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Money and Meanness in the New Ptown

 

By Peter Manso

 

 

 

 

The first thing you notice when you walk into the resurrected Sal’s Place, in the heart of Provincetown’s West End, is the hustle and bustle of a hot restaurant: the place is packed, the noise level is high, and the servers scoot nonstop to and from the close-set tables. There’s a museum-quality Hawthorne and other class art on the walls, but the place still has a fish shack feel, with exposed rafters and the rhythmic slop of the bay against the pilings on which the waterfront building partially sits. And the food—the Brodetto or Zuppa di Pesce that one Facebook blogger raves about as “so wonderful that Marcella [Hazen] herself would flip,”—well, let me tell you, the Zuppa is so sweet, so transporting in its plummy, tomato-y tannic richness as to have made Sal’s the vacation spot’s dining destination of choice near overnight.

 

All this was pretty much the word around town last summer when the fifty-four year old Sal’s Place reopened under new management. But the food wasn’t the only things people were talking about. There were also whispers that the owner—a single, self-described blue-collar woman who’d originally arrived in Boston from Tipperary at age 17—was at war with her neighbors—four wealthy men, all gay, who had recently bought the abutting properties for summer party pads, and wanted the place dead and shuttered. In fact, depending on who you knew, you might have heard about bouts of property destruction, interminable delays for the restaurant’s opening, and armies of lawyers getting rich on both sides.

 

As the not-so-secret knock-down-drag-out tumbled into public view, eating there became an almost political act. Now, after simmering all winter, locals in P-Town are waiting for the hostilities to start afresh.

 

One resident called the quarrel the “worst case of bullying” he’d come across in his 50 years in town. But you could just as well call the fight over Sal’s place a sort of battle for Provincetown’s soul in miniature—a David and Goliath story about whether the artists, fishermen, and non-mainstream types of all persuasions were still welcome in the new Ptown. Or is this haven at the end of the Cape destined to become an exclusive enclave for the rich gay elite?

 

*****

 

 

 

Sal’s Place originally opened in 1962, started by painter Sal Del Deo and his poet-naturalist wife, Josephine, at 99 Commercial Street. Next to a weather-beaten two-story Cape from the 19th century known as “Home at Last,” so named by its original dory fisherman owner after he came ashore, and jammed down a little alley that was sheltered by grape vines, the place sprawled out onto a deck that overlooked the water and three old fishing shacks perched on the wharf. Under the Del Deos, the restaurant became a legend. Poet Stanley Kunitz, painters Jack Tworkov, Karl Knaths, Leo Manso, and Robert Motherwell were all regulars, as was the nationally known counter tenor Russell Oberlin. Norman Mailer, who was known to pig out on the notoriously oversize Steak Pizzaiola almost weekly, had Sal stay open one night until 2 a.m. so he could trade calls with fugitive killer Jack Henry Abbott, then on the lam, because the FBI was tapping his home phone.

 

The celeb names withstanding, the restaurant was a hive of neighborliness. Once a week the Del Deos would send a meal and bottle of Chianti across the street to Flyer Santos, the last of Provincetown’s noble shipwrights. They held fundraisers, let musicians use the place for rehearsals, and entertained friends late at night with Sal’s homemade brandy as they did cleanup. They also passed up the profits of selling hard booze by restricting the restaurant to beer and wine lest Sal’s Place turn into a noisy hotspot that upset neighbors’ sleep. By the time the Del Deos sold it to a woman named Lora Papetsas  and her husband Jack in 1989, it had secured a reputation as the kind of warm, freewheeling place that helped transform this little fishing village into a summer mecca for artists, writers, misfits, and—perhaps most notably today —gays and lesbians.

 

            The Papetsases ran the place for quarter of a century and, despite a restriction in the deed against liquor, Lora finagled a permit for a full bar after her husband’s death.. The town changed, too. Over the years, the fishing shacks started getting fixed up; indeed some were so transmogrified by the time of the millennium as to wind up in the pages of “Architectural Digest.”  Correspondingly, Provincetown got a reputation as the gay summer getaway not just in the U.S. but internationally.

 

When Papetsas finally decided to sell in 2011, the value of the place had skyrocketed, and she split up the property. Ninety-nine Commercial, the unit that housed the restaurant, had been condo’d  and included the three small shacks out on the small pier—designated as Units 1, 2, and 3—as well as apartments in the main building that sat above Sal’s. “Home at Last,” the little Cape at 101 Commercial, was to be sold off as a separate, standalone property.

 

One by one, the wharf shack condos sold to three men in their fifties, who had been friends for years. All about 150 square feet apiece, they sold for a reported $100,000 each.

 

The first buyers were Bryan Rafanelli and Mark Walsh. Tall, presentable, and charged with inexhaustible enthusiasms, the longtime partners were the most high profile of the group, with money and political connections aplenty. Rafanelli was president and co-founder of Rafanelli Events, Boston’s premier party planning service, and had loyally organized fundraisers for Hillary Clinton for years—as well as the $3 million Chelsea Clinton-Marc Mezvinsky wedding that earned him a mention in Vanity Fair. Walsh, a lawyer by training but also co-owner of Rafanelli Events, had been appointed in 2011 Deputy Chief of Protocol at the Hilary Clinton State Department, a position that put him in charge of planning official State Department visits from heads of state and foreign dignitaries.

 

The buyer of the third pier shack was David Berarducci, a Boston-based landscape architect. Together, the shacks owned by the three friends represented a 21 percent interest in the condo; the restaurant, the remaining 79 percent.

 

The owner of the Home at Last cottage is perhaps the wealthiest of the group, an immaculately groomed Tab Hunter lookalike by the name of Greg Connors. Formerly a mid-level D.C.-based financial advisor with Wells Fargo, Connors had recently divorced long-time partner, GOP donor and telecom titan Donald Burns of Palm Beach, Nantucket, La Jolla, and Southampton. Burns, co-founder of Telco Communications that was sold to Excel in 1997 for $1 billion had made headlines after the breakup when a series of paid liaisons with a gay porn star named Jarec Wentworth turned into an extortion case over $1.5 million and an Audi A-8 sports car. In the trial that followed Burns acknowledged that his bad boy behavior was “a coping mechanism from the loss of my long-term relationship,” thus dragging Connors, if only indirectly, into the scandal.

 

            Sal’s was the last piece of property to sell, and it went to a hardscrabble Irish restaurateur from Boston named Siobhan Carew, who closed on the property in February 2016. Of medium height, with the pause of those who are rural tough, Carew had immigrated to the Boston in 1981. She originally working as a nanny, but quickly segued into washing dishes at restaurants around the city. When she was in her thirties she was divorced with three kids. In 1992 she opened her own place—Pomodoro—in Boston’s North end. It was a hit. And in 1995, when someone bombed it, she shrugged it off as just some local gumbas unhappy with an Irish woman operating an Italian joint on their home turf. Subsequently, she opened another location and a bar, Matt Murphy’s, in suburban Brookline with her daughters, even as she completed night school. She’s not someone to be trifled with.

 

*****

 

 

 

            There were signs of trouble before Carew even owned the place. In November of 2015, while still hashing out the details of the sale, she applied for permits to reopen Sal’s the following summer and was surprised by stiff resistance at the Provincetown Zoning Board of Appeals. While five people spoke up on her behalf at the hearing, supported by 23 letters from abutters and non-abutters alike, Walsh, Connor’s lawyer Lester Murphy, and a third person voiced their opposition. Connor’s lawyer claimed that the narrowness of Sal’s side entrance doorway and the alleyway between Connors’ building and the restaurant both posed safety hazards, though both had always been that way. Mostly, though, he argued Connors was “entitled to his peace and quiet” and hadn’t been told that 99 Commercial was being marketed as a restaurant when he bought “Home at Last.” (Carew’s attorney later produced a letter from the listing agent attesting to the fact that that Connors had in fact been shown the property as a possible “residential conversion.”) Carew’s license was finally granted on Feb. 25.

 

If the relationship between the Carew and her neighbors started sourly, it only got worse. The owners of the shacks, before Carew bought Sal’s, had pulled permits to rebuild the wharf and the company doing the work, Cape Cod Docks, bulldozed the deck that served as Sal’s outdoor eating area and the sea wall that protected the restaurant. The shack owners refused to take responsibility for the destruction. When the building permit for the wharf expired in early April, the Conservation Commission issued a stop-work order on the project and Carew demanded it be strictly enforced. She was suspicious that her own permitting problems might be traced to town board members who were a little too bedazzled by the West End’s fantastic wealth, and had decided to fight fire with fire.

 

IMG_20151107_135339_105.jpg IMG_20151107_135533_761.jpgIMG_20151107_135533_761.jpg

 

 

By March, however, she didn’t have much time to think about it. With spring in the air, she and her daughters started commuting daily to paint the restaurant’s interior, sew curtains, select the art from a friend’s gallery to hang on the walls, and put in supplies. Sometimes they took the ferry; sometimes they drove in Carew’s ’82 Subaru wagon, racking up some 15,000 miles. Always they had to be en route back to Boston by late afternoon to run Pomodoro, which was generating her operating capital.

 

The plan was to open Sal’s for Memorial Day weekend by bringing kitchen staff down the week before. But as delays kept rolling, and Memorial Day came and went, the normally unruffled Carew started to get nervous. If she didn’t open by the end of summer, Sal’s would lose its victualer’s license permanently. Provincetown’s bylaws provide that the non-use of a non-conforming establishment—i.e., a restaurant in a residential zone— for a two year period or more translates into “abandonment,” and Papetsas had kept the restaurant’s doors closed for the 2015 season. Carew had the feeling that that was just what her neighbors were hoping for. 

 

 

 

*****

 

All fantasy getaways have their dark side. In Provincetown, the usual tensions of a lopsided, two-season economy—one that balloons from 2,900 to upwards of 65,000 in the summer—have sometimes tipped ugly.

 

Back in 2006, gay and straight community members clashed after the gay rights website knowthyneighbor.org published the names of locals who had signed a petition in favor of banning gay marriage in Massachusetts. Outlets like the Associated Press reported that straight tourists had been called “breeders” and published handwringing accounts of an argument between Tom Hines, the publisher of Provincetown Magazine, and Yvonne Cabral, a petition-signer, in the aisle of a local supermarket.[1] “After being pushed and prodded your whole life for being gay, you run into someone you know sees you as a second-class citizen and it's human to respond,” Hines told Boston.com at the time, explaining how he came to call Cabral a “bigot” while out buying a hotdog. The town held community meetings to help soothe the situation.

 

 More recently, however, economics have played as much a role as anything, as money always does, and locals have started trading stories of being abused by high rollers from out of town.

 

John Sinaiko, a man I’ve known for years, told me how two summer residents bought a place next to his sister’s house that they planned on replacing with an architect-designed bungalow. When they discovered that their contractor would have to cross Sinaiko’s sister’s property to get their machines in and out, they conjured an assumed right of way. I heard another story about two condo owners who tried to annex a room from the elderly woman in the next unit; when the Board of Health stopped them they told the woman, “We’ve got more votes than you do in the condo committee, so we’re going to punish you for this.”

 

Since 2000 the price of real estate in Provincetown, not to say waterfront properties, has more than doubled, with an estimated ninety-five percent of the buyers being gay men, according to the town’s longtime leading agent Bill Dugal. Meanwhile, the town has lost more than twenty percent of its wintertime population, according to the U.S. Census reports, and more than 70 percent of the town’s taxable dwellings serve as second homes, open only in the high season. Off-season unemployment has more than doubled in the past five years. Provincetown’s high school closed in 2013, and even the traditional gung-ho volunteer fire department is having a hard time of it, what with the average age of today’s hook and ladder man being in the mid-60s. Last year, the off-season poverty rate in Provincetown stood at 14.2 percent—near triple that of other Cape towns like Orleans, Falmouth and Sandwich.

 

As a longtime Ptown watcher and resident, I cannot help but quietly mouth that most un-PC question as to whether or not the new Provincetown isn’t the result of a gay takeover. Or is what’s happened simply what happens to all “special” places discovered by artists who eventually get kicked out by big money, places like Key West, Woodstock, Bolinas, and even the Hamptons?

 

 

 

*****

 

For Carew, Memorial Day came and went, but Sal’s stayed closed. With the clock ticking, town gossip of her struggle soon surfaced in the local press. “Doors remain shut at Sal’s Place in Provincetown,” read a July 23 headline from the Provincetown Banner, detailing the early blows—the dock, spats about plumbing and permits—of what was becoming an entrenched conflict. “She’s just made it extremely difficult for us and we’ve reached out many times,” Berarducci whined to the paper. “I’ve missed my whole summer.”

 

Carew’s daughter Michaela wrote a lengthy Facebook post in response. It began, “This summer was supposed to be a joyful homecoming for our family. My mother first came to Provincetown in 1981 … the landscape, the community, and the uniqueness of the quaint fishing village cum artist colony called to her wild spirit and she was hooked.” But the fight with their neighbors had made them feel under siege. She listed the offenses: Connors’ efforts to keep the restaurant closed, the torn out deck, old grape vines that had sheltered diners torn down, a bulldozed bulkhead, an illegally constructed gate and stairway that Carew had nothing to do with, and claimed that the shack owners “accessed our personal storage lockers without notice or permission.” It culminated with the accusation that Mark Walsh told her mother, saying, “It’s after July 4th and you’re not open, you have no friends in this town.” He was mistaken, however, her post concluded, “Mr. Walsh was certainly wrong about us not having friends, as the outpouring of support that we have received … has been immense.”

 

Expressions of support had indeed poured in, many from Ptowners and Ptown visitors alike concerned about the direction the town was going in: Sal’s Place had become a referendum on gentrification, a way to vote with feet and wallets by which people were pledging allegiance to the old live-and-let-live Ptown.

 

On August 3rd Carew and her daughters finally opened and the place was so mobbed they had to turn people away. “I’m glad that you are finally opening,” one happy diner wrote on social media. “During this ordeal you’ve experienced the best and worst in Provincetown. The kind of people who want to see you succeed and the others who use town boards and lawyers to make your life miserable. There are far too many of the latter.”

 

It was an incomplete victory. Since taking ownership of Sal’s Place the restaurateur and her reps have appeared more than 40 times before town licensing boards, the Provincetown Building Commissioner and Town Planner, at meetings with her lawyers, and in court, per Carew’s estimate. Her legal bills stood at six-figures. Running the restaurant to capacity throughout August had helped but when she closed for the season on Sept. 6 it didn’t take long to realize that fall wasn’t going to bring relief from the guys next door.

 

In October, Connors’ lawyers filed a fresh appeal in Boston Land court to reconsider the Zoning Board’s decision to let Sal’s open, naming Carew and all members of the Zoning Board as defendants. Rafanelli-Walsh-Berarducci followed up with a Land Court filing of their own, claiming Carew interfered with their installation of utilities and plumbing, and trespassed onto the wharf area.

 

Carew responded with a suit of her own that included 21 counterclaims, among them that she was still without her deck. At present, the land court suits have yet to be resolved.

 

 

 

*****

 

 

 

With the Christmas holiday Connors at long last held his housewarming party at 101 Commercial. The event was more befitting Vegas than Provincetown.

 

 “He brought in 150 people, all flown in, along with good looking, young, buffed bartenders from the west coast and serving people. Biden was on Nantucket at the time and I heard that no Nantucket bay scallops were available because this guy, Connors, had them flown to Provincetown at whatever the cost,” said one neighbor, insisting on anonymity.

 

The new year brought more legal chaff, literally thousands of pages of writs, complaints, appendices to complaints, case law, exhibits and the like, all of which lent new meaning to the old lawyer’s tactic, “I’m gonna paper ‘em to death.” In March, as Connors’ assault on the Zoning Board was still waiting to be heard, Rafanelli & Co. added to their own Land Court suit by seeking a dismissal of Carew’s counterclaims and an injunction to stop her from moving forward on discovery—both of which signaled that a trial was likely, indeed perhaps inevitable. In April, news broke that trespassing complaints by Rafanelli and Walsh that historic district commission Vice Chair Marcene Marcoux, a vocal Siobhan supporter, might lead to her dismissal;. ominously, two of the five Town Selectmen have insisted on a closed hearing, two abstained, and only one voted to consider the Rafanelli-Walsh accusation in opoen session.

 

For the moment, Sal’s will live to fight another day. On March 20, 2017, and Orleans court dismissed the criminal complaint against Carew for trespassing and destruction of property tied to her pulling down the gate she regarded as put up illegally. And on March 21, 2017, the Provincetown Buildings Inspector gave the restaurant a passing grade for the coming season. Last year Sal’s didn’t get OK’d until the day before opening.

 

Carew is taking nothing for granted. “One of my daughters was born two blocks from the restaurant in a beachside shack 27 years ago, and I’ll be damned if I stand down for cronyism and corruption. I’m not going anywhere. Sal’s is here to stay.”

 

Maybe so, but there’s still the question that lingers in the air like a bad odor: Would Siobhan’s neighbors be any the less hostile if Sal’s were being run not by a woman but a fellow gay man? And if so, what might this mean for Provincetown? I think about this and I do not know for sure—the men didn’t want to share their side of the story. Each was approached and turned down my request for an interview, as did the newly hired Provincetown Town Manager David Panagore , some six times in all.

 

That may, in itself, prefigure a future Ptown in which people do not mix, do not function as parts of a diverse, open, and energizing potpourri of a community, alive and nuttily creative, so much as a place of caste, molded and striated by the mean prejudices of Yuppie (or is it Guppy”?) cash. 

 

 

 

Author Bio:

 

Author Peter Manso has lived in Provincetown most of his life and examined the town’s changing profile in his “Boston Globe” #1 best-seller, “Ptown: Art, Sex and Money on the Outer Cape.” His last book, “Reasonable Doubt, The Fashion Writer, Cape Cod, and the Trial of Chris McCowen,” is currently being made into an ABC-TV mini-series.

 



[1] http://www.aproundtable.org/news/newsindividual.cfm?ID=1373&issuecode=life

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/14045538/ns/us_news-life/t/when-heterosexuals-are-minority/#.WP5D5FMrJE6