Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
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Aquinnah Circle Wins State Designation as Cultural District
Aquinnah Circle Wins State Designation as Cultural District

by Alex Elvin - January 27, 2016
MV Gazette

tj_gayhead_culturaldistrict.jpgAquinnah Circle with its ancient natural history has long been an attraction for visitors.  Timothy Johnson

The Aquinnah Circle at the westernmost tip of the Vineyard has been named a cultural and historic district by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

It is the second cultural district designation on the Island and the first in the nation to involve a partnership between a town and Native American tribe.

The Vineyard Haven harbor area was named a cultural district last year.

The newly-named district will include the Gay Head Cliffs and lighthouse, along with the Aquinnah Shops and lookout, and the Aquinnah Cultural Center.

The announcement comes as the town is about to begin a visioning process for the area around the lighthouse and the Circle following the moving of the Gay Head Light last year. The first session in the visioning process is next Tuesday in Aquinnah.

Over the past several months, the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce and Arts Martha’s Vineyard helped bring together officials from the town and Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), along with residents at large, to apply for the state designation.

“The Circle up at Aquinnah is really different from a downtown area,” chamber director Nancy Gardella told the Gazette shortly after the official announcement on Tuesday. “They really had to be very thoughtful about the footprint of this district.”

The partnership envisions “a journey-like experience,” where visitors can learn about local history and culture, while enjoying the shops and the scenic beauty of the area, according to a statement this week by the cultural council, which promotes arts, sciences and humanities in the state.

Nantucket also received a cultural district designation this week, covering most of its historic downtown area, including major buildings that played a role in the China trade and whaling era through the mid-1800s.

Efforts to establish the Aquinnah district began in 2014 when cultural center director Anita Walker toured the Gay Head Light with Len Butler, who led logistics for the lighthouse move, and Ms. Gardella.

The lighthouse drew national attention last spring when it was moved 129 feet away from the eroding clay cliffs, but the area has long been a key attraction.

“Visitors make the pilgrimage to this remote Island location in every way imaginable, from biking, to paid tours, private vehicles, and public transportation,” the council statement said. “Before there was even a paved road, the Aquinnah Cliffs were a destination for tourists traveling by land or sea.”

Tribal planner Durwood Vanderhoop helped lead the cultural district effort.

“Durwood has been a champion in all of this in putting it together,” said Juli Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah selectman who is also a tribal member. She noted the district’s significance to the tribe, which has long called Aquinnah home and whose members have traditionally conducted business at the Circle.

“Hopefully it will be a great thing for everybody up there: the businesses, the Aquinnah Cultural Center, the lighthouse,” Ms. Vanderhoop said. “It’s an opportunity to highlight the history of that area a little bit more, and I think that will be great.”

Ms. Gardella agreed that the designation would be an opportunity for people to learn about both the town and the Wampanoag tribe, which is a central part of Island history. She said the main financial benefit of the district would be increased publicity through both the chamber and the state Office of Travel and Tourism.

“It helps draw the kind of visitors that we all love,” she added. “They are visitors of arts and cultures, so they leave a soft footprint; they love to come off-season; they are extremely responsible and curious.”

The chamber is working to establish cultural districts in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown as well, she said.

Meanwhile, the Aquinnah visioning sessions this winter are open to the public and will help inform the work of Mariko McNamara and Ryan Corrigan, graduate students at the Conway School of Landscape Design in western Massachusetts, who are working to develop a series of proposals for the Circle. The first session will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the town hall.

“Their mission in this study is really about creating more connections between the various pieces of the Circle,” said Derrill Bazzy, chairman of the town community preservation committee which is overseeing the planning project. Areas of focus may include properties the town acquired last year as part of the lighthouse move, the cultural center across the way, and access to Moshup Beach.

“In the end they are going to come up with some proposals and ideas and direction that the town can make use of down the line,” Mr. Bazzy said, adding that the process would occur in tandem with the cultural district planning.

“It all just kind of overlaps and fits together in classically organic Aquinnah fashion,” he said. “It’s a loved spot and everyone is following through on that love in terms of getting involved.”