Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Walker in the City: Toward a Responsible Harbor Plan

A few years ago the renowned art critic and historian Robert Hughes came to Gloucester for the first time. He was taken on a tour of the city, through Gloucester’s historic streets with their beautiful examples of Colonial and Federal Period houses. He walked down Main Street. He observed the working waterfront, and he saw first hand some of our traditional neighborhoods where Gloucester’s working people live.

Hughes, who grew up in Australia, was educated in England, and has traveled and lived in practically every corner of the world, turned to his guide, a member of the Cape Ann Museum’s staff.

“This is a real place,” he said. “My God, it’s a real place. There are so few of them left today. You must do everything you can to protect it.”

It’s because Gloucester is a real place that so many visitors like Hughes come here. They come to experience what has been lost or developed into nothingness elsewhere. They come to experience what for many us, who live here daily, has become invisible. At the very heart of our realness is the working waterfront, and we are now charged with creating and implementing a plan for its future, a plan that will hopefully take into account the deep history and tradition that our harbor is grounded in and the real economic necessity for assuring its continuation and viability as a port, as home to the fishing fleet, and to an enhanced marine-industrial economy.

These must come first. For it is the marine-industrial uses of the waterfront—and such uses include research and education facilities such as the Ocean Alliance’s acquisition and restoration of the Paint Factory, along with potential marine bio-tech and engineering enterprises—that will continue to be the principal economic drivers of a reinvigorated waterfront.

There are several approaches on the table now, including the original Draft Harbor Plan, which has passed through an extensive public process and has, to my mind, considerable value. Each has merits, but for me, any plan which begins in negativity, with the myth that “the waterfront is dead—fishing is gone forever—the future lies in tourism and recreational boating,” is a plan driven by desperation rather than by imagination and an objective understanding of how one reinvests in a priceless resource. Such a plan would also be based on the selling out of Gloucester’s marine heritage, on the loss of our identity as the nation’s oldest fishing port, and I don’t believe Gloucester people will stand for that. The waterfront is not dead, though property values have regrettably been reduced. Walk along it, sail the inner harbor, and you will find great vitality, even new investment.

I support tourism—most of us have become tourists as we travel and learn in the world—and I don’t oppose a hotel on the Fort, though I would love to see the original Birdseye building and its signature tower incorporated into the overall design. That would demonstrate some real understanding of Gloucester’s marine heritage on the part of its prospective developers and their architects. But tourism in Gloucester can and should never be the principle economic engine. There are too many variables that make tourism undependable, a major example being the current fuel crisis. A tourist economy, indeed a service economy such as Cape Cod has, does not produce enough year-round, full-time, well paying jobs with benefits, which allow local people to live and raise their families where they work. Those jobs come mainly from, and can be increased by an expanded industrial base, both in our industrial parks and on our industrial waterfront.

There are challenges. The fishing industry is in transition as stocks replenish. The city is facing economic hardship. The economy is in recession. However, these challenges must be seen as opportunities, demanding carefully thought through and creative solutions, rather than knee-jerk, crisis-ridden responses. We must not allow ourselves to be frightened or manipulated into selling out our waterfront “to save the city” by those who stand to gain the most from it. Individual property owners deserve respect and consideration; but the waterfront is also part of our joint stewardship as citizens of Gloucester. Generations who came before us have taken good care of it, and it is our responsibility to do likewise.

In a recent interview in the Gloucester Times, my friend Lenny Linquata says he's convinced the city can once again be a bustling waterfront without losing a grip on its heritage.

"People who come to visit here, people who would come to [the proposed hotel on Commercial Street in the Fort], don't want to see us change," he said. "They want to come to see and experience Gloucester as it is. Look at the assets we have. We have to capitalize on what we are, not try to become something else."

I agree completely with Lenny. He and his family have deep roots in the fishing industry and an intimate experience of the waterfront—they know what they are talking about.

We have got to move slowly and carefully. Our waterfront is the most precious possession that we all share in Gloucester. And the DPA (Designated Port Authority) should be seen not as a restriction but as a valuable framework for marine-industrial growth and development. The decisions we make will stand for all time. If we lose or destroy this treasure we can never have it back again. Look at the examples of harbors like those in Newburyport, Salem, Marblehead and Newport, whose working waterfronts have been radically altered to accommodate tourism and luxury housing. This is not the way for Gloucester to go. I have great faith that in the coming months the people of Gloucester will come together to forge a plan to foster reinvestment in our harbor and working waterfront, a plan that will both respect the history of this precious resource and guarantee its vitality for generations to come.

(This essay appeared as a My View column in the Friday, June 6, 2008 edition of the Gloucester Daily Times.)

1 comment:

Kathleen Valentine said...

Thank you, Peter for another thoughtful blog post. There are two men in Gloucester who are doing wonderful things on the internet to document Gloucester's working waterfront. Joe Ciarmitaro, who runs Captain Joe's Lobster Co. on EastMain Street, has a blog at http://goodmorninggloucester.wordpress.com/ on which he posts pictures of the men working the waterfront and the businesses that keep Gloucester vibrant. And Jay Albert who used to be a football coach here has a blog at http://capeannimages.blogspot.com/ with his photography of the waterfront.

These are wonderful places to see Gloucester's historic waterfront in action today.

Thanks again, Peter, for your wonderful blog.