While [whaling] brought wealth to certain sections, to the waterfront it brought rough living and exploited vice. A notorious district known as 'Hard Dig' was burned in 1826 by a mob of zealous citizens. - Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).
This post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Second is New Bedford, onetime Whaletown, USA.
It’s got to be tough to be a city whose major claim to fame is whaling. Whale oil’s importance to the economy is a go-to cliche when describing economic change. I can see it now: the CEO of a hip new tech company is explaining the economy to a vigorously nodding talk show host: “The new watchword in our economy is disruption, Jim. What happened when petroleum replaced whale oil as a source of fuel? Disruption. Supply chains, economies, whole ways of life had to change. And that’s what our new app, Zoozie, is going to do for the online marketplace.”
That said, being a former whaling town is better than the other thing New Bedford is known for: being an allegedly awful place. I have been interested in Southeastern Massachusetts for a long time – I first came across it because the region has one of the largest Portuguese communities in the US – and from the information available, to call the city’s reputation negative would be like describing New England’s interest in the Red Sox as passing.
Whenever I asked people from Massachusetts what the area was like, New Bedford and its partner city Fall River (which make up part of the Providence, RI metro area rather than Boston metro) were universally panned. The day before my first visit I asked my neighbors, lifetime Massachusetts residents, if anyone had anything nice to say about the city. They all pled the fifth.
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled on one of the most well-executed downtown revitalization efforts I’ve ever seen. The streets were beautiful, preserved the character of the historic core, and looked clean enough to eat off of (I didn’t try). Public art and trees dot the beautiful sidewalks. An interesting mix of commerce and institutions including art galleries, coffee shops, a theater, a bookstore, and a skateboard shop with its own sponsored team, gave me plenty to explore. Tourable docks and a whaling museum (which I unfortunately didn’t visit) form the basis of a hopeful tourist economy. They hit every one of the typical downtown talking points and the end result is very charming.
Maybe because the bad press had set my expectations set so low, I was most surprised by the park in the center of the city. The area was formerly a lightly used parking lot, and a comprehensive plan commissioned by the city recommended the space actually live up to the name it was given (Custom House Square Plaza Park) by being usable for humans rather than cars. On Google maps it’s still a quarter-full, depressing cement slab, so I was shocked to see that in real life the town actually followed through and made a functional village green out of it.
If my visit was any indication, it demonstrates that the town leadership is willing to put money where its mouth is rather than just commission reports to go on the shelf. In any event, my experience seemed shockingly at odds with what I had expected.
The Economic Context
So what gives here? Had my friends just never given it a chance? Was I fooled by a Potemkin village of downtown reinvestment? It’s important to point out that I had a pretty limited interaction with the city, and that both a beautiful downtown and a crumbling exterior could coexist with relative ease.
Most people’s impressions start with the troubled history of the area. New Bedford is a city of 95,000 that hit its population peak in 1920. The history of the city’s major industries seem like they were handpicked by a maleficent economics teacher to show the impact of outsourcing, resource limitations, and economic dislocation: whaling, textiles, jewelry, unskilled manufacturing, fishing.
Incredibly, New Bedford’s harbor today has the highest catch value of any port in the US, a fact that doesn’t create a broad base of prosperity and skilled workers, “as the processing and distribution system involved in seafood production and distribution do not require highly-educated and very skilled manpower” according to the regional planning agency’s economic development strategy. Mostly, it reflects how much people are willing to pay for scallops, which are delicious.
Median household incomes are a bit more than half the level of the state. The percent of the population with a bachelor’s degree, a key economic indicator, is 15%, in comparison with a statewide percentage of 39%. These numbers, although similar to many other Gateway Cities, are in a slightly different context in Southeastern Massachusetts. The Southeast as a region has fewer anchor institutions like universities or hospitals than the Worcester area or the Pioneer Valley (Springfield, MA metro area).
Remnants of past industries remain, such as locally owned jewelry stores and food manufacturing, but nowhere on their previous scale. Unemployment is somewhere between 8 and 15% depending on the metric used and time of year, but one thing every measure agrees on is that the rate is much higher than the rest of the state, and among the highest in Massachusetts. There’s lots of noise in the unemployment data of a small city, which may explain why New Bedford showed the largest drop in unemployment in the country in July as reported by the Wall Street Journal. I don’t mean to imply that this good news is necessarily meaningless, just that it’s a bit difficult to tell how permanent the shift will be. Either way, a major reason that New Bedford was able to post such gains is because it started from such depths.
New Bedford’s Assets
Similar to what I wrote about Worcester, New Bedford has an interesting immigrant background. Portuguese speaking people, especially from the Azores and Cabo Verde, make up a large percentage of the population. 37% speak a language other than English at home, and 17% speak English less than very well. It was historically a small but important hub for freedmen, fugitive slaves, and other African-Americans. Frederick Douglass settled there after his escape from slavery and makes substantial reference to New Bedford society – although not all positive – in his autobiography.
From my very cursory examination of circumstances there, I’d say New Bedford is much more the victim of state and outside neglect than Worcester is. The paradigmatic example is SouthCoast rail, a proposed rail expansion to the cities from Boston that has been promoted by each of the last five governors but remains unfunded. Whether or not the expansion will be the promised boon to the area is up for debate, but all of the gubernatorial lip service in the world won’t deliver the type of connections the SouthCoast needs.
When it comes to governance, New Bedford seems to be much better governed on average than Fall River, which just had a messy mayoral recall election. An example of the growing strength of leadership structures is the ability to accept some criticism for the way things are. Similar to most Gateway Cities, schools in New Bedford face dramatic challenges (the New Bedford district has poverty levels comparable to Boston, but with fewer community resources) and two 2011 studies showed the harsh conditions and lack of progress in the city’s schools. One, a white paper from the UMass Dartmouth Urban Initiative, specifically cited the system’s ability to accept harsh criticism as one of its strengths.
This is admittedly a minor victory, especially when the actual work of improving schools remains to be done, but willingness to admit something is wrong is an important step, especially in the context of Fall River’s backsliding political leadership and the notorious parochialism of the region and small city Massachusetts. Researching the area, I’ve seen many an internet comment wishing for a benevolent dictator in the mold of Buddy Cianci to turn the region around. Strong leadership is important, but the region needs to disassociate itself from a history of political corruption and anti-democratic decision making on its path forward, not reinforce it.
Downtown Revitalization as an Economic Development Strategy
To return to the focus on downtown redevelopment: given the tremendous obstacles, is any amount of downtown revitalization going to turn things around? The refurbished downtown district does give the area more potential for “churn.” Without new bodies moving through, small cities tend to stagnate. As people have a reason to spend time there, their opinions change and the mental walls break down.
But can this approach be the basis for a successful economic development strategy? For that to be the case, New Bedford will have to answer some questions that have tripped up towns much further down the path. Can the small district be self-sustaining and move forward, eventually without outside funding? New Bedford benefits from the attention gained by Gateway Cities and state level help, but that support can be fickle. Will the good impact downtown spread to the rest of the city? Many cities pursuing a “downtown first” strategy create resentment in the rest of the city or feed a perception that the attention of city government is on “outsiders” like tourists or condo-dwellers. Third, will this strategy of beautification and reinvestment build the basis for broader economic development? The job gains from recent months are impressive, but is a broad base of industry and businesses going to push the whole community forward as a result?
My summary is far too simplistic: New Bedford is in no way making an all-in bet on downtown. Like almost all the Gateway Cities, though, they are making strategic investments to drive people to a refurbished downtown area that leaders are hoping will catalyze a broad resurgence. I’m opportunistically using my experience in New Bedford as a way to examine this theory of resurgence.
Honest critique is vital: it not only sets the path for success, it also help create a more realistic view of what such a strategy can achieve. Small town newspapers often have to play the role of constant cheerleader in order to maintain the forward progress, and we can’t rely on politicians to be critical or skeptical.
The Gains are Fragile but Promising
My view is that New Bedford has done an amazing job working on its downtown, which bodes well for the future of the city. I am deeply skeptical that these measures alone will be enough – not merely for this city, but for any city that overpromises what downtown can do in a struggling area.
I think there’s some useful insight to gain from the New Bedford case. The downtown first economic development strategy is the darling of economic development: creating creative, vibrant, dense downtown areas is seen as an engine for jobs and innovation, drawing from theories such as the “creative class” and other human capital attraction models.
If you believe that, it’s pretty difficult to see what a place like New Bedford could conceivably be doing better. They are deploying the full force of a marketing strategy. They’re developing in a way that’s true to their historical character by using cultural institutions like the Whaling Museum as an anchor to draw people in, rather than trying to implement the latest fad, like building a symphony or whatever. If these theories are meaningful at all to small Gateway Cities, I hope we see some steady turnaround in New Bedford in the next couple years.
New Bedford deserves your respect and attention for how it’s improving. Although I’m very skeptical that New Bedford’s resurgence can be based on a 5×10 block stretch of downtown and the hope of attracting prodigal sons and daughters alone, my gut tells me that things are looking up in New Bedford. It’s hard for neglected cities to inspire any sense of optimism, but to my eye the city is doing it. If downtown development continues apace, more and more people will start seeing the area as worthy of investment and support.
New Bedford has a much better base to build off of than they get credit for, but the truly hard work remains. Unless it can start to tackle the tough challenges in education and industry, it’ll leave the city facing the wrong way on the long road left to cover.