What makes community | Guest column

By Rhea Miller

“We came to the island for its beauty, but we stayed because of the community.” This is a rare statement in our world today, but it is one we often hear on the island. When I first moved here, there were unpaved streets in the Village and places could be rented for $50 a month. Five acres could be bought for $80,000 or less. There was little problem finding housing for teachers or county employees or clerks in the stores. When we went to the village with dirt on our pants or under our fingernails, it only meant we were “can do” people. Most of my peers could make money in four different fields, from construction, farming, tool-making to small engine repair. Many of us built our own homes and enjoyed our high maintenance lifestyles. It all worked because we cared for and helped out our neighbors. We did many things that were considered impossible by mainlanders.

Imagine today when I hear the people, with the same desires as I had 30 years ago, being told they don’t deserve to live here because they can’t afford the high cost of housing. In 1989 the cost of housing went up 196 percent in one year alone because the land was sold sight unseen on the internet for the first time, after the Wall Street Journal said we were a great place to live. In the first quarter of 2017, the median cost of a home in the country was reported as $453,100. A household income of $52,000 a year, approximately full-time at $25 an hour, can afford a mortgage of roughly $220,000. For those who are the next generation of “can do” people, they can no longer afford even a plot of land to build on.

Prospective teachers, county employees, seasonal employees, store clerks, farmers — many who also serve as our EMTs, firefighters, volunteers for the dump, school plays, Chamber of Commerce, library and more — could not afford to start over in the islands. These are the people who bring food to our potlucks, who play our live music and dance at our contra dances and produce our theatre. They have the children that bring joy and laughter to our events, who raise their first pigs, who pester us with their questions and challenge us to enter the future.

We depend on people rooted in this community who care. We depend on people who get up in the middle of the night to save a life or a home from fire or to help birth a baby or cook a meal for someone struggling with health issues. We are a community that understands gratitude from whatever station of life we find ourselves in.

What makes community? What do you hold dear? What makes you feel safe? There is no “us” and “them” in “community.” At just what stage in life or income does a person cease to care about all of us, and why? Abraham Lincoln said that you can’t hate someone whose story you know. Seek out a fellow islander whose story you don’t know, especially if they appear to you as “them,” and watch us nourish an island of “we.”