The Inkwell Beach is a symbol of pride for many Islanders, especially African Americans, whose families have visited this stretch of sand for generations.
The beach - which is no longer than a football field and bookmarked on both sides by jetties - does not have the royal vistas of Lucy Vincent or the commercial appeal of South Beach.
Nonetheless, summer days find the beach jam-packed with sunbathers and swimmers. People will show up at the crack of dawn to stake out a spot, just around the same time that members of the well-known Polar Bear Club are taking their morning swim.
But in the wake of a spring storm that devastated many coastal areas of the Vineyard, including the Inkwell, many Oak Bluffs residents are demanding to know why more hasn't been done to repair the beach.
Many of these people aired their concerns at Tuesday's selectmen meeting, the first of two meetings dedicated to addressing the needs and concerns of seasonal residents. And while the meeting saw an even mix of seasonal and year-round residents, the main order of the day was clearly the condition of the Inkwell.
"I have been coming here since the 1960s, and I can honestly say I have never seen this beach in such poor condition. It is very disheartening," said Menehan street resident Robert Hayden.
"Something needs to be done now, not this fall or next summer, but now," said Dr. Thelma Baxter, a seasonal resident of Cedar avenue. "We have people who come here for only a few weeks a year and they deserve to enjoy that beach to the fullest."
Many residents said the beach was strewn with seaweed and rocks, and complained that a wooden stairwell at the far end of the beach had fallen into disrepair to the point where the bottom steps no longer reached the beach.
"Older people who love that beach can't even get to the sand, it's dangerous," Barbara Peckham said. "I have been disappointed in how our beach has been managed for long . . . but this year it is especially bad."
Another woman complained that a storm drain pipe near the beach is causing erosion and spreading sediment onto the beach which contains high levels of hydrocarbons. The woman said the pipe causes considerable damage after rainfall.
Several other residents complained that the overall length of the beach has been substantially reduced, and that at high tide there is sometimes only 10 feet of sand.
Town officials, who turned out in force for the seasonal resident meeting, seemed well-prepared for the Inkwell fallout.
Conservation commission administrator Liz Durkee explained that beaches are dynamic systems that are continually shifting. Coastal erosion by wave energy is a natural geological process and is the primary source of sand for beaches, she said.
Mrs. Durkee said that the jetties at the beach have kept sand on one side but blocked it from the other, as evidenced by the higher elevation of the beach next to Inkwell, commonly known as pay beach, which also reaches out farther into the ocean by about 30 feet.
Mrs. Durkee said beach re-nourishing, or putting down new sand, is a viable means of addressing erosion. But she also warned that re-nourishment can be very expensive, and requires a wide array of permits from agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"Beach nourishment is a wonderful thing, but it's also something that is very complicated for several reasons," she said.
Joan Hughes, chairman of the conservation commission, said the timing of the storm that hit the Island in late spring - the same storm that opened the breach at Norton Point - was unfortunate. While winter and spring storms are inevitable, she said, this one hit late in the season and the beach did not have time to repair itself.
Even with beach nourishment, she said, town officials may find themselves playing catch-up with Mother Nature.
"The sand goes away, and we replace it, and then it goes away again. The long-term goal is to build up the beaches before a storm so they will be protected," she said.
Town administrator Michael Dutton said the town is seeking state or federal funds for remediation work at the various town beaches, including the Inkwell.
Highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr. said that he would send the town carpenter to repair the stairwell at the far end of the beach. Early Thursday morning, a carpenter arrived at the beach and the stairway was repaired by that same afternoon.
"We ask that you bear with us right now," Mr. Combra said Tuesday evening. "Be aware that repairing this beach is our number one priority."
Mr. Combra said the town will take steps over the next year to beautify the beach, adding that a new ramp would be built which would allow people in wheelchairs and walkers to get closer to the water.
As for the storm water drainpipe, shellfish constable Dave Grunden said town officials are considering ways to filter out any contaminants, including installing a Smart Sponge, a device that selectively targets hydrocarbons and also destroys bacteria.
Health agent Shirley Fauteux said water from the drain is being tested once a week. She said nothing in the runoff poses a health hazard.
Summer residents seemed encouraged by the response of town officials, but warned they should remain diligent.
"I hope this is handled expeditiously," Mr. Hayden said. "As you are aware, legislation has been passed regarding issues such as environmental protection, and in a way the issue is an outgrowth of the civil rights movement. Everyone has the right to environmental protection."
On Wednesday afternoon when the tide was about halfway out, one woman at the Inkwell was simply concerned about finding a spot on the crowded beach.
"This beach is about half the size it once was . . . . It's shrinking," she said. "My son and I came out here the other morning and we couldn't even find a spot in the sand, so we had to go over to [the pay beach] for a spot. I hope people are aware what's going on here."