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2017: New Bedford’s Breakthrough Summer

Entering New Bedford. Photo courtesy of Jordan O’Connell.

By Steven Froias

There’s a poignant moment in New York City journalist Pete Hamill’s Downtown that ends the book. After decades of decline and despair, New York has pulled itself back from the brink. Back from near-bankruptcy. Back from the “Bronx is Burning.” Back from the advent of crack cocaine on its streets. Back from urban hell.

Hamill writes about being on the street one spring evening in the late 1990s and watching older folks pass by; diners enjoying sidewalk seating; two young lovebirds embracing; three young black man walking by discussing their upcoming semester at City University; and a Latino man passing by listening to the Mets on his transistor radio.

“And I thought: It’s over,” Hamill writes. “Then my wife came out of the building and I hugged her in that little piece of my city and hers, and all she wanted to know was why I had tears in my eyes.”

After the WCVB program “Chronicle” aired its valentine to New Bedford, titled “New Bedford Renewal” in late August, the city’s Preservation Planner Anne Louro wrote in response to my Facebook post praising the program, “Not going to lie. It brought tears to my eyes.”

Hamill and Louro cried tears of joy. The place each had invested so much love and emotion into had come back from the depths.

In New Bedford, the bad times were characterized by neglect, ridicule and a negative perception that stubbornly persisted long past the city’s turnaround from urban also-ran to being named one of the nation’s most creative communities by The Atlantic magazine.

The “Chronicle” episode swept all that aside. It broadcast to New England the story of a renewed city that was seizing opportunity and moving confidently into the future. It was the portrayal many of us have been waiting so long for – because we are living it every day.

But a change in narrative isn’t the real story. It’s only the capstone to the amazing Summer of ‘17. When so much of New Bedford shone brightly and functioned as a city should. A place where citizens of all stripes could enjoy their little piece of the city on their own terms.

The Summer of ‘17 was when New Bedford came together – often and in many ways.

You could feel a change of atmosphere and attitude in early June during Day of Portugal on Acushnet Avenue; the street was alive and lively. The city’s LGBTQ community and its supporters gathered in Buttonwood Park for the relaunch of Pride in New Bedford. And Reggae on West Beach closed out the last Sunday of the month in the South End by bringing everybody to the beach to get them dancing under the pavilion in sight of the beautiful new Covewalk atop the Hurricane Barrier.

This summer, New Bedford residents took it outside and to the streets where that Covewalk, and Harborwalk, and so much more awaited them. The annual Cape Verdean Recognition Parade. The New Bedford Folk Festival. The new Food Truck Festival at Fort Rodman. Seaport Artwalk: Sustainable Oceans. The return (not comeback) of UGLY Gallery at Groundwork!. AHA! New Bedford nights downtown and the world-famous Feast of the Blessed Sacrament Festival in the North End.

And, in a sublime moment in the city’s history during a time of national racial strife after Charlottesville, the amazing Third Eye Unlimited celebration in the city’s heart which brought old and young, black and white, gay and straight, resident and tourist together like nothing else before.

That was New Bedford during the summer of 2017. And the “Chronicle” episode caught that positive energy and packaged it for a prime-time audience. (You can watch the segment online beginning here.)

It’s important to remember that the Summer of ‘17 in New Bedford didn’t happen by accident. It happened thanks to years of leadership by people like Anne Louro. Thanks to the determination of artists and the hard work of small business owners.  By countless nights of AHA!  With the foresight and vision of some elected officials. Moved along by the momentum created by the members of Groundwork! And always, always, always, facilitated by residents of every background working steadily over many years to enrich their block, their neighborhood and the entire city in spite of any challenge.

Challenges remain. But they’ll be met. Because the Summer of ‘17 finally revealed one key thing about the City of New Bedford:

The opportunities outweigh the challenges.

That truth is enough to bring tears to your eyes.

Steven Froias