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What was there before

7 Tremont Street, Provincetown (1945). Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 1, Page 11. Courtesy of the Provincetown History Preservation Project.
Building Provincetown
7 Tremont Street, Provincetown (1945). Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 1, Page 11. Courtesy of the Provincetown History Preservation Project.

I keep having dreams where I am standing in the School Street parking lot. There is nothing particularly special, certainly nothing beautiful, about the parking lot, located between Mechanic and School Streets in Provincetown. Parking lots are something of a necessary blight on the landscape. When I was younger, I would look at a place, a town, a street, and assume it had always looked this way. Now, when I see a parking lot, I wonder what used to be there before. Because something was always there before.

On Nantucket, we are watching it happen in real time, houses being taken down to make way for wider truck routes, or removed along the shoreline in advance of the next catastrophic storm.

The School Street lot looms large in my memory, in part, because it is a rarity to see that much open space in a town where houses are tucked so tightly together. There’s a retaining wall built on one side, and the whole lot is lined with trees. Those trees were some of the first things to bloom in the spring, perhaps it was warmer there, a small microclimate, the result of the exhaust of some 20 cars.

We could walk to the beach, but my sister and I spent a good deal of time trying to inline skate in that parking lot. We checked parking meters for lost quarters, and spent time trying to decipher inscrutable bumper stickers. One Christmas, we received an Old Town canoe (which my mother even attempted to wrap in printed paper). But we had no paddles. One of our neighbors, whose house overlooked the parking lot the way one might a kettle pond, produced two mismatched paddles. He had found them at the end of last summer, he explained, left loose in the parking lot.

But what was there before? The name says it all—a school. The Western School House was built in 1844, along with the Central School (also demolished, also now a parking lot) and the Eastern School (still standing, today the Schoolhouse Gallery). Henry David Thoreau wrote, of a Provincetown school, that it was “filled with sand up to the tops of the desks.” Perhaps the pupils had left the windows opened, he opined, and that was all it took for the sand to take over.

A 1952 Annual Town Report said, urging the voters to consider the future of the aging school buildings, “It is generally conceded that the eary or “formative” years of youth are among the most important in our lives since our natural years are so profoundly influenced by the “start” we received as children.” I’ll try not to dwell too long about what it might mean that I seem to have been “profoundly influenced” by a vacant lot. The school was razed in 1954.

In Provincetown and on Nantucket, and probably any place that is remote and resources must be conserved, houses, and even schools, have always been movable objects. Or they get torn down for something else, something we need more at that moment. Maybe parking lots are part of our cultural heritage now. Tourism certainly is, and we’ve been at tourism longer than whaling. And almost as long as fishing. School children, and schools of fish, replaced by brightly colored schools of tourists.