The WPA Guides: as timeless as New England
I consider myself something of a New England enthusiast…Having grown up in the same room, in the same house, in the same town, in the same state my entire life, it is completely central to who I am. I grew up in Hopkinton, MA, and went to Nantucket every single year of my life, including when I was in my mother’s abdomen. I went skiing annually for over 10 years on Sugarloaf Mountain, near Bangor, ME, and have the mountain nearly memorized. New England, for me, is a place I know well, a place I can measure my life and growth by, and a place I can measure time for the world outside myself by. I read the entire WPA guide, called “Here’s New England!” with incredible interest. Most of the photographs were of places I have been, places that still look the same…a covered bridge in Maine, harbors and docks off of Cape Cod, the town of Marblehead, the streets of Cambridge. I also have a book, published in the 1980’s, called “Nantucket Then and Now,” with side-by-side black and white photographs of places in Nantucket in the late 1800’s and in the early 1980’s. It wasn’t the most successful topic for a book, or maybe it was… all of the photographs look the same. It is as though nothing has changed. The tips in the WPA guide remain legitimate. There are still pies and cider where it says there are. The same roads are beautiful. You should still drive to Provincetown and it is still mostly sand and very surreal. I’m unsure if this speaks to the timelessness of the WPA guides or the timelessness of my homeland. Hopefully both, definitely one. My enthusiasm and longing for Massachusetts is a point of ridicule for my New York City inhabiting friends. My love of barns and disdain for NYC’s “fake autumn” are two others. And this guide speaks to nearly all of it. To talk about the reasons one loves New England is to sound like an antiques collector, like someone who burns vanilla candles in jars in their salt-box colonial house. When someone who loves New England tells you what road to drive and they ask you why, it will probably either be because of a view of trees/lakes/ancient houses or because of some historical significance. And it sounds absurd and outdated and charicaturish- because it seems to me like New England is the only place that has stayed this way for so long. I’ve met so few people who love their hometowns in the same weird historical way that I do. That love their areas because they look the same way they did so so long ago, and rarely because of artificial preservation and “historical societies.” Mostly because people just still enjoy living in old houses and barns. And hanging out in forests, and having dangerous roads, and having creaky furniture, and eating cranberries, and growing cranberries, and picking apples with their families. It’s not an effort to get back to our colonial past – it is the present. Somehow us people still like these things. That was a digression. What I’m trying to say is, reading this WPA guide made me think about the reasons I love New England, and that people have loved New England for the same reasons since 1930. And before. It wasn’t a sudden attraction a-la Disney World, or cheap subdivision prices, or the presence of celebrities, or anything new that could be placed anywhere. Perhaps everyone, reading about their homes, felt these things. I hope so. I don’t know how they could (sorry, my colonial Plymouth-rock snarkiness and pride is coming through) but I hope they do. Because then, unlike any Lonely Planet or Frommers ever could, the WPA succeeded in getting down to WHAT IT REALLY IS that makes these places, these places. The good and the bad. But what really matters, living there, to the people who grew up there. They seemed to ask the people who knew, or have been the people who knew. The good friend you want to have when you visit someplace, so you know that you’re seeing everything that a real person-who-lives-in-that-place-and-is-tied-to-it loves. For better and for worse. Thanks, WPA. Hire me next time you need someone to write about Massachusetts.