The Shifting Sea Reshapes a Nantucket Neighborhood

There is a neighborhood in the far east of Nantucket called Codfish Park. Most of the cabins here are tiny — cozy, a real estate agent might say — shingles set right in the sand. Codfish Park began life as a public beach, a place that was all but swept away by the gale of October 1841. By the 1880s, as sand piled up, the beach rebuilt. I show visitors around this region and it is difficult for them to imagine that there was a time when there was no the the. You live long enough along the shore and you begin to understand that the sea is not always going to stay on its side of the line.

Almost as quickly as the beach was built, so were the fishermen. They built fishing huts, dory barns, drying racks for their salt cod. Later came the public baths for people who visited the island to enjoy sea bathing. In the 1920s, this group of huts was transformed into a tidy village. The City of Nantucket held the land in public trust, but also installed sidewalks, streetlights, and allowed park residents to hook up to city water.

Why?

The residents of the Codfish Park waterfront were an integral part of the island’s burgeoning tourist industry. They were livery drivers, domestic servants, cooks, ice men, street sweepers, groundskeepers, nannies and laundresses. The island needed it to function. They came from the Caribbean, the Cape Verde Islands, the Azores, Portugal, Ireland, the mainland and even Edgartown.

Today, there is no undesirable place to live in Nantucket. Homes in Codfish Park easily cost over a million dollars. There were two rows of homes that have been missing since the 1950s, some have been moved farther and farther or to other parts of Nantucket, others have been washed away by the ocean. There is a video that was taken of a house swept away by the unnamed storm, it only took three minutes before the ocean split the house in two. Billowing curtains from broken windows.

As the residents of Codfish Park were squatters on what was a public beach, they did not hold title to their land. This situation was no different than the Dune Shacks in Provincetown’s historic Peaked Hill Bars district. The city of Nantucket finally dissolved the trust that held the Codfish Park beach cottages in 1993 by a vote of the city assembly.

This legal limbo that many residents found themselves in makes Codfish Park a challenge for anyone wishing to make sense of the past. The people who lived here were not in the pages of society. They rarely appear in the printed record at all. Even the buildings they lived in shifted, out of danger as the tide got closer and closer.

But they mattered. They still count.

It was during a recent tour that I explained all this to a visitor. They said, “Don’t you think the islanders need the tourists as much as the tourists need you?

I guess that’s the big question. All I know is that at the end of this tour, I needed to swim. Luckily the ocean was right across the street.

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