Census Bluff

What's behind the population boom at a favorite Vineyard vacation spot? (Conspiracy) theories abound.


Illustration by Bo Lundberg/Art Department

Illustration by Bo Lundberg/Art Department

If it seems like the line at the Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs has gotten longer, there may be a good reason: According to the 2010 census, the Martha’s Vineyard ferry town is the fastest-growing community in eastern Massachusetts. In the past decade, roughly 1,550 people have permanently come ashore on the Vineyard, 800 of them settling in Oak Bluffs. The town’s population number — 4,527 — has shot up by 22 percent.

The question is, why? Other Vineyard towns saw only modest gains, while Cape Cod hemorrhaged people over the past 10 years. It’s true that the president has taken to vacationing in town, but officials are at a loss to explain what’s behind the growth spurt.

“We don’t know for sure,” says Christine Flynn, who does demographic work for Dukes County. Town Administrator Michael Dutton suspects that it may have to do with the allure of Oak Bluffs’ racial, cultural, and economic diversity—it’s long been a haven for African-American vacationers. And it probably doesn’t hurt that housing in Oak Bluffs is among the most affordable on the island.

But some people suspect there may be something else at play. When he’s asked about the population growth, Dutton jokes, “Are you calling to talk about the census mistake?” And resident Shelley Christiansen confirms that there’s a widespread rumor in town that the government simply got it wrong. “Census-taking is rather loosey-goosey on the island, always done by humans,” she says. As it happens, Vineyard residents are not mailed census forms. Instead, workers are hired to count person by person, which has led to talk of an overcount.

It’s a fine theory, but census officials insist that Oak Bluffs’ population number is solid, and local leaders have no plans to challenge it. For once on Martha’s Vineyard, the more people, the better.

6.7 Percent
Population growth for the rest of Martha’s Vineyard over the past decade.

3.2 Percent
Population growth for Massachusetts over the past decade.

22 Percent
Population growth for Oak Bluffs over the past decade.