Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Fort and our Sense of Place, by Ernest Morin

Unloading the Day's Catch Aug 2008 - 4 am Ocean Crest - the Fort
(Photograph by Ernest Morin)

A few weeks ago, I presented a slide show at City Hall to a few hundred people on a stormy Thursday night.

That show is rooted in a deep sense of place — the place being the Fort section of Gloucester. It is a part of town you could drive past and never really notice on land, yet it is quite prominent by sea or from the Boulevard.

One of the points I made during the introduction was that you could cut the Fort away from Gloucester and it would still be Gloucester.

It would still contain all the essential elements we have come to hold together as our notion of place.

It has industry, a tight-knit neighborhood with economic diversity, fishing boats, fuel docks, ice company, lobster sheds, a beach, the greasy pole, a brewery, a deep freezer, a playground, artists in residences, even a synagogue now, the Chamber of Commerce, Tally's Towing, St Peter's square ... How much more Gloucester could it be?

But if you take the Fort out of Gloucester then what does she become?

It is a valid question to pose because the mayor has asked the city to "fast track" a rezoning proposal for the area which inevitably will foster a lot of change.

What type of change is a matter of concern and deserves far more public debate.

The city wants to grow tax base, which is understandable; the question is how can you move forward and yet retain your sense of place?

How do you allow for change and yet retain your core values? How do we do it without selling our soul?

The fort is the most interesting place in the city — visually, economically and culturally it is a major contributor to the life of Gloucester.

The businesses on Commercial Street work at night or in the wee hours of the day while we sleep.

They generate more revenue and jobs than the State Fish Pier does for the city and they are family owned and operated local businesses.

They ship product world wide every day. If you drive down there though, you would swear it is empty because the activity is not visible on the street side — you have to go indoors to see the action.

The neighborhood has a long and rich history and a way of life and quality of life that is hard to match. It is perhaps the last working class neighborhood with ocean views and reasonably priced apartments on the entire East Coast.

The people are very real, know each other, help each other and look out for each other, which is rare in 2008. It is not a gated community of cookie cutter condos.

It is the neighborhood that contributes strongly to produce the Fiesta — that has a real cultural and economic value for Gloucester.

Can the area use improvements? Sure it can. Is there a way to move forward without clearing the decks and gentrifying the area? That is a real question for Gloucester.

So please go read the proposed changes for zoning on the city Web site and think about what the city is wanting to fast track. Are we indeed going to go forward in a way that retains our sense of place? Or are we going to begin the end and become another Newport, R.I., Monterey, Calif., or future bedroom community?

Will the rezoning affect and act to push out the waterfront business? Will they move to lift the DPA once they rezone?

We have real advantages as a regional hub port with our own fish auction.

We should not give up on our working waterfront quite yet, nor do anything that would serve to weaken our most economically viable area of the waterfront, either.

We are now truly standing at the crossroads, Gloucester. What is a city or its people without a deep sense of place?

This city is a very real place. We should be working to keep it that way.

(Ernest "Ernie" Morin is a Gloucester photographer, engaged in documenting the American experience, focusing first and foremost on the working life of his native city, especially Gloucester's marine-industrial waterfront, which is endangered by a fishing industry in transition and current plans for rezoning that could, if not carefully undertaken, threaten the heart and soul of the city. The above essay by Ernie appeared in the Gloucester Daily Times and the Cape Ann Beacon just as the city is poised to consider new zoning proposals for the Fort area of Gloucester Ernie writes about and has documented in individual photographs and a highly acclaimed slide show. Below is a review of Ernie's slide show by artist and critic Greg Cook, from his blog The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.)

Watching my Gloucester photographer pal Ernest Morin’s “Sight Lines” slideshow at Gloucester City Hall Thursday night, I was struck again by how comprehensively and richly and honestly he has captured the city of Gloucester. It starts with his sharp eye (note the careful arrangements of lines and shapes, the use of signs to comment on the scene) and technical excellence, and winds up with him getting so deep into the marrow of the community that his photos, as a group, seem (even to Gloucester’s residents) like some essence of the city itself.

We don’t have artist laureates, but if we did, Morin would have to be the artist laureate of Gloucester. It is rare for an artist to be so thoroughly and successfully engaged with the nature of a community. In Gloucester, it’s something of a tradition – from painter Fitz Henry Lane to poet Charles Olson to photojournalist Charles Lowe to poet laureate Vincent Ferrini (a great character, excelling more as a laureate than as a poet, who died last December). There is something about Gloucester being big and complex enough to be a city, but also finite because it is ultimately an island (there are only two roads – bridges – in or out of the place) that make it seem both intriguing and possible for a person to know it in its entirety (or at least feel they do). Its artists are drawn to take up this challenge.

Morin grew up in Gloucester, lives downtown, and haunts its streets. He’s come to know the city as a boy and as a man, to know it with his feet and his camera. The result – if I may be allowed a pretentious literary allusion – reminds me of a passage from T.S. Eliot’s (who summered in Gloucester while growing up) “Little Gidding”:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

--Greg Cook, New England Journal of Aesthetic Research