Balancing Trade-Offs of Living on Island

By IAN FEIN

Jennifer Christy cannot think of a better place to raise her three young children than Chilmark, the same small town where she spent most of her childhood.

She appreciates the quality of life and supportive community, which offers a combination of safety, the outdoors, and plenty of activities for children. She said it is a wonderful place to build a family, despite the high cost of living.

"It is difficult to make a go of it here, because things are so expensive," Mrs. Christy said in a recent interview, sitting in front of a row of books at the Aquinnah Public Library, where she works as the director. "But it's hard to complain about the costs when you choose to live here. This place is so beautiful and accommodating for what we want."

The town and Island are under increasing pressure, however, and Mrs. Christy is uncertain how those changes will play out in the coming decades. She is concerned about the lack of affordable housing options for the younger generations, but recognizes that further development will likely encroach on the environment, which is also an important aspect of her life on the Island.

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"I'm looking to the future for my kids, and I am a little worried," said Mrs. Christy, who turned 38 last month. "Realistically, I can see it might not happen that they live here. And I think a lot of parents feel that; it's something that crosses our minds. I wonder whether my kids will see the same worth in sacrificing."

Preserving that worth is a primary concern for the Martha's Vineyard Commission as it forges ahead with its Island Plan, an ambitious effort to draft a blueprint for the future of the Vineyard. Work groups of Island residents are now framing goals on four major issues identified in the plan, and a steering committee will then work to find an appropriate balance between the sometimes competing interests,

Mrs. Christy has been following the early stages of the planning endeavor, and finds the effort intriguing.

"These are some very difficult problems that are being posited. Each thing has good and bad on both sides, and when you change one, you affect the others," she said. "Obviously if we work on this, then there will be more of a reason to stay. But if we don't get it right, then the balance could tip," Mrs. Christy added.

"We all want to follow the right path. But it's very foggy."

Along with her mother and twin sister, Mrs. Christy moved to the Vineyard from Manhattan at the age of seven. She remembers that first snowy winter at the Chilmark School as a culture shock, but said she loved it right away.

Now, 30 years later, she is living on the same property, renting a guest house from her mother and stepfather. She and her husband, Todd, have a five-year-old son and a pair of their own twin daughters, who are two. Their son is in his second year at the Chilmark preschool, and - like his mother before him - he loves it.

Much about the simple and quiet town has changed in those three decades, however. As young girls, Mrs. Christy and her sister would walk down State Road to school. But now, as a protective mother, she has trouble imagining her daughters doing the same.

"I wouldn't let my kids do that - ever," she said with a self-conscious smile. "There's just too much traffic."

Though some aspects of growth have changed things for the worse, in her opinion, there have also been some real benefits. She believes the quality of public education on the Island has improved dramatically, and said there are far more opportunities and activities for young children - some of which she has helped develop through her work at the Chilmark and Aquinnah public libraries.

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"I hope my children have many of the same small-town experiences that I had, but in a more far-reaching way," Mrs. Christy said. "We didn't really appreciate it until we became parents, but there are innumerable things we get our kids involved with out here. Most places our size don't have so many resources."

Earlier that morning, a friend of hers in Chilmark, with whom she taught art at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School, gave birth to a baby daughter at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. She represents one of at least five up-Island couples in their 30s who have had babies or are expecting to later this winter.

"I think it speaks to the feeling many of us have that it's a nice place to raise children," Mrs. Christy said of the mini up-Island baby boom. "There's an impression of Chilmark as a retirement community, but I don't know if that's true."

With the highest average property values in the commonwealth, housing is obviously a major concern in town. Mrs. Christy acknowledged that she and her husband are lucky they can rent a home for an affordable price from her parents. But she noted that the widespread desire among Island residents to own their own homes is somewhat unrealistic when compared to the rest of the country.

"Buying isn't all it's cracked up to be," she said. "A lot of people rent their whole lives in other places, and don't seem to have second thoughts about it."

The inability to own their home is a trade-off she and her husband are willing to make in order to live in a desirable location. They have made similar sacrifices in their careers, and neither works full-time because they both want to spend time at home with the children.

"We haven't had a lot of high-paying jobs, but that's been a conscious decision," Mrs. Christy said. "I think we're gaining a lot of value in being home with our children, if you could put a dollar figure on that."

Unlike most couples their age, neither Mrs. Christy nor her husband are involved in the typical Island trades - such as carpentry, landscaping or gardening. Her husband works at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury, and for half the year commutes off Island at least one day a week to take on additional hours as a graphic designer in Falmouth. She said they have passed up higher paying trade jobs to work instead in what she described as second-tier fields, and noted that she has found great satisfaction in the public sector, first as a teacher, and then as a librarian.

"If I'm going to be working 25 or 30 hours a week, I want to do something that gives back to people," she said, sitting in the historic old red schoolhouse that serves as the Aquinnah library. "And I really love being in the library. The whole point of our work is helping people learn and giving the community what it wants."

Mrs. Christy said the small town library serves as a de facto community center, and helps maintain a sense of place. Just the other day, she said a group of women in their 80s and 90s gathered in the old building to reminisce about their shared childhood memories.

Personally, Mrs. Christy enjoys living in the same town where she grew up. She appreciates being close to her parents, and the many overlapping and evolving relationships she has developed with others throughout the community. As a young girl, she went to the Chilmark School with the son of the current preschool director, who is now watching her son on a daily basis.

"When you grow up in a small community, there are a lot of advantages to staying," she said. "It's very comforting to be surrounded by family, and other people in town you've known for years. It's something I've really valued."

Mrs. Christy admits that she and her husband have talked about moving away, possibly to Vermont, where her twin sister has settled. But so far, whenever they weigh the difficult aspects of the Vineyard with the advantages, they always conclude that staying on the Island is worth the sacrifices.

"We all make choices," Mrs. Christy said, as a pair of young boys entered the library and started browsing the children's section. "We all have to balance these things."

The Martha's Vineyard Commission is soliciting comment from the public for its Island Plan, a two-year project to develop a 10, 20 and 50-year comprehensive plan for the Vineyard. For more information, visit Islandplan.org or call the commission at 508-693-3453.