New Bedford: looking to revive waterfront

Good news on New Bedford’s waterfront–we hope.  The Boston Globe reports the city is launching a $40 million project to develop its side of the Acushnet River–part of this also means transplanting the high-end sport of rowing to the city. That might seem to be a bit of a stretch for a working class municipality like New Bedford.  But, nevertheless,  anything that rehabilitates that dirty waterway and makes use of it for something besides dumping poisonous chemicals is welcome. Too bad so little was known about the nature of PCBs when 50 years ago companies dumped them routinely into the river. The evil the companies do oft lives behind them!

The dredging that is expected to purify the harbor is expected to take something about as long as it took to pollute the river itself–25 years. But hopefully this task might be sped up a bit.
The waterfront€¦.as for that, during my research for the €œLost Fleet€ I’ve often walked along it, regretting that so many of the old wharves had been leveled for massive inelegant marinas, processing plants and warehouses to take their place. This isn’t to say those facilities don’t have their uses–but a quick comparison with Gloucester harbor, that most eminent of tourist destinations, shows how you can have massive block-shaped  industrial-Transylvania style architecture along with a beautiful harbor walk and waterfront. A place that people might want to swim in–or dip their toes in–at least.  

Nevertheless, I was recently down on the New Bedford waterfront for a festival. Just getting to the Acushnet’s edge from the downtown requires taking the labyrinthine pedestrian walkway over busy Route 18, that is, if you don’t want to wait at a light at street level and run across as fast as you can before the light changes. Sometimes, off-season, the harbor front can be an intimidating place, with rusty boats tied up and rocking and squealing with protest at the rise and fall of water. The smell of chemicals and rust hangs in the air; empty and abandoned appearing fishing craft can make you feel desperately lonely.  

But, this September event showed a far different side to the docks. It was a busy lively affair, like a crashed bee-hive, and it was crowded with people, families, entertainers, singers, vendors, and yes, even writers such as myself.  It was a dry pleasant day, with the sound of the gulls, the buzz of the multitudes and the harmony of singers filling the ears and the pungent smell of sea water and fried grease in the nostrils.   

Despite its industrial grittiness and the rusty and rocking scallop boats tied up nearby, it was fun to be there. Fishing, though endangered, is still practiced with gusto. The scallop-shucking contest held near Merrill’s Wharf  (where the last of the old whaling counting houses is preserved, that of Jonathan Bourne) was a dark simple joy to behold, an authentic-feeling piece of New England ritual. Shucking is something of an art–it requires the insertion of a knife into the scallop’s side before opening the shell. The shucker slides the knife gently under the fleshy section before freeing the white meat. The shell and the rest of the dark flesh are dumped, and the treasured white meat is now liberated for human consumption. A row of four fishermen in rubber gloves stood on a stage shucking away as if their lives depended on it.  A crowd of 100 or more cheered them on as if they were rock stars. The scallopers ranged in height in build, from thick and heavyset to rangy and wiry, but they all were very intent on what they were doing. 

€œLemme see what you got!€ cried one man on the sidelines. €œLemme see what you got!€  A man onstage with the shuckers was armed with a microphone and yelled out comments like a carnival barker, commenting on the progress of each contestant. The assembled audience was passionate about the whole contest–the ability to shuck clearly matters in this town. The winner, it was reported, dispatched of 100 scallops in 4 minutes 34 seconds. 

 Sadly, watching the ritual, so exuberant, so vital-seeming, I also realized that this was the sort of event that has probably happened on this waterfront over and over again over centuries. The various rituals are altered with each type of fish being pursued–whale, cod, halibut, etc.  Each generation of mariners and fishermen had some sort of contest to celebrate for fun what they did to secure their food. There were whaleboat races once in New Bedford harbor, a ritual that vanished with the hunt of the whales themselves.  

Scalloping itself has a dim future–the local press indicates that scallops are over-fished, affected by pollution, facing loss of habitat, etc. We’ve heard this story over and over again. I had a sense the shucking contest would prove to be a snapshot in time that future generations will look back on nostalgically.  

But this takes me back to the rowing project proposed for the waterfront. The future may be gloomy for the ever dangerous and precarious fishing industry but, already, some wiser heads are prevailing to assist the city to reinvent itself using as an engine its great sustaining heart–the slow-moving green waters of the Acushnet.  Business enterprise (or capitalism if you will, to use an oversimplified concept) ever pushes and smashes and rebuilds everything that falls in its embrace. It’s time to repay the Acushnet by cleaning it up and making it presentable again.  I look forward to that new waterfront and launching my kayak in it–one new recreational mariner following in the wake of so many, many great men and women.