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Cape Cod as the Balkans

Seen from space, it seems so obvious that Cape Cod is one.

But we know better.

The closer you get, the more this discreet, craggy arm fractures, fault lines running in every direction — not geologic but social, political.

The unity portrayed by a beautiful satellite image crumbles.

To anyone who knows this place, saying that Falmouth is one with Brewster, let alone Bourne or Mashpee, is absurd. To say that Barnstable is one with Chatham, let alone Sandwich; what are you smoking? Provincetown is one with – who? Closest neighbors might as well be in different states – of mind.

People who have spent lives in a town, know everyone and every nook, cross an imaginary boundary and have no idea who owns the hardware store, who’s the elementary school teacher, where to get a cup of coffee.

It’s because towns rule.

Never mind that once upon a time, Dennis was part of Yarmouth, Orleans part of Eastham, Brewster part of Harwich, Wellfleet part of Truro and Provincetown. Our evolution separated us like primates; long ago we diverged. You can still see similarities, but we surely are different.

Barnstable County government, for all the well-intentioned people, feels indistinct, a hazy canopy hovering over our civic lives. There are county commissioners; but what the hell do they do? It’s selectpeople who matter, town halls and town meetings — until the Cape Cod Commission intervenes on a big development, or someone you know gets locked up in the county jail.

Cape Cod as the Balkans.

“Good government” types have pushed back on this over many years. Do we really need 15 police stations, more than 15 fire departments, 15 harbormasters, building inspectors? Is there anywhere else where a fairly remote, well-defined community would have this redundant infrastructure, management, overhead — except Martha’s Vineyard?

Ahh, but the tradeoff is the Holy Grail known as Local Control, aka Home Rule. This can foster a sense that government really is of, by, and for the people; when you and/or your cousin, aunt, niece and nephew work for the town, that can be reassuring. Call it something inclusive like “intimate public engagement with decision-making,” not cronyism or nepotism, and it feels right.

What it doesn’t do is unite us when it comes to protecting groundwater, building affordable housing, fighting climate change, reviving our coastal environment — you know, the big stuff. When we do manage to coalesce around an issue, it’s in spite of our Balkanized reality.

This partly explains why the idea of a “sole source aquifer” became such a clarion call for the environmental movement. This rubric is not really true; people on the Upper Cape are not drinking the same water as people on the Lower Cape. If we’re a sole source aquifer then so is the planet — OK, cosmically speaking that’s fair enough.

But the unifying concept that it’s all “our” groundwater has helped break down historic single-town attitudes when it comes to fighting pollution.

One place where there have been real breakthroughs is public education. Nauset High School funnels six towns, we have two regional Vocational Techs. Chatham and Harwich managed to merge into Monomoy. Dennis-Yarmouth’s high school has challenges but it’s far better than either town could muster alone.

Maybe it’s fitting that we were able to drop total town control for the sake of the most important thing of all.

But have no delusions about the path:

Towns will remain front and center.

Yet soon after we cross the canal, long before we hit outer space, we will announce that we come from one famous place — Cape Cod.

Think I’ll go read up on Balkan history.