By Ron Bernthal
Gloucester, Massachusetts was settled in 1623, making it one of the first English settlements in what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and today the town proudly proclaims itself as “America’s First Seaport.”
Although this early group of settlers abandoned Gloucester three years later due to the harsh conditions, English fisherman and farmers eventually tamed the land, harvested an unlimited supply of ocean catch, and incorporated the seaside town in 1642. It has been a fishing port ever since, although its harbor is seeing fewer and fewer fishing trawlers. Although fish packing houses still line Rogers Street as it meanders along the waterfront, and summer tourists still crowd local restaurants for fresh seafood, unemployment in the fishing industry has grown as government catch restrictions limit, or sometimes prohibit, the amount of fish that can be legally caught and sold.
Since the early 1800’s Gloucester’s harbor and the quaint towns and beautiful seascapes throughout the Cape Ann peninsula have also attracted painters, photographers, sculptors and writers who established private summer homes in the inland forests or on the bluffs overlooking the sea. Art galleries and studios line village main streets, and it is a common sight in good weather to see painters standing in front of their easels with Gloucester Harbor or a deserted ocean beach as a backdrop.
The ethereal light along the coast in the Cape Ann region is often compared to the light in Arles, a city in the south of France where van Gogh produced 300 paintings during his time there in the late 1800’s. Today, if one looks at the 19th- century paintings of Fitz Henry Lane, who lived in Gloucester, the Cape Ann scenes he depicts are very reminiscent of southern France.
“The early artists concentrated on all the beautiful natural landscapes we have here, including the shoreline, the harbor and the center of the Cape Ann peninsula, which is still relatively uninhabited,” said Martha Oaks, curator of the Gloucester’s Cape Ann Museum. “Some of them did wonderful portraits of local fishermen, and captured the large schooners that used to sail in and out of the harbor.”
Gloucester itself, with only 30,000 residents, has so many arts and cultural venues that in 2013 it became the first community in Massachusetts to be granted two cultural district designations. A good introduction to Gloucester’s historic seaport is to take the Harbor Walk, a short self-guided tour that meanders along the historic harbor area and in the narrow streets above the port, which are lined with numerous small, family-run businesses, including taverns, pizza shops, restaurants, barber shops and clothing stores. On a hill in the center of town stands Gloucester City Hall, a lovely 1881 building with a clock tower that looks out past the harbor to the glittering bay beyond. The larger restaurants, those most frequented by summer motor-coach tours, as well as local families celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, are located along the waterfront and offer fresh fish and lobster with views of the harbor.
In the last few decades the city has experienced its share of tough times. A rash of teenage pregnancies, drug abuse among its youth, and growing unemployment that is more than the national average, not unlike many other small New England coastal towns.
But perhaps the cruelest indignity has been the decline of Gloucester’s fishing industry. Although depleted stocks have taken its toll all along the East Coast, fishing has been Gloucester’s life blood for 400 years, and the decline has been especially difficult for the residents here, financially and psychologically. Massachusetts ranks second behind California in the number of jobs supported by the fishing industry, but with coastal cod fishing in New England highly restricted, and severe limits on other species also affected, each year there are far fewer local boats leaving Gloucester harbor before dawn for a day’s catch.
Many of the former fish processing sheds along the waterfront have either closed, or now process product that arrives by truck from larger seaports along the coast, and for many young men in town, following your father onto a Gloucester-based fishing boat is no longer a guaranteed career.
The town still supports a fishing fleet, Gloucester fishing boat captains are the stars of the TV show Wicked Tuna, and the popular film, The Perfect Storm, is a true story based on a Gloucester fishing boat, and was about filmed here. But local officials and the business community have to make-up for the revenue and jobs lost in the fishing industry, and they are doing so by inviting high-tech firms to relocate out of the pricy Boston market nearby, and recently approved a modern hotel development project on beach property near the harbor.
Although the traditional fishing community has not objected to the inland high-tech development that is taking place on the Cape Ann peninsula, the hotel project had divided Gloucester during the years when it was being debated in town meetings, until construction was finally approved to move forward by the Gloucester town board.
In the end, the fishing community in Gloucester, traditionalists who opposed the hotel being built on a town beach, the site of a former Bird’s Eye processing plant, lost out to residents who see the future of the city’s economic revitalization no longer can count on fishing, but with luring modern businesses, design-driven hotels, and more affluent business and leisure travelers.
The 96-room Beauport Hotel is expected to give Gloucester’s economy a much needed boost. “That project is a case of land going unused. Do you just let it sit there, let the former buildings crumble and waste away? It is prime waterfront property, and can bring it megabucks to the community,” said Erik Ronnbert, adjunct curator for maritime history at the Cape Ann Museum. “The new hotel, and perhaps others like it, will be a benefit for the city, but I understand why some residents of Gloucester were against it. The hotel is symbolic of the changes in lifestyle for generations of families that were once part of the city’s fishing heritage, and they’re seeing their culture and heritage disappear. The kind of employment being offered to many of these proud fisherman, they see it as a step down in the town’s social hierarchy, so of course they aren’t happy about the changes are coming.”
Other residents welcome the changes. “Interestingly, there were big resort hotels here 100 years ago, the city has always been a popular destination for visitors,” said Scott Memhard , president of Cape Pond Ice, a company which has supplied Gloucester’s fishing fleet since 1848, and was featured in the film the Perfect Storm. Mr. Memhard’s business has seen sharp declines in the number of fishing boats they serve, but welcomes the new hotel and the possible increase in leisure boating that may result. “Gloucester is not really reinventing itself, there actually was once a fancy hotel on Pavilion Beach, just down the way from the Beauport Hotel, and these properties were always an important part of the economy here.”
The Beauport Hotel is expected to open in 2016 with visitors coming to see the area’s museums and art galleries, but also to walk along the city’s working harbor, stroll the nearby beaches and enjoy the beautiful and fragile sunlight that artists have been trying to capture since Gloucester was founded 400 years ago.