If there is one symbol of Hull’s rough and tumble past and its gentrified present, it’s the wooden horses that go round and round to the sound of carnival music near the Nantasket Beach boardwalk.
"The carousel has been here for 86 years from 1905 to 1985," said Patricia Abbate, head of Hull’s Chamber of Commerce, who runs this famous landmark merry-go-round. "So it’s really touched generation after generation of folks growing up around here."
But this carousel is all that’s left of Paragon Park, an amusement center that attracted thousands of visitors to this isolated town between the bay and the beach, nearly an hour’s drive from Boston. Paragon was torn down in 1984 to build condominiums, which really started altering the face of this formerly honky-tonk ocean community.
"The middle class has changed," Abbate said.
Condo development was an acknowledgment that Hull could not live on nostalgia alone. And it evolved from a working class haven to a conflicted middle-class community of slightly more than 10,000 people.
Abbate, standing by the town merry-go-round, wishes for simpler times.
"This harkens back to a time when this was Everyman’s carousel," she said.
But the everyman romanticism is not just about the carousel and wishing for a simpler life. It also plays out in our view of the middle class; how we once imagined our place in society and the unlimited reach of our aspirations. We still all want to do better, but today it’s harder because of the widening gulf of income inequality. And what you do, how much you make, and where you live all plays into the reality and the perception of your standing in today’s middle class.
"I grew up in North Providence, Rhode Island, and my parents had a beach house in Narraganset Bay," said Mark Abatuno, a real estate agent in Hull. "And here I am, 50 years later building and buying a house here on Hull Bay, facing the West, seeing sunsets over salt water everyday of the year. My wife and I stand in front of our sliding glass doors and we pinch each other and say 'We live here. We live here.'
So do teachers, lawyers, doctors and administrators: What they’ve all found in Hull is a town invested more in community than a prestigious zip code.
'They're people who downsized from Boston, Newton, Wayland, Hingham. They came looking for God's last cheap waterfront.'
Here in the business district on Nantasket Avenue, there’s no Starbucks or Whole Foods, but there’s Riddle’s Supermarket, where they still bake their own bread, and Rocky’s Drug Store, which delivers prescriptions to their customers.
Rocky Tenaglia moved to this seaport town in 1986.
"My wife grew up in Hull, so I know a lot of the people in Hull," Tenaglia said.
The formal name of his store is Nantasket Pharmacy. That’s where I meet Rocky himself:
"My wife’s family owned the drug store before I bought it," he said. "So when I bought the drug store I also got a wife. I didn’t realize when I bought it I was going to buy a wife. Oops, skip that, I mean, get a wife."
While communities struggle with growth and change, Hull is still trying to hold on to what makes it distinctly middle class: familiarity, community, neighbors you know.
Rocky’s customers include both recently arrived upper-income professionals and long entrenched blue-collar workers: electricians, plumbers, sheet-rock cutters, carpenters. Hull’s medium household income is $74,000, but many jobs here are heavily dependent on the ups and downs of the local tourist economy. So can they afford to stay in the middle class. Will they be priced out by newcomers to Hull?
"They’re people who downsized from Boston, Newton, Wayland, Hingham," said Susan Ovans, publisher of The Hull Times. "They came looking for God’s last cheap waterfront."
Cheap because Hull’s middle class — far more than its economically prosperous neighbors — was devastated by the recession of 2008, Ovans said.
"It seems that Hull had more than it’s fair share," she said.
Ovans also functions as the unofficial chronicler of this town’s middle class angst.
"For a long time it was really frightening to see how many people’s houses were coming across our desks," she said. "We published the legal notices before a foreclosure, and so I was seeing friends and people I’ve known for a long time, people who’ve been here for a long time who maybe at the beginning of the century, or at least the decade, because refinancing had been so easy, they did that renovation they were thinking about, or they put their kids through college, and if they lost their job, they lost their house. So it was a big turnover in terms of who lives here."
But the downturn for some of Hull’s middle class was an opportunity for others. Abbate, who runs the carousal, bought her home in 2008.
"It was a good year to buy my home, because I have seen my house appreciate quite a bit in those past few years," she said. "And I’ve seen the town become gentrified in those years as well. So I do see new families coming in."
The home ownership rate in Hull is nearly 75 percent — and 42 percent of residents are either single or without children. Increasingly they are older, professional women. But middle class home ownership in Hull can be a mixed blessing with homeowners struggling to maintain houses buffeted by sand and salt water, and increased taxes paid for by incomes that barely budge. And there’s another problem, says Abatuno: a fast-rising ocean that has taken some here out of the middle of the middle class.
"That is, in fact, happening to people who are finding their flood insurance expense going up exponentially," he said. "And I would say probably 75 percent of all the properties here in Hull are in a flood zone."
"Especially lower-middle-class families, who are living pay check to pay check, and for people who are older who are on a fixed income, if they have to have flood insurance they’re going to think about selling that house," Ovans said.
So buyers that can afford both the house and the flood insurance are pouring into town — which some fear risk changing the balance of blue-collar workers and professionals and that small town feel.
"Recently I had an offer on a property where the flood insurance was $5,000 a year, which translated into $450 dollars per month," said real estate agent Lynne O’Brien.
And quite a few are cash buyers from Hingham, the town next door. They are remaking an old honky-tonk town, where many never imagined ever living. Ovans says that petty resentment among middle class and wealthy towns is not as simple an issue as keeping up with the Joneses — after all, that would be impossible, she says.
"Hingham has a whole different feel to it," she said. "So does Cohasset. We’re surrounded by communities that are more affluent than we are, seen as more desirable than we are, but we’re not all sitting back here and leading our lives and thinking, ‘If only we work a little harder, we’ll get to move to Hingham.”
Ovans says the real issue is self perception: How Hull residents see themselves, she says, can psychologically lift up an entire community, where many hard-working people are underwater in housing debt and where middle class dreams are at risk of sinking beneath the waves of a fast encroaching sea.