Addressing The Ave // By Steven Froias
This entry in the Addressing Acushnet Avenue series is something of an anomaly. Rather than uncovering some glorious forgotten past, 1541 Acushnet Avenue was most recently…an empty lot.
However, today it’s the Phillips Avenue Pocket Park. And also something else. A scapegoat.
A scapegoat for some who seek to deny the reality of the human condition, especially as sometimes expressed in a densely populated urban environment.
You see, today the Phillips Avenue Pocket Park isn’t being seen by some as a breath of fresh air in a crowded neighborhood, or as an investment in the future, but as the poster child for all the ills that can plague a city.
A debate recently broke out regarding the future of pocket parks on The Ave when a pair of New Bedford councilors, throwing Jane Jacobs under a bus and channeling Robert Moses, declared their intention to seek to have the parks closed.
For those who don’t recall, Moses was the man in New York who never met an expressway he didn’t like as he ruthlessly bulldozed through neighborhoods to accommodate automobile traffic – no matter the amount of destruction or disenfranchisement required. Meanwhile, Jane Jacobs argued that cities should be built for people rather than cars. They would thrive if a vibrant street scene was maintained.
Over time, Jane Jacobs has been proven correct. The absence of people from a city and its landscape never bodes well for the health and vitality of a neighborhood.
It’s especially disturbing, therefore, that the councilors’ proposal is not only to close the parks but (try) to sell them off to private developers to be turned into …parking lots.
The ensuing social media mayhem that occurred after stories appeared about closing the parks contained the usual hyperbole and ignorance. The parks are full of Drug Dealers! The parks are full of Hookers! Addicts are everywhere!
One half-expected to drive up to the Phillips Ave Pocket Park to see Al Pacino’s Scarface sitting at one of its colorful picnic tables behind a mountain of cocaine while Charlie Sheen was looking for his next date.
Missing from the conversation, of course, was any meaningful dialogue about how to adequately address the issue of people who have been marginalized – par for the course for social media. In this discussion, anyone with a problem is just a criminal. Which only serves to shield actual criminals from scrutiny.
Rather, the absurd proposal that all ills would be solved by turning the pocket parks into parking lots was accepted as legitimate – because as we all know, the consumption of narcotics and illicit sex never happens in cars.
Which is ludicrous. The truth is more nuanced – as is the history of Acushnet Avenue. The truth here is that The Ave has always been a gamey place.
Cruising The Ave was a rite of passage for many, many years – a vehicular melee if ever there was one. And this happened every Friday night from Coggeshall Street to Lunds Corner. Sometimes on Saturday, too.
The Ave was also once home to a porn theater, a sticky joint called Center Cinema which proudly advertised in The Standard-Times that its features ran continuously everyday from noon on. Not exactly a family-friendly venue.
Of course, that was in the ‘80s, when we collectively as a society ran off to the mall and abandoned The Ave to its fate. Which was quite forlorn for awhile – yet in recent years has steadily righted itself, with an influx of new businesses and the dogged determination of many who hung in there through the reign of hot wheels and “Debbie Does Dallas.”
For these folks, the Phillips Avenue Pocket Park, and the one at Nye Street, are signs that the city is making an investment in its people-friendly infrastructure that for too long only seemed to happen downtown.
This year, the National Whaling National Historical Park is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Decades ago, downtown New Bedford wasn’t what it is today. In fact, in the ‘90s, it was largely desolate.
Over time, and with the relentless application of blood and sweat by very many people, it eventually turned around. Joining the national park are other places like Custom House Square Park, Wings Court and Captain Paul Cuffee Park. Abolition Row Park is on its way. Each contributes to creating what’s correctly described as a revitalized downtown.
Still, on a Sunday morning you’ll find 10,000 cigarette butts on the streets and often numerous calls to police from the Saturday night before in the police blotter. That’s called life – it happens.
Yet, no one would seriously propose turning Wings Court into a parking lot. Custom House Square Park actually was a parking lot once – and it was hardly a MacGruff crime-free zone.
This spring and summer, 1541 Acushnet Avenue and the Phillips Avenue Pocket Park will boast a new shade and lighting installation by Stephanie McGoldrick as part of a UMass Dartmouth project. Also, a vendor cart project courtesy of an Urban Agenda initiative organized by the Community Economic Development Center will take place.
This follows the successful launch of the city’s first bona-fide new regional festival, the Guatemalan Kite and Cultural Festival, which had to move to the larger venue of Riverside Park after being born in…Phillips Ave Pocket Park.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes. Rebuilding a vibrant streetscape – accommodating people who populate it instead of cars that drive by it – doesn’t happen overnight. That process is still underway, and shouldn’t be strangled at birth.
Certainly, more work needs to be done to fully activate these public spaces. In fact, before the pandemic struck, planning had begun on launching a Love The Ave Culture Cruise evening patterned after AHA! New Bedford – which over two decades ago created the structure which helped allow downtown to revitalize itself.
Acushnet Avenue and the North End deserve no less than the time and care necessary for the rebirth which was allowed to happen in downtown New Bedford to take place here. It won’t be well-served by people who want to give up on it and turn it into a parking lot. (There are three municipal parking lots from Coggeshall Street to the St. Anthony of Padua Church already, by the way.)
1541 Acushnet Avenue isn’t an empty lot today because people didn’t give up on loving The Ave. Its full history can’t be written yet because it is an unfolding story. Its 21st century chapters should be written by the people who learned the lessons of the late 20th century – not the people who repeat its mistakes.