Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities

Newport vs Newport - A completely biased comparison
Manfried Rieder Starhemberg

This summer I had the opportunity to experience the difference between my new home in our lovely Newport, Vt. and my former home in Newport, R.I. The "other Newport" has seen unprecedented growth and development over the past two decades and right now there are at least five megagazillion Dollar projects in the works. Our little town will get this soon with the expected tear-down of downtown, the water front Hotel and marina and all the other goodies we have been promised. Will it work? Who knows. In the Rhode Island place it seems to have worked to a degree. Dozens of pubs, restaurants, gift shops, boutiques and motels are mostly flourishing, the marinas are full and if you did not inherit one of the prized moorings in Newport harbor, you may have to kill someone to get one.
Did all the new condo and urban renewal projects help the populace? Well, no, according to one disgruntled bartender  on the Cobblestone walk."My rent was $ 400.- ten years ago, now it is $ 875.- while the landlord has made absolutely no improvements. Ten years ago I worked in this place for minimum wages plus tips and just got by - now I still work for minimum wages which are not much different from ten years ago but  everything around me costs twice or three times as much".
This is the tenor of most conversations about town. The people who work in the hospitality industry which is the largest employer in town, have not benefited from all the glitz around them, many could not afford to keep renting in Newport and are now commuting from outside the area. Home ownership for the regular folks is out of the question with single family home prices in the area topping $ 300,000.-
President Obama declared that people who make only $ 250,000.- are considered "poor". Well, even his poor folks might find the cost of Newport a bit pricey...
Let's compare statistics for a moment. The median income in Newport by the sea is $ 35,694.- and in our place it is listed on Wikipaedia as $ 20,054,- I am not sure if the new development promised us is going to change this very much. Sure, there will be some high paying jobs coming here but those people are already working for the companies which will locate here and the rest of the expected employment will still be the people who work for the never ending minimum wages or in the $ 10.- bracket. Ask anyone who works at any of the local businesses who have more than a handful of employees and you will find that this is the sad average in town.
Historically, we have much in common though. Both Newports have an abundance of stately homes and while ours are now mostly converted to apartments, many in Newport R.I. are owned by very wealthy people or have been converted into Bed and Breakfasts, antiques emporiums or upscale eateries. There is a very active preservation society at work which has done exemplary work in their quest to make sure the venerable homes have to be kept in style and character as authentic as possible. People grumble when the town does not allow them to install thermo panes instead of the eight pane antique windows but the tourists love to see the original mill work, frets and gables and widows walks on top of the stately old captain's homes. Of course, the main attraction is still to be found at the "cottages row", the great houses of the Vanderbuilts and Morgans which are one of the main tourist attractions and generate millions every year in revenue. Both our town and Newport have lost many significant buildings, here due to fires or economic changes which made upkeep no longer feasible, in Rhode Island, almost 40 of the most valuable buildings were razed by unscrupulous building boom and short sighted development before the city became aware of the damage it was inflicting upon itself.
While we had the great economic boom one hundred years ago, Newport, R.I. had fallen in decline during the50s and 60's and only the addition of the America's Cup yacht races which spawned unprecedented rejuvenation of the waterfront along America's Cup Avenue saved their bacon. The closing of the Naval Submarine station in 1973 also did not help and decimated the local population by almost 20% and caused a huge increase in unemployment and plummeting real estate prices.
Now, downtown thrives like never before while our little charming downtown seems a bit like a ghost-town on weekends with the prospect of the massive building project of 2014 looming in the near future.
So, where is the good news? It is in the details: We have access to one of the most beautiful lakes in New England and the water is not even salty. When we do some yacht racing, all twelve boats can be seen from the share from our lovely boardwalk while in the other Newport on race week the two hundred yachts race out in the bay and you cannot see them at all unless you pay huge amounts of money to be on one of the excursion boats. If you own a boat you can put it in the water for free at area launching ramps and a dock in the harbor, at Newport Marina or the charming docks of the East Side Restaurant will set you back two weeks worth of pay for most who can afford a boat in the first place. In Rhode Island, a slip for a 25 ft. sailing boat costs almost $ 2,000.- for the summer season, about half that again to have it stored over the winter. 
And then there is parking: Just visiting Aquidneck island after the toll on the Newport bridge is pretty much an elusive dream unless you know someone. I have spent hours driving around only to finally find a spot two miles from where I wanted to be. Not here - I can park anywhere in town, there are more free parking spots at any time of day then we will ever need.
We do lack the variety of restaurants they have down near the ocean. If you want a cold beer, chances are you end up at Jasper's here while on America's Cup avenue there are approximately 40 dispensaries of adult beverages within the span of a mile and many fine restaurants as well. I personally am quite happy to sit on the deck at the East Side however where I can enjoy a quiet lunch with friends without the blaring noise of a bustling tourist industry, indifferent wait staff wishing us to hurry up to get more people seated, and a not always pleasant view of an over crowded harbor or the specter of more McMansions or Condominiums in the making.
Anyway, fall is coming and this is where the real differences come in: The cute waitress girls in Newport by the mansions will put their bras back on and go back to work at the A&P or on unemployment while the sailors disappear back into the law offices and brokerage houses of New York and Boston and the city dozes off until spring. Not so in our lovely town. The girls will still work for the same places, Pick and Shovel will bring out the stove pipes and the good flannels, our fine garages will offer "Winter Specials" to get your antifreeze in order and your tires changed and then we are ready for our glorious foliage season. After that we can look forward to the first snow, then the spectacle of a glittering frozen lake and the ice fishing and if this is not enough, there is always our homey Goodrich Memorial library, the movie house or the bowling lanes.
So, having lived in both Newports, I am happy to conclude that I am insanely happy to live here now among friendly people who do not undergo seasonal personality changes, I shall look forward to sail my little 15 ft. wooden Albacore dinghy (do not forget the free boat ramp at the Gateway !) and tool around our magic winter wonderland in out 13 year old 4-wheel drive Volvo. Thanks Newport, Vermont, I am home.

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