Friday, April 27, 2012

Gloucester on the Brink

The Fort is the choke point.
Break it, the walls come tumbling down.

--Gloucester native

What does one do when you feel that the integrity of the place you love more than any other, the very place you know as home, is threatened?

            I’m talking about my birthplace, Gloucester, Massachusetts, America’s oldest seaport.  The threat I’m referring to is not a natural disaster, like a hurricane or tornado, but the determined effort of a billionaire developer to build a luxury hotel and spa in the heart of the city’s iconic ethnic and marine industrial neighborhood, known as “The Fort.”
            “What’s so bad about that?” you will ask. Clearly there must be a need for a hotel in a community that has long catered to visitors.  A new hotel on or near the waterfront would create new jobs while adding to the city’s tax base.  The hotel’s proponents claim that those who oppose it are living in a past where fishing once drove the city’s economy but is now severely compromised by the collapse of traditional stocks and federally imposed conservation regulations.  This is a misleading opinion.
Those of us who see a hotel on the Fort as inappropriately close in proximity to marine industries that already bring $80 million dollars into the city, are not against hotels.  We understand that Gloucester needs a year-round hotel that would cater to tourists as well as to travelers to the city’s many businesses and industries, though we believe that fishing is not dead and there is a better future for the community in marine and bio-tech research and development than in luxury tourism.  There are also more suitable places to situate such a hotel within the downtown.

The Fort, named for the Revolutionary era fort it once was home to, and later settled by Irish and then Sicilian immigrants, who worked in the marine industries, is not downtown.  It’s a well-populated peninsular with multi-family dwellings at the entrance to Gloucester’s inner harbor, accessed by one narrow road.  The site where the hotel is planned contains the legendary white-towered building, where Clarence Birdseye developed the flash freezing method for fish. At first glance, it appears to be ideal for such a project.  It fronts a public beach and the beautiful outer harbor of Gloucester with views out to Boston.  However, putting a luxury hotel alongside of fish plants has never been considered a sensible idea.
After proper examination, there remain serious drawbacks, including adverse economic and social impacts on the neighborhood. Residents, many of whom have lived for generations on the Fort, fear the end of their traditional working class life, which includes the annual celebration of St. Peter’s Fiesta that commemorates the birthday of the patron saint of Gloucester’s Italian fishing fleet.  They believe that a resort hotel with its upscale clientele and amenities will adversely impact their own daily lives and work.  Business owners, who are serviced day and night by trailer trucks, are concerned that the noise and traffic their businesses create, along with the strong smell of fish and fish by products, will elicit complaints by hotel guests, which will trigger their eventual eviction from the very waterfront property their businesses depend upon. Equally, they worry that the zoning tool, an untried overlay proposed by the hotel’s developer, could be duplicated throughout the waterfront or city itself with deleterious effects.  Zoning experts have argued that the proposed measure violates the Scit doctrine, which calls for basic zoning uniformity of a street or district.
More crucially, Gloucester is a city at a crossroads.  Our Master Plan is outdated by ten years and there has not been an integrated effort to bring the community together to create a consensus for the city’s future. As a consequence, we have been subjected to the whims of developers, who have taken advantage of our economic uncertainly and lack of planning to impose their own visions on a divided community. The imposition of such a radical zoning measure on a vibrant neighborhood like the Fort is clearly unethical--it may even be illegal.  Moreover, it violates all the accepted rules of planning.  A community does not plan through zoning, it zones through planning.  Why would any city in its right mind reverse the process?  Furthermore, the city is not bankrupt and we have an excellent bond rating.  So why rush to develop without planning first?
Prize-winning author Mark Kurlansky, whose The Last Fish Tale (2008) urged Gloucester not to undermine its identity as “American’s oldest fishing port and most original town,” has warned us once again not to go the way of so many seaports that have sold their souls to become resort communities, only to regret it.
 Speaking recently before a capacity crowd at the Gloucester House Restaurant, Kurlansky exhorted his audience not to let tourism with its seasonal economy overwhelm Gloucester’s gritty blue collar marine industrial character.”
 “Fishing and marine industry is your heritage,” he stressed.  “Your heritage is your identity, your brand.  Once you destroy your brand there’s nothing left to attract people to the city.”
Under the surface of these concerns lie class issues, which have national implications, especially in the light of the recent Occupy movement.  Gloucester is known world-wide as a gritty, blue collar community.  It is largely for this reason, for its authentic labor-intensive environment of fishermen, fish cutters and packers and dock workers, that thousands of tourists visit each year, along with many acclaimed artists, beginning with Winslow Homer, who came to capture both the activity of the waterfront and the city’s unique light (since the 19th century Gloucester has been both home and a vital inspiration to countless visual and performing artists).  Writers equally charmed by the city’s maritime history include Rudyard Kipling whose Captain’s Courageous depicted the lives of fishermen under sail in an earlier Gloucester, and The Perfect Storm’s author Sebastian Junger, who dramatized the perils of present-day fishing.
For generations natives co-existed with enclaves of wealthy summer residents, who built houses on Eastern Point and in Annisquam, outlying areas of the community.  These “summer people,” as they were called, provided employment for natives.  They shared local amenities like beaches, while respecting the native’s right to pursue their own lives.  But with the spread of condominiums and a burgeoning economy that allowed for the purchase or construction of high-end properties, a new and increasingly affluent class of people came to live in Gloucester, very different from the old money that had summered here beginning in the 19th century.  Unlike the old moneyed residents, this new class has made demands on the city for lifestyle amenities of their own—expensive restaurants and specialty boutiques—demands which have slowly changed and gentrified a city whose residents have long been comfortable living and working in as it was.
There is, however, a deeper concern.  It is a fear that our working waterfront and the full-service port that has defined this city for centuries and been our lifeblood is being targeted for development that has nothing to do with fishing and maritime activities.  After Jim Davis, the owner of New Balance shoes, bought the Birdseye building to develop it as a hotel, he purchased two more properties on the Fort and is said to be negotiating for a third, suggesting a wider takeover of the neighborhood, which could lead to the gutting of existing businesses and residences.  Davis also owns another property at the eastern end of the working waterfront.  In addition, he is the controlling partner in Cruiseport, a restaurant, function center and seasonal docking venue for vacation cruise ships, located on a wharf that once provided stevedoring services to tankers carrying international cargoes.
If Davis is allowed to construct his hotel complex on the Fort, residents fear a domino effect, which would concatenate across the entire working waterfront, transforming it into a retail and hospitality center, our highly experienced workforce displaced by underpaid service employees.  Already demands are being made to lift the state Designated Port Area (DPA), which protects both the fishing industry and water-relate businesses.  Should the DPA be lifted, other uses such as restaurants, condominiums, retail businesses and marinas for luxury yachts could preempt marine industrial uses.  Gloucester’s much sought-after full-service port, with its state of the art railways for ship repairs, its fresh fish auctions, machine shops and other industries ancillary to fishing would be lost.  Along with that would go the city’s storied character and maritime heritage, which continues to attract a multitude of visitors, who come not for hotels and condos but to experience our famed working landscape.
Kurlansky is right.   If what he cautioned against were to happen, not only would there be little left for the people who live here to base their lives on, but our proud heritage created by waves of Yankees, Novascotians, Lebanese, Finns, Greeks, Jews, Portuguese and Sicilians, who came to this working port for living wages and stayed to create neighborhoods like the Fort, will have been irretrievably altered.  Place is more than simply where we live.  Place is who we are and what we are.  It is, as the Gloucester poet and former Fort resident Charles Olson maintained, “the geography of our being.”  Destroy place and you destroy the very basis of our lives. In an over-mediated world where people yearn for authenticity we have it in abundance here in Gloucester.  Why would anyone want to barter it away?

April 30, 2012:    Two motels on Gloucester's Back Shore have just applied for a zoning overlay that would enable them to expand, spawning a second campaign against this problematic form of zoning; in this case by residents of the Back Shore and Eastern Point,  who oppose a hotel overlay in their neighborhood.  Some of these same residents favor the hotel overlay zoning proposed for the Fort. Consequently, two neighborhoods are pitted against each other, in a further instance of poor or non-existent planning.  The domino effect, predicted by those who oppose overlays on principle and urge the city to plan before allowing haphazard development in any neighborhood, appears to have begun.