Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac Once Found Refuge in the Dune Shacks of Cape Cod. Now, Longtime Residents Are Being Forced Out

The National Park Service plans to lease out some of the structures, which have long been used by artists and writers

Dune shack
Artists have long used these rustic dune shacks in Cape Cod as creative retreats. rockcreek via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The 19 dune shacks of Cape Cod are sparse: Most of them don’t have running water or electricity, but that’s part of their draw. The isolated, stunning location on a beach near Provincetown, Massachusetts, has helped pull generations of artists and writers to the shacks by the shore.

“There are no more storied shelters in America than the dune shacks of Cape Cod,” as Smithsonian magazine’s Paul Starobin wrote in 2012. At various times, they hosted playwright Eugene O’Neill, writer Jack Kerouac, painter Jackson Pollock and poet E.E. Cummings, among many others. “It was an amazing scene out there,” Stephen Borkowski, chairman of the Provincetown Art Commission, told Smithsonian. “It was a crucible of American modernism.”

Since then, however, the art community that blossomed around the beach has struggled to maintain the shacks. Now, they’re facing a new challenge: The National Park Service (NPS) opened public bidding on eight of the shacks in May, allowing members of the public to vie for a ten-year lease on the properties, reports the New York Times’ Jenna Russell.

When President John F. Kennedy established the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, the NPS took over ownership of the shacks—and planned to demolish them, as Artnet’s Helen Stoilas writes. After decades of legal battles between the government and the families who had long occupied and maintained the shacks, residents were granted lifetime leases. Following these residents’ deaths, the NPS would once again own the properties.

“To treat this intoxicating place like real estate—I can’t stand the idea,” Salvatore Del Deo, a painter and longtime dune shack caretaker, tells the Times. “I’m ashamed that the Park Service would try to capitalize on it, without realizing the point of the shacks was to get away from civilization, from capitalism.”

Del Deo, who turns 95 this month, had helped maintain a hut known as “Frenchie’s Shack” for 77 years. “I thought that I would spend my last days there,” he tells the Boston Globe’s Lindsay Crudele.

The NPS ordered Del Deo to vacate because an heir of the original owner, who had given the shack to Del Deo, recently died, voiding the shack’s lifetime lease. By this point, he and his family have “rebuilt the structure and paid taxes on it for decades, painting and writing there every summer and digging it out every spring,” per the Times.

Community members attempted to block Del Deo’s removal, creating a petition that garnered thousands of signatures. Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating released a letter, co-signed by Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, expressing “deep concern” and asking that the NPS “consider all available options to legally allow Mr. Del Deo to reside in Frenchie’s Shack.”

The NPS eventually offered the Del Deo family a two-year special use permit for the shack, per CBS News Boston. They declined, saying they wanted the NPS to refrain from removing other families from the shacks.

Though the NPS argues that its plan for the shacks will help maintain the integrity of the historic district, Robert Wolfe, a cultural anthropologist who wrote a government-commissioned study of the dune shacks in 2005, says that the agency is overlooking the significance of the culture that emerged around the structures.

“This is a living piece of American history, a living traditional culture that finds expression in those shacks, and that’s lost when you just put random people out there,” he tells the Times.

Del Deo hopes that someone in a position of power will step in. “I don’t have any money,” he tells the Boston Globe. “But I built that shack with my own hands. My son helped me and my friends helped me. And we did it.”

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