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Interview With: David Dunlap

March 17th, 2014

Novelist and longtime resident Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966) challenged her readers that no one would ever be able to find every street in Provincetown, even if they spent a lifetime trying to do so.

Dunlap’s deep regard for Provincetown is clear in the beautiful photographs and lyrical writing, every passage its own vignette.

One visitor is defying that notion, one street at a time. David Dunlap is a New York Times reporter specializing in the history of architecture and land development in New York City. His project, Building Provincetown, is a building-by-building and vessel-by-vessel guide that tells the story of Lands End through its structures, with more than 2,000 individual entries.

Dunlap’s deep regard for Provincetown is clear in the beautiful photographs and lyrical writing, every passage its own vignette.

A permanent website buildingprovincetown, includes much more material than the book, coming out in the latter part of 2014, could possibly encompass.

I caught up with the writer at his desk at the New York Times. David answered my questions by e-mail:

Q: Tell me about the first time you set eyes on our lovely seaside resort. How soon after that did you move here?

A: I first set eyes on Provincetown in late September 1989, obviously too late in the season to be impressed with it as a summer resort. So I concentrated instead on its extraordinary history. I was instantly struck by the density of construction — buildings cheek by jowl — and by how cosmopolitan such a small town seemed to be. I remember being surprised in the cemeteries by all of the Portuguese surnames on the headstones. (Like most ignorant outsiders, I'd just assumed that Cape Cod was a Yankee stronghold.) And I recall my astonishment at seeing Flyer Santos's newly completed Rose Dorothea in the Heritage Museum — now the Public Library. It was obvious that this place was so much more than a summer resort.

I'm flattered that you think I live here, but I only get to spend five weeks a year at most.

Q: As the very first reporter to ever document the Gay and Lesbian beat for the New York Times (1994-96), you had wanted to “expand what readers understood to be the lesbian and gay communities geographically, economically, racially, ethnically, politically and spiritually.” How was this experience?

A: It was a privilege to get to know the women and men who were battling on so many fronts and a joy and relief to watch the early glimmerings of hope in the battle against AIDS after the introduction of antiretroviral drugs.

Q: Do you enjoy the New York/Provincetown connection? Does it nourish you and your work to have both places as muses?

A: Absolutely. Apart from an obvious difference in scale (New York's population is equivalent to about 2,000 Provincetowns), the two places are remarkably similar in that their strength has always come from diversity and they both must now navigate the growing economic chasm that threatens their special social fabric.

It's fascinating to me that Provincetown — culturally at least — is much more closely connected to New York than to Boston. The Art Students League on West 57th Street seemed to have produced about half the artists of Provincetown's golden age. And, of course, the Cape tip was a kind of playground for the Bohemians of Greenwich Village.

Q: How did this fascinating project, Building Provincetown, begin?

A: Starting with my first visit, in 1989, I kept looking for a truly comprehensive guide to the town, something along the lines of the AIA Guide to New York City. There are many wonderful books on Provincetown, and Josephine Del Deo, George Bryant and Barbara Malicoat had prepared a lovely, information-packed series of walking tour brochures, but there was nothing to fully satisfy my hunger. Having waited almost 20 years for someone else to prepare such a guide, I decided in 2007 to try it myself.

Even after the book is published, it's my intent to keep building, expanding, correcting and improving buildingprovincetown.com. The very best thing that's happened with the site is that more and more people are contributing their personal reminiscences and even family photos, making the entries so much richer than if I were telling the story based only on documentary records. I hope it can become a kind of Provincetown Wikipedia one day.

Q: You have a special website, The Book which features preliminary and uncorrected page proofs, allowing readers to make comments, corrections, suggestions and recommendations before the material is committed to print early this summer. How do people find out when there is a new page to proof?

A: Most of Provincetown is on Facebook, so I set up a page Building Provincetown on Facebook, which lets everyone know the moment that a new page is available. I'm going through the streets of town in alphabetical order and am currently on Commercial Street in the east end, page 102 out of 171.

Q: I just can’t resist this question, David. What is your favorite building in Provincetown?

A: I have too many favorite buildings to identify just one. But I can tell you that my favorite structure is the amazing West End Breakwater, an extraordinary work of civil engineering — more than a mile long — that looks from one direction like a pathway to the sea, and then, out at Wood End, like a pathway back home to beautiful Provincetown.

Provincetown author Laura Shabott has learned how to self-publish and is empowering others to do the same. Confessions of an eBook Virgin: What Everyone Should Know before They Publish on the Internet demystifies the process with a few hours of reading. Rated five stars, the book is available on Kindle, Nook and in Paperback.

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