BY SHANNON ROXBOROUGH
When it comes to seaside communities in New England, New Bedford, Mass. (pop. 95,000), is never mentioned in the same breath as resort hot spots such as Cape Cod, Newport, R.I., or Portsmouth, N.H. The reason is clear. This once-thriving whaling port, commercial fishing center and manufacturing hub has been down at the heels for quite some time.
Now, however, thanks to much-heralded revival efforts, the gritty coastal town an hour south of Boston is an up-and-coming place to visit and live.
The city’s abandoned buildings, dive bars, hole-in-the-wall eateries and seedy flophouses are being replaced by spruced-up historic properties, good restaurants and new shops, bringing with them more than a glimmer of hope. The steady transformation is part of New Bedford’s broader efforts to shed its regional image as a dumpy no-go zone.
Though not without its remaining problems — namely, slow progress and crime — the re-emerging New Bedford is finally being seen in a different light. Some longtime residents predict that it won’t be long before adored national chains arrive (the closest Starbucks and Applebee’s are in neighboring North Dartmouth), while others are starting to think of New Bedford as a destination.
“As strange as it sounds, I first learned about New Bedford while reading ‘Moby-Dick.’ I wanted to know more, so I came to see it in person. It’s where I met my best friend and I find myself visiting more often,” said Holly Yates, a Fort Lee resident in her mid 40s who works as an office manager. “I have always been attracted to the water and city life, and there’s something so romantic about a place making a turnaround.” She added that New Bedford has a “certain grubby charm” that appeals to those who prefer urban living.
Much of that potential is being realized downtown, which was buoyed by a historic district designation and a flood of subsequent investment, and in the formerly vibrant South End, which includes a Florida-shaped peninsula jutting out into the sea. In the city center, trendy art galleries, independent coffee shops and clothing boutiques are sprouting up. Targeted for major revitalization, the South End’s old cavernous mills, warehouses and industrial buildings on and near the waterfront are gradually being carved into new commercial and residential spaces.
Yates, who is house-hunting in town, is concentrating her search in those two areas. She’s considering renting at The Regency Towers (theregencynb.com), a 16-story downtown apartment building overlooking Buzzards Bay with an impressive $30 million renovation under its belt; and Victoria Riverside Townhouse Lofts (victoriariverside.com), a beautifully converted 19th century mill on the Acushnet River.
But she’s also looking into buying, since New Bedford’s modest home values are within her budget. In the historic core, there are many restoration-ready heritage homes selling for well under $200,000. And throughout town, a number are priced below $100,000.
“I’m keeping all of my options open. There is a house at the high end of what I can afford that I’ve taken a liking to. But it is like new with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a half-acre back yard. The asking price is $199,500,” said Yates.
Officials are betting on civic improvements, increasing curb appeal, economic prosperity and new energy not only making the city more livable for residents but attracting the attention of tourists, young professionals and empty nesters. But even with ongoing preservation and development, not everyone is sold on the city’s transformation.
“Of course, there are people who have little or no faith because everything hasn’t happened overnight. But I know that anyone who still considers New Bedford just a place to either pass by on a drive to Cape Cod or stop at only to take the fast ferry over to Martha’s Vineyard would be surprised by how much it is changing,” said Yates. “The best thing about it is it’s only going to improve with time.”
Urban living in an affordable, hard-edged small city being transformed. Salty air, fresh seafood and hearty meals that come with a long seafaring past and heavy Portuguese accent—because of its many immigrants from Portugal, the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira.
New Bedford hasn’t yet become gentrified enough to suit the taste of many.
A stark four-season maritime climate with relatively mild summers and serious winters.
The average listing price of residential real estate in New Bedford is $190,059; the median sales price is $128,950.
Cross the George Washington Bridge and follow Route 95 to Providence, R.I.; take Exit 19 to Route 195 and continue east. Take Exit 13A and merge onto MA-140 south and continue into New Bedford. The drive takes about three hours and 45 minutes. Alternatively, fly into Providence, R.I., then make the 30-minute jaunt.
Where to stay
Fairfield Inn & Suites ($129 and up; 774-634-2000; marriott.com) has clean, comfortable accommodations in a central location.
Antiques at the Cove (newbedfordantiquesatthecove.com), a 55,000-square-foot showroom with 260 dealers, is the perfect place to shop or browse for pieces of history.
For more information
The Standard-Times (southcoasttoday.com) is a regional newspaper covering the southern coast of Massachusetts; the New Bedford Economic Development Council website (nbedc.org) publishes news on the city’s renaissance.
November 6, 2011, 11:24 AM
BY SHANNON ROXBOROUGH