Beneath the Changing Tides of Block Island
The island has long thrived on its pastoral isolation, but skyrocketing home prices and changing tourism patterns are shattering a way of life even as a new technology delivers modern conveniences.
The Block Island of Keith Lewis’ boyhood was a spare place, hardly bothered by anyone other than its 500 or so inhabitants. Times were hard in the 1960s as the town crawled out of the twin sloughs of the Depression and World War II. But Block Islanders had always been adept at making use of whatever was at hand: farming, fishing the great schools of cod or combing the beach for marine salvage. Lewis, seventy-six, remembers a happy place, where life was centered on potlucks at the Harbor Church and on the people, who valued their independence and the generational continuity that came with learning from the same teachers who taught their parents.
In some respects, the view from his living room windows has scarcely changed. At midday, sunlight blesses the rolling meadows of the family farm, freckled with dandelions, and brings up the blue of the sea. On this bluff in the island’s southwest corner, one can forget the hullabaloo that is downtown Block Island on a nice afternoon. But the wind turbines just off to the east are spinning reminders of how little remains of the island of his memories.
“It’s changed dramatically in the last twenty years. There’s a lot more construction here. The economy is booming. When I was a child, transportation was marginal. There were two boats a day in the summer and one in the winter and no boat on Sunday,” he recalls. “Now, there’s far too many cars, and when the [ferry] ties up, it’s just one big, ugly parking lot. They come out here supposedly for the rural atmosphere, but they seem to want to turn it into another suburbia.”
Lately, Lewis is taken with the notion of the shifting baseline, which posits that the degree of change one perceives is influenced by where one starts. A sixth-generation islander, Lewis’s baseline was set seven decades ago, but even relative newcomers feel the island’s accelerating pace of transformation. Technology has made life easier: The community e-bulletin board is now the place to make invites or requests, and islanders can order groceries online from mainland supermarkets for home delivery. Reliable green energy from the wind farm means that appliances don’t die after two years from brownouts. Broadband is finally delivering reliable internet service.
But Block Island’s popularity has challenged residents’ willingness to share its charms.
There are no official counts of the number of tourists, but at summer’s peak, 20,000 individuals visit the island daily, according to an April 2022 sustainable tourism report commissioned by the Block Island Tourism Council. The money sloshing in has priced full-time residents out of the housing market and replaced the old cottagers, who came for the quiet and accepted its privations, with a new type of tourist who travels with a fleet of cars and high expectations for amenities. The mom-and-pop hotels that once passed to family members or an enterprising line cook who rose through the ranks are now corporate acquisitions. In recent years, Lark Hotels, a boutique hotel chain, purchased the Surf and the Gables. TPG Hotels, Resorts & Marinas bought Champlin’s Marina and Resort. Islanders are grappling with clotted roads and a lack of parking that requires a plan to pick up mail at the post office.
“It’s a lot of people. And last year, we definitely reached the tipping point of what our services could support — police, rescue — and the businesses themselves trying to find help. So, it’s really a puzzle,” says Lisa Sprague, a full-time resident since the 1970s. “Last year I entertained the thought of putting my house on the market, because this is not the same island that I’ve loved my entire life.”
Tourism has long been a part of the island economy. The Spring House, first of the dowager inns, was erected in 1852. Block Island was generally considered a cheap vacation spot, where a Providence policeman could bring the whole family for a week at the old Surf Hotel, with its fresh-air conditioning and shared bathrooms. The summer season began on July Fourth and ended after Labor Day, whereupon the sidewalks would be promptly rolled up. Now, the shoulder seasons have broadened well into the spring and fall. Interstate Navigation Co., which operates the Block Island Ferry, had six round-trip daily runs a week before Memorial Day.
“None of us who are not retired who live out here year-round could be here without tourism, and so there’s a line you have to walk. More isn’t always better,” says Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council. “We have always marketed Block Island as a family-friendly destination, a place to get away from it all and a step back in time — and we still do. But our messaging has shifted a bit to include stewardship.”
Overtourism is a problem everywhere, with environmentally fragile destinations, such as islands, particularly affected. In 2017, from winter to summer, energy use on the island skyrocketed by 139 percent, according to a 2022 sustainability report. The average daily water usage from winter to the summer’s highest peak increases by 800 percent, says John Breunig, superintendent of the Block Island Water Company. This spring, the hotels, which once dumped their raw sewage directly into Old Harbor, groused about a new policy that could restrict their access to water in emergency situations.
“We are at the upper limit,” Breunig says. “July Fourth used to be this crazy day and you take a breath after it and say, ‘We can get through the rest of the summer just fine.’ But now we have multiple peaks that rival or are higher than July Fourth.”
Housing prices are now into playground-of-the-rich territory, posing a serious challenge for the year-round workforce. The School Department, for example, rents a house for administrators to share during the school year. Real estate agent Hanna Greenlee Martin says the pandemic boosted annual home sales by 50 percent and doubled sale prices.
“The average selling price was about a million, and fifteen homes [sold annually] under a million. Now there is one home under a million, and the average selling price over the last two years has climbed up to closer to almost two million,” she says. “As a year-round islander, we aren’t the ones buying those homes. They are vacation homes. I’m raising a young family and wanting to own, but the majority of the market is not affordable.”
One thing that could have changed — but hasn’t — is Block Island’s beauty.
“That sense of history is really something,” says Eileen Miller, a poet and visual artist. “The ocean is so clean. The air is so clean. The beach roses smell the same, with the honeysuckle and the salt air. It’s just as I remembered it at age thirteen, when I first fell in love with Block Island.”
On a late May morning, Keith Lang, one of Block Island’s active conservationists, picks his way around the boggy and furrowed trails of Rodman’s Hollow. A day’s worth of hard rain has washed out the path in places, but also encouraged the bayberry and greenbrier to muscle forward. Block Island, the rocky child of two glaciers, has a restless nature, kneeling into kettle ponds and rising to panoramic views of the Atlantic nibbling at the cliff bases. Rodman’s Hollow’s 230 acres offer visitors an opportunity to become topographically acquainted, listen to the red-winged blackbirds call and watch the long grasses shimmy to the tune called by the wind.
It is also the birthplace of the island conservation movement. In 1972, Connecticut developers planned to build a subdivision there. Back then, land was cheap, but building anything on it was a slog of loading and unloading construction materials multiple times, from the mainland to an island building lot, says Block Island historian Benjamin Hruska. In 1971, Interstate Navigation Co. introduced the Manitou, a stern-loading vessel offering easy passage to heavy vehicles.
“In the 1950s, we were averaging ten homes a year. By the 1960s, there were twenty homes. But in 1971, you can have a lumber truck drive from South County onto a construction site on Block Island and when you have that, it’s a game changer.”
Keith Lewis’ father, retired captain John Robinson Lewis, saw in this proposal an alarming event horizon. He promptly founded the Block Island Conservancy to preserve Rodman’s Hollow. In the last half-century, a coalition — including residents, the conservancy, the Nature Conservancy and the Block Island Land Trust, which collects a 3 percent transaction fee on land sales — has preserved by deed or easement 47 percent of the island. There are now thirty miles of walking trails; the beaches and parking are free.
Lang, who helped set up the trail system, says that they “had a strategy with two goals: preserving the ecosystem and the character of the island.
“It’s all been a partnership and it still is. Egos are put aside; nobody is worried about who gets the credit,” says Lang. “But if you lose the balance, you lose it all, and it’s a constant threat.”
These forces may shake but not dislodge the bedrock of the community. Block Island is ten square miles filled with organizations to protect and improve life there. There’s the Committee for the Great Salt Pond, and RespectBI, formed in 2020 to address a plague of mopeds and unruly behavior. ConserFest, an annual homegrown music festival, raises money for artists and environmental causes. Over forty-five years, the Mary D Fund, founded by state nurse Mary Donnelly, has raised and discreetly disbursed well over a million dollars to help islanders get back on their feet with their dignity intact — and often, to return as donors.
“It’s the power of love and kindness and faith in each other, and it really works,” says fund administrator Marguerite Donnelly, who worked alongside her mother until Mary’s death in 2022.
Government runs on the batteries of small-D democracy. Islanders are currently working to amend regulations to create more affordable housing and plan for sea level rise. When there wasn’t a full slate of candidates for Town Council last election, Councilor Molly O’Neill was one of three residents who put their names forward as write-ins to give everyone some choice. New Shoreham still has a financial town meeting where the town makes big decisions together. This April, they agreed to put up a $3.1 million bond referendum to address water capacity. In 2017, the town approved, by two votes, $2.7 million to buy the Block Island Power Company from private investors and turn it into a nonprofit cooperative.
“It was the largest turnout I’ve ever seen,” says Barbara MacMullan, who sits on the utility board. “And we thought, ‘This better work out or we’ll be run out of town on a rail.’ In the end, it did. But the community had a huge voice in whether it was going to happen, and that’s very much how it is out here.”
Some blame home prices on the conservationists; others worry that once the town hits its 50 percent preservation target, developers will overrun what’s left. There are fears that civic engagement is slumping; it’s harder to fill the boards and field the all-volunteer fire department. O’Neill says the introduction of broadband may have unanticipated impacts. “It’s going to enable people with second homes to spend more time in their second homes, because working remotely is a thing now.”
On an island of a thousand people, there are a thousand different opinions — at least. But there is consensus on this:
“My favorite line is: ‘I may not like you, but if your house catches fire, I’ll come help put it out,’” says Rich Tretheway, who co-hosts the “Two Guys on Block Island” podcast with Marc Scortino. “That core foundation of the island has not changed. People care, and they’ll show up if someone’s in need — and it’s stronger than anywhere I’ve ever seen. It’s this big, crazy, busy place in the summer, but it’s still a wonderful small town.”
Ellen Liberman is an award-winning journalist who has commented on politics and reported on government affairs for more than two decades.