PROVINCETOWN – On a sunny afternoon in late June, a few people were chatting on the deck of Captain Jack’s Wharf in Provincetown’s West End.
Captain Jack’s is a piece of old Provincetown. It is one of the last remaining private wharfs along a waterfront that once had dozens. Its bohemian apartments are now condos, but still maintain the artistic allure that once drew Tennessee Williams. The playwright is said to have written parts of “The Glass Menagerie” and three lesser known plays while ensconced in the unit now known as Windswept, according to David Kaplan, author of “Tennessee Williams in Provincetown,” and co-founder and curator of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival.
The talk on the deck of Captain Jack’s turned to new Provincetown, to the town’s changing demographics. People are saying that this once predominately gay resort town was now attracting a growing number of straights.
The concern was whether Provincetown’s very culture and uniqueness was threatened.
Gregory Saint Jean, 52, who has been the manager of Captain Jack’s for 19 years, said it was.
“That uniqueness, I don’t think it’s around any more,” Saint Jean said.
Saint Jean said he has been coming to Provincetown since 1982 and he feels the newer arrivals are not in tune with the Provincetown aesthetic.
“They judge me. If I come out in high heels and a dress, it used to be that [a guest] would offer me lipstick to match,” he said. Now, he said he feels they are not in on the joke.
“Some straight people are okay. They get it. But it seems to me a lot of straight people come to town who don’t get the gay thing and you can feel it,” he said. “In the past two years, I’ve really noticed it.”
Dr. Ann Marie Rocheleau, 59, of Hopkinton, said she first came to Provincetown in 1960 when she was six years old. She said changing demographics and culture is nothing new to Provincetown.
“The town has always been where the ‘other’ is. First there were the beatniks, then the bikers and then the hippies. When the gays came in, they were the only ones with money,” she said.
Felice Newman, 58, co-founder and co-publisher at Cleis Press in Berkeley, California, said she was been coming to Provincetown since 2002. Cleis Press bills itself as “the largest independent queer publishing company in the United States.”
“There’s a certain homogenization of culture in America. Everything gets watered down and diluted. People want to go somewhere different and make it the same as what they are used to,” Newman said.
She said she has straight friends who are hipper to the Provincetown aesthetic than she is. But she also sees other straights who do not seem to understand the town’s unique vibe.
“What they don’t get is a queer or alternate aesthetic. They just don’t get the ethos of Provincetown as it has been, the sense of humor, the culture of difference.”
Saint Jean said the danger is losing the character of the place and the people. “The responsibility is to keep our uniqueness. If everyone is the same, where’s our individuality?” he said.
Saint Jean pointed to the rise in popularity of bachelorette parties as one sign of the homogenization of the town and its growing popularity as a destination for straight people.
“In the past three or four years, it has slowly built up,” he said. The groups, he said, seem to treat the town as a sort of sideshow, as they wander bar to bar, often in matching dresses.
But several business owners in town said the influx of straight people and even the popularity of the bachelorette parties is not necessarily a bad thing for the town.
Erin Atwood, executive director of the Provincetown Business Guild, said more business is good for business. But he agreed that the town is perhaps seeing less of the “gay vacation dollar” as gay people discover other destinations.
The Guild is a non-profit marketing organization that promotes the economic and cultural development of Provincetown as a gay resort.
“There is a changing demographic. A lot of it has to do with society right now,” Atwood said. Being gay and lesbian, he said, is not as taboo as it once was and, as a result, more and more vacation destinations are gay-friendly.
But, he added, “We are still one of the top gay resorts in the country.”
Atwood said he too has noticed the growing number of bachelorette parties in town. He said he wonders whether Boston companies, like rental car agencies or limo companies, are promoting it.
“We’re not targeting them and neither is the town,” he said, of the town’s visitor services department.
But, he said, Provincetown is a place that welcomes everybody and the more, the merrier. “Everyone knows this is a great party town,” he said, pointing to the large number of eateries, nightclubs and attractions, plus the fact that the entire town is walkable. “No need to have a designated driver,” he said.
He said there are always going to be issues with people over-imbibing and no group is immune. “You have the ‘baby dykes’ on Memorial Day weekend,” he said, referring to lesbians in their early 20s who come to town in great numbers on the unofficial beginning of summer weekend.
As far as shifting the culture of the town, Atwood said there are no negatives to the change. “It goes to show people have more equality,” he said.
He said he has noticed that straight men who visit are much more comfortable with the costumed entertainers who stand on Commercial Street promoting their nightclub shows.
“Now you see straight guys taking photos with drag queens. They used to be shyer about interacting,” he said.
Leslie Parsons, owner of Across the Bay Real Estate, said she has been coming to town, “since I was in the womb.” Her mother was an artist who loved to visit Provincetown.
Parsons has lived in town for 25 years and opened her real estate business 20 years ago.
Parsons said she thinks it is true that there are more straight people visiting town and she has heard people talking about it. “It seems like there are more straight people and baby carriages,” she said.
But she said the straights are not the only ones with baby carriages.
She said townies refer to Provincetown’s annual Family Week in August, which is designed to welcome gay people and their children, as “the parade of strollers.”
She said, straight people visiting other Cape towns have always made the trek up to Provincetown a part of their visit to Cape Cod.
“When I was a kid, if we were staying in Dennis or Eastham, we’d come to town. That’s what you did when you really wanted to be entertained,” Parsons said.
She said the town has always been popular with straights.
“I have any number of straight friends who have always loved the town. The arts community attracts a lot of people who want to own here,” she said.
Parsons said that Provincetown’s reputation for being very open to all types of people has always set it apart. But now that the general population is more open, there are other destinations that draw gay people.
“At one point, gay people felt more comfortable here. Now, there is more of a mix of people,” she said.
As for bachelorette parties, she said she has seen both gay and straight bridal parties. “It’s a positive thing,” she said. “It’s another level of good feeling and people feeling open and free to have fun.”
On an early summer Sunday, Karen DeJesus of Boston was walking down Commercial Street with a large group of friends, her white dress and garland of flowers on her head giving her away as a bachelorette. She said they were, in fact, a bachelorette party.
“There are 12 of us,” she said. “We rented a house from Thursday to Sunday.”
As to why she chose to hold her bachelorette party in Provincetown, DeJesus said she has been visiting town for many years. “My aunts have a place here,” she said.
She said she did not know holding bachelorette parties in town had become a trend.
“I didn’t know it was a thing,” she said, adding that her group was having a good time.
Dougie Freeman, owner of the West End Salon and Spa, said he sees numerous bachelorette parties at his salon. He estimated he handled 12 such parties in the summer of 2014, about double what he handled in 2013.
He said he believes the safety of Provincetown is a big lure for bachelorette parties. The fact that a group of young women can walk down the street and perhaps get tipsy but stay safe, makes it an appealing location, he said.
“It’s a trend,” Freeman said. But he said the changing demographic does not extend just to bachelorette parties. “We do more straight weddings than gay,” he said.
Freeman, who has had his salon for 32 years, said he did not want to get into any talk of straights versus gays.
“I don’t talk about categorizing people. I avoid religion, politics and sex,” he said. “In the hospitality business, it’s open arms to everybody.”
But Freeman, who said he first came to Provincetown 40 years ago, said the town has had many losses over the years.
He pointed first to the fishing industry. “Sadly, it’s a great loss to the town. It’s a disgrace that it was allowed to happen,” he said.
He also sees the loss of a more free and easy vibe, where starving artists could sleep on the beach and people without the money for a hotel room could sleep in their cars. That’s what he did when he moved to town in his MG convertible all those years ago, he said.
As for other changes in P’town, Freeman listed a few, “There’s no more odor of Patchouli. You used to smell Patchouli and pot on the street. We lost that. There are no more outhouses visible from Commercial Street. The last one was in the mid-‘80s. There are no run-down properties. You don’t see paint peeling. Artists have to sell $250,000 a year to make a living in Provincetown and that’s a change,” he said.
He said he notices a change in his clients. “My average client is better off financially than in the 70s and 80s.”
What’s unchanged? “There are still manly women and womanly men. There are mixed race couples. Provincetown is always welcoming to everybody,” he said.
But Freeman said that the town’s changing demographic does have consequences.
“We were a subculture. We’re now part of the mainstream. When one becomes like everyone else, there is a loss incurred,” he said.
He said the town’s popularity has meant higher real estate values and that has made housing very costly for working people. “Our real estate values compare to Beverly Hills in cost per square foot,” he said.
It has been hard for him to find staff. “We turn away a lot of business in the summer because we don’t have the staff. One reason is the high cost of housing,” he said.
Freeman said he sees change as a good thing. “Change got us gay marriage. Look how far we’ve come,” he said.
He echoed the comments of Atwood, the tourism official, who said gay people can feel comfortable visiting almost anywhere now.
And, as for Provincetown’s popularity, it is just a matter of it being discovered by different groups, he said.
“The secret’s out. Provincetown is no secret any more,” he said. “It was a fabulous secret for awhile.”
Please see our other stories about Provincetown
Please like us on Facebook.
— Laura M. Reckford