It’s always a strange sensation to recognize how seemingly intimate places have the capacity to inspire so many people, throughout history, when the inspiration it has fostered in you feels like such a personal experience. Provincetown, Massachusetts, that colorful and rambunctious village, has become an ingrained aspect of my identity, as most iconic spots in Massachusetts have.
My Provincetown is encapsulated by a few experiences. Afternoon strolls down Commercial Street, at first, being surrounded by the hustle and bustle of tourists and locals alike, until passing by Winthrop, and in turn feeling like the local yourself, having left the lobster-toned crowds long behind. Sitting on the bayside beach while indulging in rainbow-sprinkle speckled soft serve ice cream, or salt water taffy, watching the subtle undulation of anchored boats. Morning bike rides along thin cottage lined roads, on the prowl for iced coffee, feeling drunk from the sweet and pungent scent of blooming lilacs. Even my perpetually salted hair and awkward tan lines are a part of my Provincetown experience. All of this culminating in a temporarily untarnished joie de vivre.
This is the Provincetown of my affection, but it is not the Provincetown that garners my admiration.
Being separate from the mainland, from its all-business bigger brother that is Boston, has seemed to fuel this village’s wild-child tendencies, a kid gone rogue being free from their parents’ watchful and regulating eye. It’s this “anything goes”, judgement-free zone, mentality that draws in romantics like me, and artists, and writers… anyone with a few screws loose who finds beauty and draws energy from these strange hybrids of mother nature and the broad spectrum of human society. Hudson Dean Walker, an art collector, had this to say about Provincetown in 1965, “But as a place to spend the summer I find that Provincetown has the combination of beauty of the works of humanity and nature that makes it a very pleasant place to be.” It is unique. And it takes a certain character to enjoy its own.
Provincetown is now a well developed haven for the LGBT community, and while I can wax poetic, all day and night, about Provincetown’s charm, I have a profound respect for this place because of this fact. One might say “Yes dear, I vacation on the Cape”, but, as it sounds, that is a stale and uninspired statement. Anyone can buy a house on the Cape, simply requires capital, but to make a point of trekking to the furthest reaches of the Cape Cod peninsula, and visit Provincetown, reveals much more. To enjoy Provincetown for all it is worth requires awareness and an open-mind, and just a touch of research.
The history of Provincetown proceeds as such:
Having been bought in the mid 17th century from the Nauset tribe (it was not a fair trade, but of course you could have assumed as much), the land along the bay soon became a fishing village for a few of the early settlers. Whatever commerce was established in that time dwindled during the conflicts with Britain during the late 18th century, and eventually came to a halt with the British blockade of the East Coast. After reinvigorating itself, Provincetown sought assistance in their commercial prospects of fishing and whaling from the Portuguese in the mid 19th century. Eventually, the Portuguese came to dominate the town, a heritage which is honored with an annual festival in late June. However, oil came to command energy needs and Provincetown finally bid adieu to the whaling industry and saw a steep decline in fishing as well. The early 20th century brought the culture to the Provincetown I am familiar with today. The rugged beauty of the outer Cape captivated the painters, poets, playwrights, etc. and their migration established the art colony persona of Provincetown. Naturally the artists brought the gay community with them, in large part being them. In the most recent decades, Provincetown developed its “destination” persona. The hippies flocked, then the LGBT community settled, and their influence began to polish the town.
This is what I mean by awareness. With this understanding, all of Provincetown gains a beautiful cohesion. The Portuguese bakery, the caldeirada and linguiça prevalent on so many menus, are an homage to that piece of its history. Every gallery, as well as the annual Tennessee Williams festival, is a nod to its art colony days. Even the commercial fishing boats, however few may be left, are the ultimate testament to the pillars that built this quirky place.
Salvatore Del Deo, an artist who has spent a large portion of his life painting in Provincetown, embellishes on the harmony the town fosters between people of all walks of life, calling it a “wonderful community which had a great sympathy and understanding of the young artist… The fisherman and the painter have been together since 1890 in this town, and that’s quite a unique relationship.” No one is a stranger in this place.
This is why the social tone of the town is so tantalizing. A sense of camaraderie is immediate. There are no chain stores welcome in Provincetown. There is one single Stop & Shop grocery store, and that is all. This fact alone makes Provincetown a paradise, but I had another point to make. The nature of each establishment being owned and operated exclusively by locals, manifests as the shift towards a more casual and engaging way of doing business. The couple you may spontaneously be chatting with during lunch at 141 Bradford just might be the owners of the new B&B in town. And the server who was so gracious during dinner at edwige the night before just might stop you on Commercial to chat the next afternoon.
The small, and condensed, quality of Provincetown has a large part to play in its convivial nature. The town is a comprehensive unit. While you can see bits of its history around every corner, its modern features blend within, and between, and beside them all (surely the constant transformations do not bode well for the residents of the time… but such is the trend of life). The drag acts and performers immediately become familiar and their outlandish humour grows on you a bit more, every year. New or recent restaurants, cafes, and lunch spots move in and are quick to develop a following because of their commitment to local products and fresh produce. And your appreciation is renewed with every new exceptional menu item (be sure to check out my map for my favorite spots). Not only are the windswept dunes, rhythmic tides, and sorbet sunsets majestic in their own right, but every gallery you pass reminds you of just how entrancing a lonely boat in the bay can be. And finally, the genuine amiability of nearly every encounter is so gratifying. Here is a portrait of an amazing place, at one time a fishing village and at another an artist’s haven, most recently a haven for a stifled community of individuals. Provincetown seems to welcome anyone who wanders into its territory, it is quite removed from everything else after all, and so, it is as hospitable and entertaining as can be.
Provincetown, I ❤ U Especially your achingly charming weather-worn cottages. #provincetown #capecod #cottage #commercialstreet #hazy #Funfact: these blue plaques (pictured next to the door) indicate that the house was one of the ~30 houses brought from the short lived village on Long Point. Around the 1950's inhabitants of the small peninsula directly across from Provincetown began to uproot their cottages and float them across the bay on rafts. (Wikipedia search: Long Point)