Happy birthday, Cottage City! The town was founded when it seceded from Edgartown on Feb. 17, 1880, 133 years ago this Sunday.
What a vibrant and fascinating history our town has! We have one of — if not the only — first planned communities built all at once. Famed for the most parks per capita worldwide, it is home to Samuel L. Pratt’s 19 remaining iconic homes and Union Chapel. Cottage City is the location of the Flying Horses Carousel, America’s oldest carousel and a National Historic Landmark, and more than 300 homes listed with the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
Five U.S. Presidents have visited our town (more than any other on the Island), and Ulysses S. Grant stayed here in 1874. It would be nice if one or some related organizations, such as the Historical Commission, the Cottage City Historic District, the Community Development Council, the Conservation Commission, the Preservation Trust, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum or the Community Preservation folks, would apply to the Department of the Interior to have the Cottage City Historic District included on the National Register of Historic Places. Having such status may encourage year-round visitors, and would certainly boost the shoulder season. Benefits include potential federal grants for conservation that could allow for telephone and power lines to be buried, for instance, or the sewer system to be replaced. Individual homeowners would be entitled to potential tax credits if the district received this status.
Historically, Cottage City is famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit and as the seasonal home of several notable black politicians and dignitaries. But while many of our residents are celebrated, there are many other black history makers whose work but not necessarily whose faces and names you may know.
Filmmaker Spike Lee is an Oak Bluffs name you hear often. Lesser-known is his wife Tonya Lee Lewis, formerly a corporate lawyer and now the spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ healthy baby campaign. Long a champion of children, Tonya founded Madstone Company, which works on children’s programming with Disney and Nickelodeon, and produces documentaries. She is also the author of several children’s books.
I’ve written often of Stan Nelson, whose family’s house graces Ocean Park — the prettiest of our 40 parks. Stan earned an Emmy and George Foster Peabody Award for his documentaries. His sister Jill is a famed journalist and author, and their dad, Stanley Sr., was a renowned dentist whose customers included Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Horne.
Harvard-educated movie producer Reggie Hudlin claims Cottage City, too. The former president of BET (which sponsored our fireworks last summer), Mr. Hudlin is up for an Oscar next week as producer for best picture nominee, Django Unchained. Ironically, he grew up in East St. Louis, where he saw movies at a theatre named the Tivoli.
There’s also longtime Vineyarder Reuben Cannon, the casting director and producer who cast Oprah Winfrey in her first role in The Color Purple. The influential Mr. Cannon also cast Danny Glover and Bruce Willis in their early roles in television and movies.
Waban Park’s Suzanne de Passe discovered The Jackson Five when she worked at Motown — and launched Michael Jackson’s career. Suzanne acquired the rights to TV’s Emmy-winning mini-series Lonesome Dove, before forming her own company that produced Lady Sings the Blues. A fashion model when we were younger, Suzanne’s friend — and my beach buddy — East Chop’s Sylvia Rhone became the first black person to head a major record company when she became CEO of the Elektra Entertainment Group in 1994. She is still the only African American woman to do so. She was also, coincidentally, president of Universal Motown, Suzanne’s old company. Sylvia recently launched her own label, Vested In Culture (VIC), which just announced a joint venture with Epic Records.
Her neighbor Bernie Bickerstaff, assistant coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, was the first coach and general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats, and has been head coach of the Washington Wizards, Denver Nuggets and Seattle Supersonics.
Another Oak Bluffs coach you may have heard of is Harthaven’s John Thompson 3rd, the coach of Georgetown University — its second black coach after his dad, John Thompson Jr.
Thanks to these folks’ devotion to our town as a favorite resort, Oak Bluffs itself has played a role in black history, which is another reason to consider Cottage City for the National Historic Register.
So, what do you think about the new tour busses parked over near Jim’s Package store downtown? If you’re reading this online your comments would be most welcome.
Keep your foot on a rock.