It's 1885, and Howard Blackburn has been back in town for two years, minus a few fingers and toes.
With over 600 fishing vessels employed and highlining schooners bringing in hundreds of thousands of pounds a trip, it's the heroic period of Gloucester's fishery, and boom-time for the port and the City. Here's how author Joe Garland describes the scene:
“Back in the recesses of the harbor, behind Ten Pound Island and Rocky Neck and Five Pound Island, by the Fort and Duncan Point, along Smith Cove and Vincent Cove and Harbor Cove the shore sagged with wharves and shipyards, marine railways, chandleries and sail lofts, riggers, rope walks net and twine factories, smithies, coopers and boxmakers, icehouses, warehouses, gashouses, paint shops, machine shops, sheds, stables, smokehouses, flake yards, oilskin makers, glue factories, fish dealers, salt dealers, outfitters, teamsters, brokers, agents, saloons, grogshops, poolrooms, barber shops, lunchrooms and boarding houses…
It's a teeming welter of trades, goods, dwellings and services. But Gloucester's movers and shakers in 1885 don't see themselves as “quaint” or “picturesque.” They're progressive, modern. The Gloucester Electric Light Company has just been founded, The Atlantic cable now stretches between Dover, England and Rockport, Mass., and the country is spanned by the Transcontinental Railroad line.
Down the block from Blackburn's saloon a young man named Frank E. Davis is busy having a very progressive, modern idea. Thanks to upgraded railroad and postal services, America now has the infrastructure to sell goods anywhere in the country by mail. And because of constantly improving packaging and preservation methods, fisheries products can withstand bulk handling and lengthy shelf time. Davis puts these two technologies together and creates Gloucester's first mail order fish company. By 1910 it has become so successful that he needs a new factory to contain it. So Davis utilizes another cutting-edge technology – a newfangled construction method called reinforced concrete – to create the Frank E. Davis factory on Rogers St. Davis' big thinking and innovative use of technology pay off. By 1915 his company is the largest such in the world. It employs 100 workers and boasts 200,000 customers.
Flash forward to 1959. Gorton's and Clarence Birdseye with his frozen fish sticks have pretty much put Frank Davis out of business, but things are still booming in Gloucester. They're bringing in more than 150 million pounds of food fish annually and it looks like things will only get better. However, in order to capitalize on the upswing, City Fathers realize that outmoded waterfront facilities need a major upgrade. The big question is, how will they get the money to do it?
Enter Urban Renewal, already a hot concept in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Revere, Somerville, and out as far as Lowell, Lawrence and Worcester. Don't forget, this is the Nineteen Fifties. People wear bow ties and crew cuts and definitely do not think outside the box. The whole Urban Renewal concept is based on the allure of that lovely Fifties romance with the brand, spanking New. And to get the New you have to destroy the old. Simple as that.
In fairness, the program was primarily aimed at eliminating substandard housing, and it did open up vistas and improve surface traffic. But our local planners saw Urban Renewal primarily as a tool to improve the waterfront. At the urging of HUD, the original Urban Renewal plan had been slated for a slice of “blighted” housing along the 128 extension and the B&M tracks. However, in the Fall of 1959 the City Council voted to drop the original plan and transfer their application for Urban Renewal to Gloucester's waterfront. The feds would provide ¾ of the funding. Gloucester's share was estimated at $850,000 but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts promised to pick up half of that amount. It looked like a great deal for Gloucester. So they got down to specifics.
Now it's December 1961, and a consultant named Dorn L. McGrath, of the Planning Services Group of Cambridge, pitches a bold concept to City Fathers. He proposes what he calls “a radical real estate redevelopment program.” He tells the assembled city councilors and other dignitaries that, “the waterfront is a naturally fascinating place, but we must keep foot traffic out of the marine railway area and other industries on the waterfront.”
The plan, which stretches from Vincent's Cove to the beginning of Harbor Cove, includes about 36 acres of waterfront property, and identifies 166 buildings, of which 96 are “substandard.” Sixty-five families will be displaced, but that's OK. The plan calls for each family to be given a $200 relocation payment. This typifies the kind of thinking that had been going on for decades in Gloucester, ultimately displacing hundreds of families in the downtown area.
The Fisheries Commission, Gortons, the Chamber of Commerce, Cape Ann Bank & Trust, the Planning Board, the Industrial Development Commission, the Housing Authority - Everybody likes it! Everybody, that is, except people like Margaret Mason, who lives down behind the Fitz Hugh (now Henry) Lane house. At this meeting she tells McGrath, “Where we live now is where we can afford. How are we going to be able to find someplace else for the same price?” McGrath says this is “an important question.”
It was a “radical real estate redevelopment program,” all right. In the end, among the demolished buildings were the Quincy Market warehouse, the Thomas Sail Loft the Gas Co. Building, Thurston's Garage, the Gloucester Hotel a multitude of bars, restaurants, retail establishments, dwellings and, of course, the old Frank E. Davis factory, which was built so solidly they had a hell of a time tearing it down. All gone forever – the teeming diversity, the organic fit of function and form that consultants now refer to as “authenticity,” supposedly much in demand among the tourist set… Gone.
And what did we get to show for it?
Oh, and one other thing. This is the site of the Frank Davis building and its neighbor the Quincy Market warehouse. You'd know it better today as I4-C2, but you could also think of it as $980,000 which is my conservative calculation as to how much that parcel has NOT contributed to Gloucester's tax base since the beginning of Urban Renewal.
Kind of depressing, isn't it? In our 1950s innocence we traded that fine funky web of interdependent businesses, industries and families for something colder and more monolithic. As Peter Anastas said in a 1979 editorial marking Urban Renewal's wake, and the old buildings, culture and memories it had destroyed, “Urban Renewal took that away from me – from all of us – and for that reason I can never quite forgive it or totally rationalize its value.”
Gloucester's not dilapidated any more, and certainly it's cleaner. Maybe “sterile” would be a better word.
I think most of us would agree with Peter – there are some things that Urban Renewal got wrong. But as we consider the future of our waterfront and our downtown, and specifically the fate of the BirdsEye site, it's important that we acknowledge our past mistakes and move on.
In fact, as a part of this process, I would suggest there are things we can learn from people like Frank E. Davis and the whole pre-Urban Renewal model of what a healthy Gloucester was like. Urban Renewal might've torn the buildings down, but the ideas survived.
In the first place, Davis was quick to utilize new technologies, both in conceiving his business and in creating a structure to house it. Reinforced concrete may not sound so new now, but it's part of Gloucester legend that when the Urban Renewal wrecking ball hit Davis' building, it bounced off. That building would've been good for another hundred years, just the way Davis had originally planned. So if his building had been allowed to stand, it would have embodied the concept of adaptive re-use. This is an idea New Englanders have been using for hundreds of years.It's something Mac accomplished successfully with the Gloucester Mill project – turning a 1907 industrial building into affordable housing – and at 33 Commercial St., where a run down industrial space found a new lease on life. He helped Renee Gross and the Gloucester Historical Commission save the GAR Hall on Washington St., giving the city decades more productive use and the pride of a historic structure. And he invested valuable political capital and untold man-hours in the doomed effort to save the Fisherman's Institute. The Good Old Boys won that round, and the people of Gloucester lost an important part of their heritage. But hey, this is about moving on.
So back to my hero my hero Frank E. Davis. Another thing I like about him was that he was not afraid to think big. His plant and warehouse towered more than 40 feet above Rogers St. and still allowed a slice of waterfront access. Davis' operation was brilliant in that it combined processing, packing, advertising, marketing and shipping all under one roof. In other words, his business succeeded in part because it blended commercial and industrial functions. Just as important, the people who worked at his plant didn't have to commute from Beverly, they lived up the hill behind Vincent's Cove or over on Ivy Ct. When the Frank E. Davis company - and Gloucester as a whole - was at its healthiest, it found a way to seamlessly integrate commercial, industrial and residential uses.
utilize new technologies
integrate commercial, industrial and residential
To the planners of the 1950s, this conception of Gloucester might have seemed overcrowded. But people have been living that way for a long time. For all its accomplishments, Urban Renewal instilled a lingering mistrust of politicians and developers, and a paranoia that “improvement” will only mean destruction and gentrification.
Development of the BirdsEye site is a tremendous opportunity for us to move past these old fears and grudges. As much as we need to acknowledge our mistakes we should also learn from the past and embrace the concepts that made Gloucester great – starting, in my opinion, with salt codfish and salt pork bits, served with boiled potatoes and beets. Maybe washed down with a glass of Fisherman's Brew.