Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Walker in the City: Isaac's First Fiesta

(Photograph by Benjamin Anastas)

It should have been a more joyous occasion. My son Ben and I were taking his 19-month-old son Isaac to his first St. Peter’s Fiesta. My mother had accompanied my brother and me when Fiesta started up again after the war, and I, in turn, took my own three kids, beginning in the 1960s. If you count the fact that my mother, born in Gloucester in 1910, had attended the earliest Fiestas in the1930s, four generations of our family have been celebrating the Feast of St. Peter with our Italian friends and neighbors.

As I’ve said, it should have been a happier time. Though a bit overwhelmed by the crowds along the midway, the music from the rides, and the amplified voices announcing games of chance, Isaac seemed to take to Fiesta. Eyes shining with wonder, he refused to be carried by his father or me, rushing instead among the legs of those on their way down Beach Court to where we could watch the seine boat races and greasy pole contest from the shore.

Returning to Commercial Street, we decided to walk to Fort Square for a better view of the events and so that Isaac, who loves to play in the sand boxes of New York's city parks, where he lives, could fully enjoy Pavilion Beach. On the way there I pointed out the old Birdseye plant with its iconic white tower to Ben, where, from 1928, his grandmother worked as Clarence Birdseye’s secretary. On our way back to Fiesta we walked around Fort Square to Charles Olson’ house, where we got a picture of Ben, Isaac and me in front of the commemorative plaque to Gloucester’s great poet.

That afternoon we walked all over the Fort, from Beach Court to Fort Square. We shared fried dough and Ben shot a few baskets to see if he could win a stuffed animal for Isaac. What came home to me during our walk, along with the powerful sense of attraction I’ve always had for Fiesta and for the Fort itself, where I once worked on fish, was the fact that if we allow a Marriott resort hotel or any other kind of hotel to be built at the Birdseye site without serious design and environmental impact restrictions there could be unforeseen consequences.

Prospective developers have already expressed reservations about this traditional marine industrial neighborhood (one was quoted in the Gloucester Daily Times as saying, “When our guests arrive we want them to know they’ve arrived somewhere”); and one wonders how many of their guests will want to spend a lot of money to stay in a busy neighborhood full of trailer trucks and early risers. What will be the impact of the new hotel on Pavilion beach, which is public and protected as such under Chapter 91? And while I can imagine some hotel guests enthralled by Fiesta, will others on vacation be annoyed by the noise, the crowds, or the smells from the working waterfront—the engines of the fishing vessels, the early morning activity of taking on ice?

During our walk I tried to envision the Fort with a fancy upscale hotel in its midst. All I could think of was that the hotel might ultimately displace the neighbors, the neighborhood, the Fiesta, and all the traditional kinds of single and multi-family housing on the Fort. Once the hotel was in place there could be even greater pressure for gentrification or condos. Then, quite covertly, we would have the beginnings of Newport right in the heart of the waterfront.

I'm not suggesting that a hotel couldn’t be tastefully designed and located in the Fort. One approach might be the concept of a small adaptive reuse hotel that kept the Birdseye tower. These "boutique" hotels have become increasingly popular. Still, I’m concerned about the potential for "collateral damage" in the neighborhood as a consequence of outsize development. I couldn't stop thinking about it as I walked with my little grandson and his father—three generations of Anastases enjoying Fiesta (a forth if my mother, who first took me, were still alive, and a fifth if you include my grandfather Angel Polisson, who also took me)—and suddenly a great sadness came over me, a terrible sense of loss.

What should ultimately have been an occasion of unalloyed joy with my family, my grandson’s first Fiesta, prompted a bittersweet reverie, in which I could imagine all that has meant so much to our family and every other Gloucester family of Fiesta and of the Fort itself, swept away from us if we are not vigilant about protecting our heritage and the very places in which it lives and breaths. Viva San Pietro!

1 comment:

Kathleen Valentine said...

That's a very cute little fellow, Peter.

I agree with you --- the thought of what might happen and where Goucester could be headed saddens me too. I just finished reading Mark Kurlansky's new book about Gloucester (see my blog) and one of the terms he uses, which I liked, was "socio-diversity". He said that as towns like Gloucester sell out more and more to upscale markets, fewer and fewer people can afford to live here and then the socio-diversity is endangered.

The loss of Fiesta, with all its varied issues, would be a terrible blow to socio-diversity!