Nov. 14, 2011
PROVINCETOWN — Just off visitor-heavy Commercial Street, inside the second floor of an unmarked building that tourists never visit and most locals couldn’t find, printmaker and art historian Bill Evaul talked about Provincetown's first economic downturn. It was the late 1800s, and the railroad had arrived, carrying in tourists and taking away fish — fish that had previously traveled only by boat.
“All of a sudden any activity that was going on in Provincetown could be done through rail instead of packet schooners. So all these hundreds of wharfs that we had in Provincetown, they were just abandoned, essentially,” Evaul said.
The upside to the train was the steady arrival of more tourists. The result of the abandoned wharves and their associated buildings was the arrival of the artists.
"The artists love to fill a vacuum, so the minute there's abandoned buildings the artists just move in — anything that's cheap,” Evaul said. “I mean, everybody says the light is great. And that's true. The light is great because of all the surrounding waters and the refraction and the reflection. But the primary reason was economics. It was a cheap, cheap place to live.”
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A storied — and pictured — past
After 40 years in town, Evaul knows Provincetown’s art and artists as well as anyone. He learned much of that oral history here in the Beachcombers clubhouse, a private and somewhat secretive artists’ club whose grayed floorboards have soaked up nearly 100 years of spilled beer and spirits accidentally tipped from the glasses of some of the nation's most prominent artists and writers.
The Beachcombers, and more broadly Provincetown as a long-enduring arts colony, speaks to the artists’ desire for community and the effort to pass along opportunities and knowledge to the next generation of artists.
For more than 100 years, artists have followed their dreams to come live and work here. But during the past two decades, the days of inexpensive rentals and affordable studio space have gone the way of the railroad and the packet schooners, presenting a tremendous shift in town demographics.
“There is no longer any cheap real estate. None,” Evaul said. “Every little garage or fallen-down net shack or whatever has been turned into a condo or fixed up as residence. So the artist that used to come and be able to rent a place for the summer and then get one or two jobs and be able to live all winter, that just doesn't happen anymore.”
A community ages
One of the results of the increase in housing costs is the graying of Provincetown. According to MassINC, during the past 10 years, the percentage of people over age 55 went up by 14 percent, far outpacing the statewide average of 4 percent. During the same time, the number of families with children dropped 13 percent to only a quarter of the households in town. That resulted in the closing of Provincetown High School.
So while young artists continue to come to P’town to study and exhibit, they typically cannot stay. 41-year-old Rob Swainston arrived in town this fall one of 20 fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center, an organization committed to fostering P’town’s artist community. Swainston will live and work at the center for the next seven months, and then return to Brooklyn.
"If I wanted to continue a career in this place, I think I would have to already be — I would have to be more established,” he said. “I would have to have a steady income, obviously not from this place, but [from] a place where there is more arts income, and that would be probably New York, or Boston I guess."
In Swainston’s view, the tragedy of Provincetown’s demographic shift goes beyond the fact that young, struggling artists cannot afford to live here anymore. It’s also the loss of interaction between generations of artists. Just as artists need community, the arts also need a cross-generational dialogue, he said, in order to function and grow.
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