“In the Federal City you been blown and shown pity
For secret, for pieces of change
The empress attracts you but oppression distracts you
And it makes you feel violent and strange.”
In all the movies I’ve watched about all sorts of people living in all sorts of places I have never quite seen a city quite like New Bedford, MA. A once quaint fishing village with roots that traced back to Melville and the great whale. Growing up in New Bedford in the late seventies and eighties was like being orphaned and forced to live with your sickly grandmother. You just hope she stays alive until you are old enough to take care of yourself. That’s the way I felt about New Bedford. I spent my childhood hoping it would just survive long enough for me to escape it.
New Bedford made many odd choices throughout its history to bring it to its sorry state. There was the giant hurricane barrier which protected it from violent tides, but also left the harbor dead with stagnant water. The vast amount of waterfront property on the inner harbor, which should have been extremely desirable, would just assure its resident a constant stale smell. The inner harbor weaved its way down to what is known as the Acushnet River. At one point this small river was one of the most polluted water ways in America. This was in large part to the booming textile industry of the 1800’s. The giant brick mills still litter the landscape near the river. Crumbling relics that represent all of what America is. The brilliant brick facades showcase the brilliant, booming face of commerce and capitalism. Then the market and the world change and the jobs move away and the beautiful brick buildings are left to ruin. No one can tear these buildings down because like the river the land beneath the mills are filled with PCP.
And just ensure that New Bedford would have the most useless historic working waterfront in the country, the city went ahead and built picturesque Route 18. A fully fledged freeway connecting the North and South ends of the city, and completely cutting off the waterfront from the residents. So let’s say you happen to be visiting our historic downtown, perhaps our Whaling Museum, and decided you would like to see the waterfront where the brave men depicted in the museum launched from. Perhaps you wanted to see the scores of brave men who still depart from those same docks to live and battle at sea for weeks at a time. That wouldn’t be a problem except for the super highway separating downtown from the docks.If I’m hard on the city it’s only because it could have been great. It could have been Newport or Provincetown. It could have been a post card. Instead it’s the same decaying three deckers of South Boston, just with a longer commute to the city.