Robert Whitcomb: Coastal conflicts; uniting on infrastructure; urban wildlife

This column of diverse ruminations originated as Robert Whitcomb’s GoLocalProv Digital Diary column,  a fresh version of which goes on that site ever Thursday,

New England coastal communities have long  hosted heated shoreline-access disputes made more complex by state laws, some going back to colonial times, that favor property owners’ rights to tightly limit the public’s access  to the shore.

Some states, most famously California, heavily favor the public when it comes to beach access – but not in New England!

With the explosion of new and immense wealth in a  sliver of the population in the past 30 years and the love of being on the   summer shore, the tensions have gotten worse. The increasing arrogance and separation from their fellow Americans of many very rich coastal-mansion owners have poured more cyanide in the surf. Some of these people are much tougher than their more modest summer-place predecessors in dealing with the Great Unwashed trying to get close to the water.

Fast-moving sand and (related) rising sea levels linked to global warming will pour on more legal gasoline.

A case in point is a controversy about a beach near Oyster Pond on Martha’s Vineyard involving Boston real-estate mogul  and Vineyard summer resident Richard Friedman. The Boston Globe reported, “The section of the beach that Friedman’s  deed gave him rights to was a small sliver that, by the mid-20th Century, had moved into Oyster Pond itself.’’

“Friedman and a handful of {friendly} neighbors … believed that they could claim ownership of a bit of the beach’’ on the basis of old deeds and custom.

But some other landowners in the area objected,  arguing, reports The Globe, that “Friedman’s property was legally underwater, 200 feet offshore. And the rest of the beach, they said, belonged to them’’ under assorted legal documents.

But Mr. Friedman decided to becomea man of the people. His legal advisers came up with new approach: As The Globe put it:  “Oyster Pond, they note, is legally {under state law dating to colonial times} a ‘great pond’ – at least 10 acres – which Massachusetts law considers public property’’ and thus, they argued, the whole beach, part of which, again, had moved into the pond, is open to public use.

So Mr. Friedman got legislation filed on Beacon Hill declaring that barrier beaches that move into great ponds are thereby public property!

Some of the other rich landowners in the neighborhood don’t like this one bit. They assert that Mr. Friedman’s public-access argument would involve taking private land and  thus require the state to reimburse the owners.

Anyway, as the sea rises and coastline erosion speeds up, especially of the low, sandy glacial debris  that makes up such places as Cape Cod, the Vineyard, Nantucket and southern Rhode Island, then what?

Prepare for a lot of new law to be written in the next couple of decades. As for the Oyster Pond case, the law is so murky that the lawsuits could last as long as Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, in Dickens’s novel Bleak House.  With beaches ever faster becoming sandbars and vice versa, oceanside bluffs falling ever more rapidly into the sea and summer people forced to put their (usually too big) houses on stilts, the land-law circus is coming to town.  Maybe ahuge hurricane will clarify things.


In other, perhaps happier, environmental news, zoologists are telling us about how many  wild animals normally associated with the countryside are adapting to life in cities.

The East Side of Providence provides examples of this opportunism. Coyotes are thriving, raccoons are into everything,  rabbits are proliferating and birds are learning new tricks to find food on rooftops and parking lots.  There have even been some deer sightings by the mighty Seekonk River.  (A moose wandered through  inner Boston suburb Belmont, a few weeks ago;  sadly, a car killed it soon thereafter in Weston.}

Why the rabbits (which we saw very few of when we moved to the East Side the first time 26 years ago)? My guess is that they thrive because more dogs are leashed in the area than years ago, there are fewer loose cats and there’s always lots of water being used in backyards and thus lots of green grass and clover and other edible plants. And those automatic irrigation systems (which deposit far too much of their water onto nearby sidewalks and streets)  provide lots of reliable drinking water for creatures large and small.

But sadly, because of too much insecticide use, you don’t see many fireflies in our neighborhood.


One thing that hasn’t changed is the crickets, which started their chirping last week in a melancholy reminder that we’re heading into late summer. The hot dry weather may have started the chirping a bit earlier than normal this year. Retailers ravaged by the Internet seem to have started their back-to-schools ads earlier than usual, too.


I fear that this will be one of the most vicious and unpleasant presidential campaigns in history. Still, there’s one area inwhich Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton should be able to come together: Fixing America’s infrastructure.

They, and virtually all Americans, agree that our transportation system – roads, bridges, rail lines, airports, etc. recalls  the Third World. That also goes for much of the rest of our infrastructure, too – e.g., public school buildings and libraries. That’s in large part because of the anti-tax mania (maintained by lobbyists for the very rich) that has produced such inanities as no rise in the federal gasoline tax since 1993. In Rhode Island, with the truckers, and elsewhere we have seen how hard special transportation interests fight to avoid paying for the damage  that they do to roads and bridges.

A massive federal infrastructure-repair and expansion campaign would train and employpeople, make business more globally competitive and, all in all, the country stronger. It shouldn’t be a Democrat-vs.-Republican thing.

Part of the answer, of course, is mass transit, which has helped make such cities as Boston and New York rich. It still gets far too little money and marketing, although more of it would save a lot of wear and tear on our roads and bridges, improve the environment,  discourage sprawl, strengthen downtowns, and ease the lives of the elderly and the millions of people (many of them working young people) who can’t afford cars.

But it takes patience to make it work.  Many complain, for example, that the newish Wickford, R.I., MBTA station is an under-used boondoggle. But they ignore that the Providence train station’s MBTA business took a while to get cooking but is now thriving.


Maybe the big public-works project could provide jobs for some of those despairing, druggy, tattooed and chain-smoking people who hang around places like gritty/beautiful downtown Pawtucket with nothing to do but await assistance from social-welfare agencies there. You get a vivid look at America’s social dysfunction and decline driving through old mill towns like Pawtucket on a summer weekend.


There’sa weird glamour about New England diners, which show up in movies from time to time. The latest:  Scenes for a Jack Black movie, TheMan Who Would Be Polka King, will be shot at the Modern Diner, in Pawtucket. As of this writing it’s scheduled for Aug. 12. The intimacy and chattiness you find in dinersmake them great places for close-conversation shots, and that they were inspired by late 19th Century lunch wagons and railroad dining cars evokes a kind of  (pre-natal?) nostalgia.


The Modern is one of two surviving Sterling Streamliner diners still open, with the other in Salem, Mass.

The Pawtucket diner has a heroic side: In the early ‘90s, Walt Disney Co. sold thousands of shirts featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse standing before the Modern Diner and its iconic neon sign. In doing so, the behemoth Disney broke copyright laws. The Modern’s owners, represented by Providence lawyer Michael Feldhuhn, who died recently, sued Disney and won.


The oafish Fox News’s Roger Ailes’s well-paid exit from GOP house organ Fox News is a reminder that sexual harassment  is still going strong in some companies. Now that he’s gone will Fox’s on-air bombshells dim their blinding lipstick?

Another example of women being taken advantage of comes in a new book, The Lady With the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire, by Laura Claridge.

The heroic Blanche Knopf was a brilliant publishing executive and literary lion finder and cultivator who, more than her husband, Alfred, was responsible for the success ofAlfred A. Knopf Inc.,   which in its 20th Century heyday was probably America’s most prestigious publisher,  including of Nobel laureates. But her often cruel husband took most of the credit. This book provides a global panorama of book culture over the last century and ends up being very moving.


You might be interested in a nonprofit public-affairs organization called the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations (;, which hosts speakers at monthly dinners September to June.  Our 2015-2016 season speakers included:

Evan Matthews, director of the Port of Davisville, on international shipping changes, particularly in the context of the expansion of the Panama Canal.

Greg Lindsay, writer, futurist and  expert on cities around the world and their relationship to airports.

Hedrick Smith, PBS documentary maker, former star foreign correspondent.

David Alward,  Canadian general consul.

Allan Cytryn, international cybersecurity expert.

Andrew Michta, U.S, Naval War College expert on Russia and NATO.

Rima Salah, High U.N. humanitarian-relief official.

Eduardo Mestre, Cuban-American civic leader and international  banker.

Our new season will open Sept. 14.

Mark Blyth, the first speaker of the new season and whom some of you have heard on NPR commenting on Brexit, will speak on Wednesday, Sept. 14, on Europe after Brexit.

Mark Blyth is Eastman Professor of Political Economy andProfessor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs at Brown.

He is an internationally celebrated political economist whose research focuses upon how uncertainty and randomness affect complex systems, particularly economic systems, and why people continue to believe stupid economic ideas despite buckets of evidence to the contrary. He is the author of several books, including Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford University Press 2013, and The Future of the Euro (with Matthias Matthijs) (Oxford University Press 2015).

Coming fast after that will be:

Prof. Morris Rossabi, probably the world’s greatest expert on Central Asia and particularly Mongolia: a democracystuck between the police states of Russia and China, Sept. 21.  How does this faraway country do it? He’ll be speaking to us soon after returning from Mongolia and other points in Asia.


FormerU.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Tod Sedgwick, on the situation in Central Europe,  Oct. 5.

Meanwhile,  the World Affairs Council and the PCFR are preparing a forum for Oct. 20 at the Hope Club on the foreign-policy visions of the U.S. presidential candidates. Stay tuned

Naval War College Prof. James Holmes on the geopolitics of global warming,  Nov. 15.

German General Consul Ralf Horlemann on the role of Germany in an E.U. without the U.Kand with an aggressive Russia pressing in from the east, Dec. 14.

Internationalepidemiologist Rand Stoneburner,  M.D., on Zika and other burgeoning threats to world health, Jan. 18.

Indian Admiral Nirmal Verma, on military and geopolitical issues in South and Southeast Asia, Feb. 15.

Dr. Stephen Coen, director of the Mystic Aquarium, on the condition of the oceans, March 8.

Brazilian political economistand commentator Evodio Kaltenecker on April 5 to talk about the crises facing that huge nation.

The rest of the season’s schedule is being worked on now.  And we’re trying to keep some flexibility to respond to events.

In any event, we are working with, among others, Laura Freid, to talk about the Silk Road Project, of which she is CEO;  Michael Soussan to talk about the U.N., diplomacy, Iraq and his book Backstabbing for Beginners, now being made into a major movie;  an expert on the ocean-fishing industry, and an international travel expert.


Digital Diary talks with Bruce Newbury on WADK (15:40 A.M.) most Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. and sometimes more frequently, depending on the news. You can also hear the show at any hour via

Robert Whitcomb is the overseer of New England Diary.