Generations connect to look into Nags Head’s future

By on February 26, 2011

The students presented their findings at the Roanoke Island Festival Park theater. (Russ Lay photo)

A question: Is the past a window that allows us to mold our future?

A common assumption: Young people don’t listen to or respect the ways of older generations.

A group of UNC undergraduates under the direction of Robert Perry, director of the university’s Albemarle Ecological Field Site in Manteo, would answer yes to the question while turning the assumption on its ear.

Each year, UNC undergraduates arrive in Manteo for a full semester. One of their classes is a three-credit course where they engage in a “Capstone” project on a specific subject, typically with an environmental bent. At the end of the semester the research is compiled into something akin to a small book containing their findings.

One of the most successful Capstone projects researched local attitudes and knowledge of sea level rise, a study which was well-received in academic circles.

For 2010, the students’ area of research was “Looking Back to Move Forward Sustainably: Nags Head, North Carolina.” The group worked with the Nags Head Beach Road Committee and BlueGreen Outer Banks to develop the project.

Robert Perry, director, Albemarle Ecological Field Site.

A significant amount of research required the students to study Nags Head’s past. The young researchers spoke to senior citizens, who were able to relate their own as well as their parents’ and grandparents’ recollection of life before the bridges, paved roads and oceanfront development transformed the area into a tourism mecca.

They also culled archival records at the Outer Banks History Center, online resources and numerous published works about the area, including the research of writers such as David Stick.

What emerged was a picture of the “old ways” of life in Nags Head. Because of the area’s relative isolation many of those traditional — and sustainable — practices persisted well into the 20th century.

The students organized their research around nine areas; transportation, energy, finance, architecture, community, arts and crafts, food, water and knowledge — the method of relaying one generation’s experience with climate, fishing and farming practices and how to construct buildings and dwellings in the face of floods and hurricanes.

In each area the students tried to recover from the past practices what could be revived now and in the future.

Cottage row before the dunes were built in the 30s. (Outer Banks History center photo)

Another intriguing bit of information gleaned from the study was the group’s identification of six major historical turning points in our history which led to significant changes in the social structure of the resident population. One could construct this information from reading several history books and drawing conclusions, but the Capstone group presents us with a concise timeline for our consideration:

The 1830s When “tourists” in the form of wealthy mainland farmers first build houses among the native population (on the sound side in what we now call Nags Head Woods and the areas around Jockey’s Ridge) and live in Nags Head for the bulk of the summer.

Early 1900s When summer vacation homes begin to migrate to the ocean side, an early separation of the “tourist” and “local” populations.

Development in the 60s and 70s brought significant change. (OBHC photo)

1962 With a tourism industry and infrastructure in place (roads, bridges, drinking water), the Ash Wednesday storm the extent of possible infrastructure damage to roads, beach erosion in front of homes and salt water infiltration of drinking water reveals what was now required to sustain a tourist population in addition to the locals’ needs.

Late 1960s Modernized bridges and more paved roads bring even more tourists to the region. Rather than summer-long visitors, the economy now shifts to reliance on “short-stay” tourists who seldom mingle with the locals.

Early 1970 The arrival of local and out of town developers, investment rental homes and subdivisions spurs an increase in tourism and the resident population.

These mileposts led the students to trace the slow evolution from a local society that employed farming, fishing, hunting and carpentry skills for self-sustaining purposes to a local population that began to sell food and skills to summer-long visitors, then to short-term visitors.

Robert Perry with students Jamie Berger and Audrey Whetten.

Craft skills became salable art and souvenir commodities. Windmills, once used not for energy but to grind grain, were replaced by retail and service industries and reliance on the power grid grew. Roads and oceanside development severed the once-close ties between natives and tourists.

Food was imported, easy access to water supplies was no longer sustainable and building materials were no longer recycled; they were brought in from towns like Elizabeth City. And the sense of community and mutual aid disappeared.

The Capstone group describes how many of these practices can be revived and revised. Nags Head will never see horses replace cars, but more bike paths and bike parking, pedestrian walkways, even golf carts could replace the car as our primary mode of moving around.

Windmills could return, not to make grain but to supply energy. The ocean and sun could be harnessed as well, perhaps creating a localized cottage industry specializing in East Coast renewable energy. Those old arts-and-crafts skills, once an art of necessity, could spawn a boutique arts-and-craft retail model drawing on our past.

Food, while no longer a viable local commodity, could be brought in from nearby counties and, along with seafood, sold in open air markets that would attract tourists and provide locals a gathering place to mingle among themselves as well as reconnecting with tourists in a more personal way.

The UNC group even honed in on the old Windmill Point property owned by Nags Head and the Dare County Tourism Board, encouraging the developers to incorporate outdoor performance venues as another way to bring locals and tourists together and foster a sense of community.

We asked two members of the group of the group to elaborate on their particular areas of study and we will present those in coming days.

To see the complete study, click here »


Comments are closed.