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Why Diversity?

February 3, 2019

Poet William Cowper wrote in 1785 “Variety is the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.”

           

 

In my adult lifetime, I have defended the value of diversity in many settings, and I read a strong preference for diversity into our principles and purposes.  To make the point, I chose a photo for the order fo service cover of a bunch of men in suits who look so much alike they could be clones. Would you want to live in a town where the population looked like that?

            This has all come to the fore of our thinking in Chatham because of one letter, printed in the Cape Cod Chronicle in early December, which touched a raw nerve.

The letter was from a woman named Beverly Nelson, who has a year-round home in Natick and a seasonal home in Chatham. Ms. Nelson was complaining about two things, one specific and one general. 

            The specific one was a proposal being considered by two town committees, the economic development committee and the Chatham 365 Task force. Both of these committees have been charged by the Board of Selectmen with coming up with ideas to make it easier for young families to live in Chatham.  Recognizing that one of the economic burdens of child-rearing in these days is the costs of daycare, the committees are considering a proposal for the town to pay a subsidy of $6,000 per child in certain age groups to offset the costs of pre-K education or child care.  What Ms. Nelson objected to was the feature that these subsidies were to be given regardless of need – to the families of the doctors lawyers and Goldman Sachs executives as well as of the landscapers, short-order cooks or home health aids.

            The second target of Ms. Nelson’s attack was the larger rationale for the child-care subsidy and similar measures; she took issue with the whole idea that towns like Chatham ought to be worried about attracting younger adults who couldn’t afford to live here.  She said in the Boston area, people lived where they could afford to live, and if this placed them some distance from their employment, they simply commuted. She said “I would love to live during the winter in Wellesley but I can only afford housing in Natick.”

            Ms. Nelson’s letter elicited a virtual tsunami of response – over a thousand letters came in to the Chronicle. Our own part time communications coordinator Karen Murdoch, a year-round resident who is a fisherman’s wife with a daughter in grade school, wrote an acerbic and rhyming response defending the rights of young families to be here.  An accordion-playing friend of mine named Tom Leidenfrost, who has appeared on our Summer Concert series and who grew up on the Cape, wrote a song called “dear Beverly Nelson,” made a video and posted it on You Tube.  At last count, it had 15,000 hits.        

            At bottom, the policies that Ms. Nelson attacks are an attempt by enlightened political leadership in Chatham as in surrounding towns, to do what we can to correct the demographic skewing of these towns.  The towns are retirement and vacation meccas.  People of means buy the housing stock for seasonal rental or for their own year-round retirement haven.  This is not bad in itself, but it bids up the value of real estate and  squeezes out the young, including those who have grown up here.  School enrollment declines, and taxpayer support for public education is threatened, though thankfully in the case of Chatham and Harwich, it seems to have held firm so far.

            The lack of children in our schools stems from the lack of 30 and 40-somethings in our towns. We also have other ways our demographics are skewed, compared to a national average or even a state one.  We have fewer people of color; fewer foreign-born; fewer renters.  We are whiter, older, more affluent, better-educated than state or national norms.

            Beverly Nelson might agree with all this, but she would say, why is it a problem?  Just let people live where they can afford to live.  Let the market sort it out, like it does in greater Boston.

            Well, of course, Cape Cod is not greater Boston.  We have very limiting geography.   Let’s say you have achieved a job in Chatham, but the pay is well below the median income of $48,700.  Are you going to be able to find rental housing on a monthly income of less than $4000?  Remember that the economists say you should only spend 1/4 of your income on housing.  What can you get for $1000 per month in Chatham?  If not in Chatham, how far would you have to drive?  Would you be able to find anything this side of the Sagamore Bridge?

            I have only my personal experience, but when Jacqueline and I had to vacate our Chatham rental in 2016, the first thing that impressed me was how very very little was available for year-round rental this side of Hyannis at any price.  And the places which were available were not very inspiring.  We were lucky and had a personal contact which proved invaluable, and I feel that we beat a lot of odds to get a house which is only one town away from where I work.

            Beverly Nelson might agree with all of this, but she might say, let the people who work in Chatham commute from Plymouth if need be.  Of course, the problem with that on a practical level is that you need certain jobs filled – police, fire, teachers etc. And if the housing available is too remote from the job site, people aren’t going to take the jobs.  So at a practical level, it is in the town’s self-interest to see that there is affordable housing nearby.

            But there is a larger dimension to this, and it is that which I want to talk about today.  Making the town more economically accessible to those who want to live here increases diversity, and diversity is a value in itself.

            Now I admit to having a prejudice in favor of diversity even before we advance any specific benefits of it.  I agree with William Cowper that variety is the spice of life, and I like spice in my life.  Dorothy Parker once said in a theater review that the lead actor’s performance ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.  I have often borrowed this for Cape Cod; I say that the restaurants on Cape Cod run the gamut from A to B.  If you suddenly decide that you have a hankering to eat Ethiopian cuisine tonight, you’d better plan to drive to Boston or Providence.  We don’t have much ethnic diversity among the population here and it is reflected in the culinary choices.

            And yet, and yet, there is hope even there for the foodies; we have a pan-Asian hole-in-the- wall here in Chatham run by a Nepalese which has survived three years now and a Caribbean place just opened up on Crowell Rd.  Like the rest of the country, we are experiencing a gentle influx of foreign-born people and some are bringing their delicious food with them.

            But many of us might not care for food from distant places.  Many of us are quite happy with our Caesar salads or mac and cheese or hamburgers.  What are you eating for the Super Bowl tonight?  It probably will not be Peking Duck.

            There is a cost to diversity.  To meet someone who is very different from you extracts a certain something.  Last week, we had Tony Ntumba talk about his experiences as a photojournalist in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  His accent was strong and you had to concentrate to understand what he was saying. 

            And once you understood what he was saying, you might have been horrified.  He was talking about children age 12 being given a gun and made to act as soldiers.  He had a photo of a woman about to give birth strapped to a wheeled trailer towed behind a motorcycle – they would have to bring her 100 miles over dirt roads in that condition in order for her to give birth.

            Tony provided a window into a world which was very different from Cape Cod, and the experience was very unsettling for me and I expect for a lot of you. 

            This is fruit of diversity.  Diversity is when the Other says look at me, I exist, here I am, so different from you.  And yet there is a common humanity, if we choose to explore it.

            What benefits does diversity bring?  If the town leaders simply quit trying to make Chatham welcoming and affordable to a wider variety of people, what bad things would happen?  I think there would be a fall-off in energy.  Chatham runs, and runs well, on volunteer energy.  The Fourth of July Parade, First Night, the Main Street Stroll, the cultural offerings, the Town Band, the Turkey Trot – all are largely volunteer efforts.

             These volunteer opportunities are not restricted by age, and they have a good mix of ages putting them on.  But having younger people are vital to their success.

            We have seen in the Meeting House the consequences of a fall-off in energy.  Simply put, things don’t get done.  What applies here applies in the larger town context as well.

            The easiest thing socially is to associate with people who are like us. Yet when we can reach across differences of age or ethnicity or sexual orientation or income or education level, we often find that having a relationship with someone who is not “like us“ is rewarding.

            There is a program I like to listen to on public radio called “Hidden Brain” hosted by a man named Shankar Vendantam.  Last week he had a program on the benefits of diversity.  In this case, he was talking mostly about ethnic diversity.

            He talked about a research project conducted by a couple of Harvard professors examining what happened when scientists collaborate with other scientists of their same ethnicity on published papers versus scientists who co-authored with people of different ethnicity. They looked at 2.5 million published papers.[1] 

            What they found was that there was, even among scientists, a tendency to collaborate with scientists of the same ethnic background in producing papers, so that most of the papers published had coauthors who were of the same background.  However, the papers which had authors of different ethnic background, while fewer in number, had more impact as measured by the number of times the paper was cited in other papers after its publication.  What this suggests is that reaching out across lines of ethnicity stimulates creativity.

            Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that ethnic diversity does stimulate creativity.  Does this have any relevance to Chatham Town policy?  Should the town leadership, in deciding matters of education or finance or zoning, take into consideration what effect their decision will have on the creativity of the town residents?  Do we want to live in a creative town?

            My own answer would be yes, and I think the people I’ve known who served on the Board of Selectmen (often a thankless task) would also say yes, though as good stewards of out tax money, they’d want to know how much any specific creativity proposal will cost the taxpayers.

            So we have looked at some of the practical benefits of diversity, and now we have given a brief nod to a psychological or aesthetic benefit.  But you probably feel we’ve missed the boat, because the primary reason to seek diversity is moral.

            We have all drunk deeply of Lincoln’s formulation that the United States was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.  We have never been equal in fact, and some of our ancestors treated the ancestors of others of us as property.  We have never been equal in fact, and some of our ancestors ran the ancestors of the original inhabitants of these shores off of their homelands.

            As a nation, we have never made good on the promise of equality in fact, nor even on the promise of equality of opportunity.  But we know what direction the arrow of justice points in.  When we find ourselves in an enclave where all the people are of one color or one age or one sex or one sexual orientation, we just feel in our bones that is not the way it should be.  It should look more like everybody.

            “I would never belong to a club which would have me as a member,” said Groucho Marx, and the laughter that line elicited masked the pain of the fact that many country clubs and other organizations of his era were closed to him despite his fame and fortune and beloved status, because he was Jewish. And we can see how unjust that is.  I have heard that when Justice Louis Brandeis bought his house in Chatham in the 1920s there was an issue as to how friendly and welcoming the town was to Jews, but I hope there is no class of people today who would feel unwelcome.  There is a big difference between a town and a private club.

            But the laissez-faire policy which Beverly Nelson promoted – let people live where they can afford to live – ultimately can end up with a town which is economically unwelcoming.

            As to the $6000 child care subsidy, Ms. Nelson didn’t seem to mind that in principle, but she objected that it was not restricted to needy families.  I don’t know what the thinking was on these committees, but I suspect they thought that if you gave the subsidy to some but not other families, it would quickly get around who the needy families were in town.  Rather than stigmatize a family or a child, give the subsidy to everyone who qualifies by age.

            This sends a strong welcoming message to the family.  It says Chatham wants to help you to stay in our town.

            One of the reactions to Beverly Nelson’s letter came from a group called Cape Cod Young Processionals.  In regard to this “need” issue, they said

All of this points to a shift in how we define “need.” The author of the letter notes that hard-earned tax dollars should not be used to subsidize those without true financial need. But traditional measures of need have not adjusted to keep up with the reality of what it means to be a working-age adult today. Much has been written by urban planning and land use experts on the concept of the “missing middle” – those who do not qualify for need-based housing assistance but struggle just the same due to stagnating wages and other socioeconomic factors.[2]

            I want to mention one other specific proposal which will come before the voters in Town Meeting in Chatham and the same issue will come up in Dennis: it is called Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADU. You already have the right under zoning laws to have a second dwelling unit on a single-family lot if it is rented to a blood relative.  These are senior apartments or in-law apartments.  What ADU will do is basically to remove the requirement that it be rented to a blood relative.  It will authorize a dwelling unit, defined as bedroom, bath and kitchen, within the walls of an existing home “as of right.”  If you want to build a new unit which will stand alone, that is in a separate category which is not “as of right” but subject to the approval of zoning officials.  The stand-alone unit can’t be built if there is already a guest house on the property. The proposed legislation only allows ten units in each category to be approved per year, so it will not have a huge impact on Chatham. 

            It’s hard to say whether this ADU will have any impact at all on age diversity in Chatham.  It may make it easier for a young family to get a rental toe hold in the community.  It turns out that two people I know are on opposite sides of the ADU issue, and that suggests that we might have the making of a forum to explore it further and help voters make up their minds before town meeting. 

            What do we take away from all this? I don’t think the value of diversity requires that we try to make Chatham or any other town into an exact demographic microcosm of the state or nation.  If variety is the spice of life, each locality ought to have something distinctive about it. But the same factors which make this area attractive to retirees – our natural beauty, beaches, pristine waterways, relaxed attitudes – make it also an attractive place to raise children. 

            To encourage diversity is not to say that retirees and seasonal homeowners are doing anything bad by buying up property here.  It’s just that the market they create keeps out other people who would want to live here. 

            We’re out of time, and we have only scratched the surface here.  I need to confess my own ignorance compared to people who have spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I invite those of you who want to learn more and do more to see if we can gather some good ideas and put on a public discussion.

Amen.

 

Reading for Why Diversity?

 

Cape Cod Chronicle 26 September 2018 “Task Force To Focus On Retaining Young Families”

By: Alan Pollock

 

CHATHAM — Saying the time for rhetoric has passed, the board of selectmen this week resolved to find concrete steps to help attract and retain young families in town. They voted to create a task force to investigate the town’s demographic and economic imbalances, ultimately leading to actions designed to ease the burdens on young working families.

Census data confirms what most people already know: the population of Chatham is aging, with one of the highest median ages in the state and dwindling numbers of teenagers. With 25 births recorded last year compared to 175 deaths, “that’s kind of a clarion call that things are out of balance,” resident Michael Westgate told the board Monday. Considering the income reported by Chatham residents, 51 percent comes from trust funds, investments and other non-wage sources, compared to a state average of 22 percent.

 

Only 44 percent of Chatham homes are used for year-round housing, compared to 58 percent in Harwich and 59 percent in Orleans. Westgate said that three family homes in his immediate neighborhood were recently purchased and replaced by large seasonal homes, with many of the properties in town occupied a few weeks out of the year.

 

“This problem’s getting worse, not better,” he said.

 

Resident Lindsay Bierwirth, who has two elementary school-age children, said it is difficult for her peers to attend public meetings that happen on weekday evenings and so they are often not part of the discussion. She said that the town has been particularly helpful to her and her husband as they worked to establish a new business in town, but said the school system plays an important role in helping young families, too.

 

“If you want to retain and bring younger families in this town, we need to have our own elementary school,” Bierwirth said. She criticized the Monomoy Regional School System for considering a plan to send some Chatham students to Harwich, and send some Harwich kids to Chatham, in a bid to better equalize the elementary school populations.

 

“You look at the churches, and they’re empty, these days, of young families,” she said.

...

“We have a seasonal economy and we have an aging economy,” said Selectman Peter Cocolis. The town’s economy is driven by vacationers and summer residents, he noted. “Are we going to point the finger at them?” The town has invested heavily – both in public funds and in committees – in preserving history, culture, water quality, buildings and aesthetics. “How many boards and committees or things are looking at the people who are part of it?” he asked.

 

...

 

A task force and strategic planning session is a good start, Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said, “but I also think that there needs to be in the inclusion of the private sector.” Job creation is important and more housing needs to be available for workers. Affordable housing is a challenge because supply outstrips demand when it comes to property in Chatham, he said. Land, he said, “gets dearer every day,” and it will take an investment in jobs and affordable housing to change that.

 

“So does the town want to make those investments?” Dykens asked. “Does the town have the stomach to actually spend their money? That’s what we have to actually test,” he said.

...

 

The town appointed an economic development committee several years ago, charging it in part with finding ways to attract and retain young families.

 

...

The economic development committee also acknowledged the high cost of housing and recommended steps to offset the other high expenses faced by young families, including child care. The committee formally recommended that the town look at ways of subsidizing child care.

...

On a motion by Dykens, the board voted unanimously to direct Town Manager Jill Goldsmith and selectmen Davis and Cocolis to recommend the size and composition of a new task force, possibly leading to a strategic planning session and a plan that recommends concrete actions. The board will review the task force proposal at its Oct. 22 meeting.

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

[1]Richard B. Freeman and Wei Huang, "Collaborating with People Like Me: Ethnic Coauthorship within the United States," Journal of Labor Economics 33, no. S1 (Part 2, July 2015): S289-S318.

 

[2]Website of Cape Cod Young Professionals (CCYP)

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