New Bedford: An Aha Moment

By Doug Norris
Even with the snow piled high on the cobblestone streets of New Bedford’s historic downtown on a cold January day, the gritty, working-class city bustles with energy and culture. A spider’s web of galleries, cafes, restaurants, pubs, shops, and coffeehouses, all within walking distance, fills the district with the sights and sounds of a contemporary urban marketplace—one that retains its historic resonance.
Not long ago, New Bedford was perceived as a broken, crime-ridden urban void. Where streets were once empty after hours and on weekends, now festivals, fairs, concerts, bands, walking tours, theater, dance, art exhibitions, lectures, multimedia events, and performances crowd the calendar, drawing city residents, suburban commuters, and tourists from outside the state’s south coast to the port city.
The story of how New Bedford, Massachusetts, became a beehive of art and culture, one that could serve as a model for New England’s other old industrial mill or maritime cities, has a thousand authors, but local arts officials all agree that a citywide emphasis on crafting a creative economy has been key to the resurgence.
“The city has always endured ebbs and flows,” said Pat Daughton, creative economy development officer for the New Bedford Economic Development Council. “But we’ve also always had an arts community, even through the hard times, going back to the whaling days. I think the most important thing for a creative community is to be recognized at the city level, and we’re doing that now.”
A key component in New Bedford’s future is a master plan for 2020 (accessible on City of New Bedford’s website at that promotes a cultural scene built on a legacy established by nineteenth-century artists William Bradford, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Clifford Ashley, and Albert Bierstadt, who all lived and worked in this seaport. The city has benefited from a strong foundation of cultural institutions, including the whaling museum, the public library, the art museum, and the Zeiterion Theater, known locally as “the Z.”
Within the past couple of decades, said Daughton, two key developments have helped spur and accelerate New Bedford’s cultural transformation. “One was when Jean MacCormack, the chancellor at UMass Dartmouth, pushed to reside the College of Visual and Performing Arts downtown,” he said. “The second, which happened around the same time, was when the national park (the New Bedford Whaling National Park) was designated. Those are two big anchor institutions. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Daughton added that affordable warehouse and mill space for working studios is another attraction. During the annual two-day open studios, approximately 100 artists invite the public in, and nearly seventy percent of the artists sell artwork.
The success of building a creative economy depends on multiple factors, ranging from the commitment from state higher-education institutions to federal support, municipal planners, local artists and merchants, residents, volunteers, and private investment. As one example of the latter, when Meditech, a Massachusetts-based software and service company, built a new facility between New Bedford and Fall River, the business decorated the building with local art.
“And they don’t just buy a couple of paintings,” Daughton said. “They spend millions.”
Nowadays the cultural calendar of New Bedford hums along with hundreds of events and artists, dozens of cultural institutions and related businesses, and a growing number of dedicated patrons. The mix of activities reflects an awareness and recognition of the city’s diverse heritage, with its long history as an immigrant community. Public art greets visitors to streets that encircle the historic district. Colorful glass art mugs, made by an artist in the Wamsutta Mill, hang from the ceiling at the Rose Alley Ale House, the prizes in a month-long pubgoer’s Beer Summit quest. In the past two years, while the rest of the country has endured grim economic times, five new galleries have opened downtown.
The flourishing scene would come as a shock to anyone who visited the city a decade ago. “When we started, there was almost nothing going on,” said Lee Heald, program director of AHA! New Bedford, an organization that coordinates free citywide cultural nights on the second Thursday of each month. “We decided from the beginning to emphasize what was unique and authentic about New Bedford. In the 1950s, Thursday night used to be the cruising night downtown. So we planned our events for Thursday nights. We also thought about what else was real, what made New Bedford special. Between 1835 and 1855, this was one of the world’s leading cities in culture and art. It’s also known for its history in whaling, the abolitionist movement, literature, textiles, the fishing industry. And thanks to WHALE (the Waterfront Historic Area League), the city has preserved some of the most beautiful buildings in America. So, Art, History, Architecture. It really was our first AHA! moment.”
Heald said that AHA!’s approach from the beginning was to be “collaborative, creative, and connective.” The group partners with more than sixty businesses and arts organizations to stage the monthly gatherings along with “City Celebrates!,” free cultural nights held on the six summer Thursday nights that are not AHA! nights. Research conducted in 2009 by the UMass Center for Policy Analysis shows AHA!, along with the Greater New Bedford Summerfest, the Working Waterfront Festival, and New Bedford Open Studios as generating money and jobs for the city.
“We had 267 people show up on our first night, and we thought that was a tremendous success,” Heald said. “This past New Year’s we had 5,000. It has become so popular and so anticipated that we’ve achieved the ultimate sign of success. We’ve verbified it. Now we ‘AHA!’ We say we’re ‘AHA-ing’ it tonight.”
New Bedford’s transformation from a blighted and neglected port city to the diamond in the rough of New England’s industrial reclamation projects is not yet complete, but the evolution has been remarkable all the same.
“What we want to do is recognize that city planning, cultural tourism and creative economy development all go together,” Daughton said. “You can’t do one without the other.”
A sense of local pride in the possibilities for New Bedford is palpable, and the spirit of cooperation runs counter to the cynicism that so often afflicts urban communities when government officials talk about economic growth.
“AHA! is New Bedford,” Heald said. “It’s a place where people who have stories to tell can tell them, contribute pieces to the cultural narrative, develop that grace of participation that encourages people to give of themselves. If you create a place like that, there is a friendliness on the streets. The people who live and work in New Bedford are like the people who built New Bedford. They are developing a place of creativity, they have chosen this community, they have a stake here, and they are your neighbors.”
Doug Norris writes and edits articles on art and culture for newspapers in southern Rhode Island.
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