The possibility of an island

19 Mar 2012

By Jim Lewis
The New York Times
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Bridge Studio (Jason Schmidt)

"You want to know why I am the way I am?" Zita Cobb asked. She’s a slender woman in her early 50s, with close cropped hair that gives her a certain iron-pixie mien. She has the distinct composure one often finds in people who’ve done well in the business world, brisk good humor layered over a fierce intensity. She was speaking in her office in a small building on Fogo Island, a freckle of land that lies off the northeast corner of Newfoundland, Canada, with a population of 2,700 or so scattered across a series of fishing communities with names like Seldom, Joe Batt’s Arm and Tilting. It’s a place so singular and remote that it has its own peculiar time zone, 1.5 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time — though in truth it feels like it’s hundreds of years behind: when it’s 10 p.m. in New York, it’s 1825 on Fogo Island.

Zita Cobb.

Cobb was born here. “When I was 5, I had TB,” she says. “We didn’t have a hospital, but the Christmas Seal boat came around, everybody lined up on the dock, and you got a chest X-ray. So I had to go away for a year, and I was in a sanatorium. For that whole year I never saw anyone in my family. I think I came out of that fully independent. When my father came to get me I remember looking at this man and thinking, ‘Who the frick is that?’ ”

He was a fisherman, as were most of the people on Fogo Island at the time, and the world he brought her back to was astounding in its seclusion. Overhead there were astronauts orbiting the earth. On the island, there was no electricity, no telephones or radios. Her parents, who could neither read nor write, raised her and her six brothers in a 900-square-foot house, where they’d pursued a life of semi-subsistence virtually identical to their forebears. No land deeds, no bank accounts, for that matter no cash: they sold their fish to merchants for credit in a company store, and everything else they needed they made themselves. Cobb showed me a picture of her mother as a girl, taken some time in the early 1940s. “I really don’t think that they knew there was a war on,” she said. “How would they know?” Her ancestors had arrived straight from Ireland and England and started fishing.

Tower Studio, one of four artist’s dwellings Cobb has built so far.

Newfoundlanders call these minuscule fishing villages “outports,” which gives them an apt air of edge-of-the-known. Getting to Fogo Island still isn’t easy; it typically entails several flights, a 60-mile drive, a 45-minute ferry and then another drive. Staying there is an exercise in anachronism. There are no fast food outlets on the island, only one bank, no movie theaters or malls, and if there was a neon sign anywhere I didn’t see it. The houses all face the North Atlantic, cold and seemingly endless. Circling around the island’s many bays and inlets (it’s about 4 times the size of Manhattan, with about 50 miles of paved road), one grows used to looking at the picture-book little towns from across a half mile or so of water. On clear days the light bounces freely across the distance, and the buildings appear so sharply etched you’d think you could reach out and touch them. When the clouds come in, everything seems to dissolve into mist and vapors. In spring, spectacular blue-white icebergs drift lazily past the harbors, occasionally letting out growls and groans as they calve.

Time is different; history foreshortened. Irish and English accents still poke up through local speech (“Would you like some oiwce, dere, Jim?” a local man said to me. Some what? “Some oiwce. From de oiwceberg.”) Anglican and Catholic and a few other houses of worship dominate the landscape; directions invariably begin with, “Well, you go down to the church. . . .” The small graveyards scattered around are full of surnames you recognize: the man who owns your B&B, the girl who works in a local restaurant. It’s a land out of time, or it was, until time took it back in, and a single edict devastated the place as swiftly and completely as Katrina devastated New Orleans. The outports were based on the cod industry, but the cod were disappearing, so in 1992 the Canadian government declared a moratorium on fishing, and just like that, Fogo Island, and hundreds of outports just like it, simply collapsed.

Her hotel going up.

By then, Cobb had left the island to get an undergraduate business degree in Ottawa; she’d worked for an oil company in Alberta, then for a firm that specialized in cold-weather engineering. In 1988, she quit and spent six months traveling through Africa; the next year, she joined the fiber optics company JDS Fitel (JDS merged with the American company Uniphase), and in time she was promoted to C.F.O. By 2000, she was the third-highest-paid female executive on American payrolls; in 2002, the year she cashed out, she made about four times as much as she’d made in 2000. She spent several years sailing around the world, and eventually made her way back, as many native sons and daughters do, to Fogo Island: one of the richest women in Canada, returning to one of its poorest communities.

Her plan was simply to take a break from her travels, but she returned to an island that had fallen into desuetude. Her first response was to set up a few scholarships, but one night she was buttonholed by a local mother. (Fogo Island women are nothing if not direct.) “Oh, it’s all really fine what you’re doing,” the woman said. “But you do realize that you’re just paying our children to leave, don’t you? You look smart enough. Can’t you do something to make jobs?”

It’s a simple question that people are grappling with in small towns everywhere, from the Gulf Coast to Nebraska. “Rural renewal” is a far less common term than its urban counterpart, but the problem is just as pressing, and in many ways similar: a community with vivid traditions and a struggling population gets hit by a disaster — economic, natural, political or all three — and has to decide how to recreate itself without becoming soulless and bland. Fogo Island has a curious advantage. It’s historically and geographically isolated; its population is small, homogeneous and for the most part fixed; its economy is simple; and Cobb had the resources to make an open-ended financial commitment. There are few variables to control for, no wild cards to keep at bay. All she had to do was invert the old maxim: Teach them not to fish, and she’d feed them for a lifetime.

The village of Fogo, overlooking Little Harbour.

So she went C.F.O. on the place. She set up a foundation with her brother Tony called Shorefast (the name comes from a line used to fix cod traps to the shore), putting up millions of her own money and getting matching grants from various Canadian agencies; she started thinking and planning. The morning after I arrived on the island, she gave me a presentation: there was a section on the island’s berries; maps, quotes, photographs, invocations and exhortations; brief histories of cod fishing, of local cuisine, quilting and boat-building; descriptions of microfinance initiatives, and topping it all off, a project consisting of six art studios, scattered around the island, along with a smart new hotel to house visitors. Cobb had cataloged all the local knowledge she could find, and used it to build a complex array of projects: restaurants, a library, furniture, boat races, oceanic studies, astronomy, theater, art galleries.

There seems to be little she hasn’t thought of. Consider, for example, the punts: small wooden rowboats that once dotted the harbor. One day, Cobb’s brother pointed out to her that there were only a handful of people on the island who still knew how to build them, and they were getting along in years. “Do you realize we’re eight funerals away from never being able to build another punt on Fogo Island?” he said. So Tony set up a punt-building program and, to keep the effort from becoming irrelevant, established a yearly race between Fogo Island and nearby Change Islands, a solution both ingenious and extremely popular.

A traditional fisherman’s hut in Tilting.

Whether the rest of her plans will prove as effective remains to be seen. As it stands, the project is in medias res: four of the six studios have been built, and the Inn itself should be finished by November.

All of them were designed by Todd Saunders, an up-and-coming architect who’s as close to local as it’s possible to get. Born and raised in Gander, the nearest town with an airport, he now lives in Norway. But like so many Newfoundlanders, what he wanted most was an excuse to go back home. When Cobb first contacted him, on his cellphone as he was kayaking in a fjord, he said he blurted out, “I was waiting for this call. ”

It was an unusual commission. “I had to make modern architecture the way a Newfoundlander would,” Saunders said. “Scandinavian design has a refinement to it, but Tilting’s got this ugly beauty.” To an outsider, Tilting, like the other towns, is more jolie than laide, but it has simplicity and consistency. If there’s been any new residential construction on the island in a century, you wouldn’t know it, and the buildings that exist look much like what you’d get if you asked a 6-year-old to draw a house. The greatest risk for an architect who wants to build there is, well, architecture: a structure that seems too designed would have looked silly, at best, and insulting at worst. On this count, the studios are very well done indeed: they’re small, rough-hewn buildings, almost as simple as their neighbors but with forms and touches that keep them from seeming pious or perfunctory. The two-story Tower Studio, a vertical building at the end of a narrow boardwalk, has twists in it that makes it refractory, like a jewel made out of wood; the Bridge Studio looks like someone broke off a piece of a SoHo loft and fixed it on a hillside; and the Squish Studio, which sits on a rocky promontory, has a view so dominated by water that it feels like a wheelhouse.

Squish Studio

The Inn is the largest of Saunders’s projects, and perhaps most difficult to get right. When it’s done, it will contain more than 40,000 square feet of floor space, spread over four stories — considerably larger than any other building on the island. There’ll be 29 rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, nested on top of various public spaces, all gathered in a subtly X-shaped building that sits on a promontory outside of Joe Batt’s Arm. So far, it’s cost $20 million — probably as much as it would cost to buy every other building on the island — and when it’s done it will belong to Shorefast. Whether it will dwarf the community or crown it is hard to say; Cobb herself makes nervous jokes about its size, but it’s bound to be a spectacular place to stay.

The Inn will bring the tourists, and most of the money, but according to Cobb, art is the key to Fogo’s reinvention, not because it comes with cash, but because it comes with consciousness, with communal self-knowledge and a sense of possibility. Accordingly, the studios are scattered around the island; the idea is not for artists to mix with each other, but to place them in the towns and see what happens. With little feel for art herself, Cobb hired Elisabet Gunnarsdottir, an Icelandic woman with a background in design and arts administration, to set up a semi-autonomous organization called the Fogo Island Arts Corporation. “This place was dying, really,” Gunnarsdottir told me. “But one of the things I love about this project is that this is not us coming in as saviors: ‘Here we are, we know it all, listen to us.’ We have to create something new, modern, for the future. But how do we do it so that there’s a continuation, there’s a link with the past?”

If you ask the islanders what, in fact, they want and expect, you get a host of contradictory answers. Like Newfoundlanders in general, they’re at once proud, somewhat inward and unusually welcoming of visitors.

And they’re profoundly attached to the place, if frustrated by its penury. The result is something like the Amish rumspringa: young people often leave, usually to work in Alberta, but a surprising number end up coming back.

That sort of push-me-pull-you attitude extends deep into the culture. One woman I spoke to spent the first half of our conversation expressing her reservations about outsiders moving onto the island, if only because it meant things were going to be different, and the second half bemoaning the fact that if she wanted to stop by a Wal-Mart to pick up some basic goods, she had to take the ferry to the mainland. Did she want a Wal-Mart on the island, then? Of course not, she said. But when I pointed out the contradiction — she didn’t want the world coming to her, but she was tired of having to go meet the world — she changed the subject.

Few people I talked to were willing to come out and say that they have any problem with Cobb’s plans. But they’ll readily report that other people do. Some people, one hears, ask why she brought quilting experts from off the island to hold a class, when they know perfectly well how to quilt, and have for centuries. Some people complain that the price of housing has already gone up considerably, and this in a community so closely held that people only recently got deeds to their properties. Some people are irked that she hasn’t built, say, a swimming pool instead of all those artists’ studios. After all, the studios aren’t for the locals, and in the meantime there’s no place for children to learn how to swim.

Cobb has worries of her own: the possibility that Fogo Islanders would become too dependent upon her; that somehow she was tampering with the scale of the place; that there was so much these people — her people — had to learn about getting by in the modern world, and so little time for them to learn it; that the project would fail altogether, or succeed too well and become overrun by tourists. She was worried that she wouldn’t live to see her work on its feet — her parents and two of her brothers died young. “I come from a family of people who don’t live very long,” she pointed out. Above all, she was worried about doing right by the place. “If this goes bad, I’m going to have a bad life,” she told me. “You know that graveyard I showed you last night? My parents would get out of that and wring my neck.” She was quite serious about the first remark. I half suspected she believed the second one, too.

It’s too soon to tell, but I think her folks are going to be able to rest in peace. One evening I attended an impromptu song swap in a church in Joe Batt’s Arm. There were about 50 people there, among them several Norwegian performers and some theater students from Canada’s National Arts Center, all of whom were on the island for an Ibsen festival. About a dozen people got up to sing, mostly folk songs from wherever they were from. Cobb sat in the circle alongside three local women, slouching a bit and looking effectively anonymous, even when her turn came to join her partners in an old Fogo Island song. It was a backward-looking performance in a forward-looking environment, and everyone enjoyed it. Reflecting on it afterward, I was reminded of something Cobb had dropped into one of our first conversations, a remark that she got from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard.” If she can convince her fellow islanders of its truth, she has a good shot at accomplishing everything she’s working for. “If you want things to stay the same,” she’d said, “they have to change.”

ESSENTIALS • Fogo Island

Fogo Island remains isolated and, at least until the Inn opens this November, short on amenities. To get there fly into Gander, Newfoundland, rent a car, and then drive 60 or so miles to Farewell to catch the ferry, which leaves every 4 hours or so (though if your flight gets in very late, as many do, you’ll have to spend the night in Gander). Once on the island, there are four or five B&B’s, including Foley’s, which was quite nice. For lunch and dinner, Nicole’s Café in Joe Batt’s Arm is the place. You may find yourself eating there twice a day for the entirety of your stay, though their affiliated ice cream shop, Growler’s, is just down the road, and serves soup and sandwiches in the winter. There’s also a curious Chinese restaurant called Kwang Tung in the town of Fogo (on Garrison Road). The Town of Fogo Island’s website has several useful links. For information on events on the island, check Shorefast’s website, or that of the Arts Corporation.