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A sad farewell to an island paradise

On Nantucket, worry about pricing out the true character of a special place

Andrew and Janet Cromartie embrace at Hinsdale Park, their favorite place to walk their dogs on June 30, 2022. The couple have been forced to leave the island after shuffling around to different locations do to the increased cost of living and lack of affordable housing.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

NANTUCKET — At first glance, they are the very picture of civic engagement, the image of small-town vitality.

The kind of people who animate our communities, enrich them with color and spice and energy, and make our municipal sidewalks spring to life.

The kind of people you want next door, or in your neighborhood — or your ZIP code.

Andrew Cromartie is 35 years old, manages the local radio station here, volunteers at church, is active in the community music center, and is on the local park and rec commission.

His wife, Janet Forest, grew up in Walpole, studied journalism and communications at Concordia University in Montreal. She works here as a librarian, and is a trusted neighbor — a woman who will watch your animals when you go off island.

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Days ago, she became president of the local Rotary Club.

And, now, they are both preparing to bid farewell to Nantucket, a place that has financially slipped away from them.

They are leaving this island that they cherish — this island where they forged lifetime memories and fell in love. This island where they can no longer envision their future. A picture-postcard place that soon — too soon — will become a cherished memory. A place they will refer to in the past tense.

“It’s so sad,” Janet told me the other day as we sat at a local restaurant. “We tell people — like I told someone just before I came in here — I said, ‘I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re leaving the island.’

“And she was like: ‘No! No! No!.’‘’

But it’s true.

Soon when Andrew Cromartie and Janet Forest talk about this island community 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast, it will be as a pleasant memory — that time in their lives when they were connected to the mainland by ferries, telephone lines, and video conferencing links.

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But no more.

“People are trying to be supportive, but they’re grieving at the same time,’’ Andrew told me as we sat on a sun-dappled patio. “And it’s not a unique situation. It’s like: Another person who we find value in is now leaving.

“And I think we’re in the public eye. We’re very visible. We work on a few different boards. And we’re the youngest members. So, for us leaving these boards, it’s like: No, we’re losing. Our median age is going way up again. And we can’t bring in any young people.”

Andrew and Janet Cromartie walked with their Tibetan spaniels Dawa and Lobsang in the labyrinth at Hinsdale Park.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

They went out to dinner a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the first anniversary of their engagement. They posted photos that prompted comments like this one: Oh, the future of Nantucket.

But Andrew and Janet Cromartie are not in Nantucket’s future anymore.

And a civic loss like that one is not going unnoticed by public officials or by longtime residents who worry about the future of this place where the average home price by late last year was $3.3 million and the median price — or the middle of the market — was $2.8 million.

Tucker Holland, Nantucket’s Housing Director in front of the Sankaty Head Light on Nantucket.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

“I definitely feel like we need to do something,” Tucker Holland, Nantucket’s housing director, told me as we toured Nantucket before stopping for some luncheon sandwiches. “I feel like we should have done something a little while ago.”

Holland grew up in Michigan and came here every summer since he was a 3-year-old boy with his parents, who decided to make a wholesale lifestyle change and move to the island.

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“There were 28 kids in the ninth grade when I moved here,’’ Holland said. “Yeah, my son is a ninth-grader today and there are over 150 kids in the class. So huge growth. There were 6,000 year-round residents when we moved here. Now, people would estimate it’s 18,000 to 20,000.’'

Holland said officials here are championing a home rule petition at the State House for a 0.5 percent real estate transfer fee that would be paid for by the seller on amounts that exceed $2 million. If that had been in place last year, it would have raised $5 million — money that would be used to soften the crushing blow of the real estate market here.

“We had a great police officer here who was the hockey coach at the school, who was fantastic,” Holland told me.

“It got to the point where he said, ‘I need to provide a home for my family, and I can’t afford to do it here.’ And so, he moved to the Cape.”

Mark Milone knows that feeling. He’s a 65-year-old retired corporate executive who has spent summers here for a quarter of a century.

But no more. He’s moving.

“We’ve got a fundamental problem with affordable housing for every-day workers,” Milone said. “Police. Firemen. Teachers. They’re a big issue. But so are restaurant workers, maids, and housekeepers.”

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Where do they live?

“They beg, borrow, and steal,” Milone told me during a sidewalk conversation. “They get shuffled from place to place to place. And sometimes they find off-season housing and then get thrown out in season.

“It’s getting so you can’t get a restaurant reservation. I mean, it’s been hard to hire summer cops. It’s been hard to hire lifeguards. Without those things, the island’s not the same. That’s one of the reasons we’re moving. We don’t think it’s the same island.”

But much of it is the same.

Stunning vistas. Salty air. Sunsets worthy of master artists. An ocean paradise.

A private beach access ramp lies off the ‘Sconset Bluff Walk in Siasconset, Nantucket.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

When the mainland lies over the horizon, a sense of community is marbled into the DNA of the place.

“I don’t think anybody wants Nantucket to be an imitation of Nantucket,” Holland told me. “I went to college in Williamsburg and people walk around in 18th-century dress. I loved William and Mary. It was fantastic.

“But Nantucket is a real town. It’s real people. We don’t need to be characters to have character. There are so many fantastic people who live here, and you would lose what to me is a part of the experience of coming to Nantucket.”

The experience of coming to Nantucket. Some people say that’s precisely what now hangs in the balance.

“I think it’s enormously sad because it’s becoming a playground for the rich,’’ said Sandra Keys, who’s been here now for 32 years. “A lot of people who come here are very rich. They have very little interest in becoming part of Nantucket.”

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She recalled when a historic house on Main Street was being gutted, and bumper stickers started cropping up that said: “Gut fish. Not houses.”

“And I overheard someone saying [to the owners]: ‘You know you won’t have any friends on Nantucket if you do something like this.’ And they said, ‘We’ll bring our friends.’ That’s just the attitude. It’s incredible. People bring their friends. They bring their private chef. They bring their private planes. They come over on their yacht. I mean the amount of wealth here is just incredible.”

And it comes at an enormous cost, Keys said.

An island — and its character — forever changed.

“I know someone who’s paying the manager of his store to commute every day from Hyannis,” Keys said. “But that’s unsustainable. And I think when people come and they discover that they can’t get the services they had expected, even though they’re paying a fortune to rent a house for a week, they’ll be very disappointed — and start looking at other places they might go.”

Somewhere far from the sand dunes and the stunning, kaleidoscopic summer sunsets of old Nantucket.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.