maine Coast and the Green Mountains are well worth the aggravation of a test. However, that COVID has closed many roadside attractions (my favorite are old-fashioned diners for breakfasts) is dispiriting.


This is an anxious time in America: A vicious pandemic that has killed almost 200,000 and clipped everyone else’s wings, a deep recession, a mobster/treasonous president and his sycophant enablers, the expansion of dictatorship around the world and scary symptoms of man-made global warming, of which the West Coast fires and the population explosion of tropical storms are just current examples.


(Speaking of Trump’s enablers, read about Michael Caputo, the Looter in Chief’s propaganda minister and re-election-campaign manager at the Department of Health and Human Services:



He’s a fitting representative of the Trump regime.)


Whatever, it’s a beautiful time of the year hereabouts – mild, still verdant (where watered) and increasingly colorful until that first heavy frost silences the cicadas and crickets for good. Let’s wander outdoors as much as we can.  In the long run we’re all dead.


The late Hartford-based poet and insurance executive Wallace Stevens wrote: “The most beautiful thing in the world is, of course, the world itself.’’



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Newport - a mix of sailors, super rich, artists and so on.

Expand the Charm in Newport

Newport is a fascinating little city, with its dramatic coastline, history, architecture and thick demographic/ethnic stew. And now there’s an interesting battle underway over how to redevelop its North End, a neighborhood with lots of low-income poor people and rather ugly cityscape. Visually, it sometimes seems that there’s “no real there there,’’ as Gertrude Stein said famously about Oakland, Calif.


I just hope that the final plan doesn’t result in making it look like a suburban-style shopping center/ office park with much of the space taken up by windswept parking lots. To show that it’s part of a city much of which is famous for its beauty, it should look like part of a city,  with the density of one, and with green parks as well as a mix of new housing – resident-owned and rental -- stores and restaurants (with space for outdoor service) whose design speaks to the most attractive aesthetic traditions of the area. Newport is well known for its extremes of wealth and poverty. Thoughtful redevelopment of the North End can at least attempt to provide the unrich there with the opportunity to live in a neighborhood with the sort of built beauty than improves their socio-economic, as well as psychological, health, including by drawing in some of the visitors, and their wallets, who previously only went to the famous historic areas in the southern part of the city.



I spent a day and night on Block Island last week: Gray skies, gray water, gray buildings and lots of red pants.



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East Side prices continue to skyrocket

Buy High Now, Sell Low Soon?

It’s lately been a house seller’s market in many places, mostly suburbs of big cities to which some panicky city dwellers have fled to (they think) to avoid COVID-19 and troubles associated with it, such as closed restaurants and other urban attractions. They’ve been encouraged by how the Internet has made it easier for many jobs to be done at home. But for these refugees, this can be a classic “buy high, sell low’’ mistake of the sort that happens with panicky, ill-informed customers in the stock market


Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist at the New School for Social Research, observed:

“You don’t know whether bosses will make work-from-home permanent or who will be targeted for downsizing. You may come to rue buying at a time when inventory is so low and prices so high.’’ So, a lot of people may have dangerously over-extended themselves.


(What does working at home do for one big company’s productivity? Here’s one example:


I’d add that the aging of the population will tend to decrease demand for buying housing, as old folks move into rental apartments, retirement communities and assisted living. Also, more and more young adults are delaying having children, or deciding not to have any at all, in part because health-care and education costs continue to rise at much higher rates than general inflation, and increases in income are more and more concentrated in a tiny sliver of already very rich people. All that, too,  tends to reduce the universe of potential house buyers.


And I think that the idea that most of us want to spend most of our working lives staring at screens is malarkey. Just ask those little kids who have been forced to do school online for months. They hate it! I think that when the current nightmare ends, there will be a huge revival in in-person everything.


To read Professor Ghilarducci’s piece, please hit this link:



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Record fires on the West Coast

Building Houses in Fire Zones

Speaking of suburbs, and exurbs, the latest West Coast fires show yet again how dangerous sprawl development can be in heavily wooded areas, especially as the climate heats up. Eventually, some of this development will need to be pulled back toward cities, and NIMBY laws that have discouraged multi-family and vertical development changed so that there are fewer single-family houses being built amidst trees, especially among highly flammable evergreens.


The sprawl also increases global warming by forcing more driving.


Climate experts predict that among the most attractive places in the U.S. for Americans to live as global warming accelerates will become the Upper Midwest, Upstate New York, and New England, except for right along the coast, where rising seas will threaten parts of many communities, e.g., Warren, R.I. In a decade or two we may be seeing a major migration north from QAnon Country.


For a review of forest-management issues in Western states, including who actually owns forest land, and therefore is responsible for minimizing fire threats there, please hit this link:



Our People and Places

Some of it is outdated – it was published in 2013 -- but there are lots of surprising facts, idiosyncratic and highly creative people, charm, memorable photos and history in New England Notebook: One Reporter, Six States, Uncommon Stories, by Ted Reinstein. It makes you want to hit the road for a day, a weekend or a vacation to check out the places that Mr. Reinstein affectionately visits.

Robert Whitcomb's weekly examination of everything that is important. Only Whitcomb offers such a collection of insights on the global and local issues that matter.


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