Once known as the “City That Lit the World’’ because of its whaling industry, New Bedford is on the way to becoming the “City That Kept the Lights On.’’ New Bedford was once the busy international port city Herman Melville immortalized in “Moby-Dick’’ (the 163d anniversary of its first publication was Oct. 18). Today with 10 solar energy projects and its recent designation as the on-shore staging area for Cape Wind, the city’s goal, as the mayor recently said, is “to establish New Bedford in the eyes of the wider world as a leader that other communities ought to emulate, rather than as just another medium-sized Northeast industrial city struggling to catch up in a post-industrial economy.
Long regarded as an industrial city whose good times had past, New Bedford has polished its image. The restored downtown has a busy, optimistic feel, with a steady stream of visitors enjoying the look of historic buildings, cobblestone streets, museums, galleries, and well-placed green spots. Residents like it, too, pointing to new restaurants with a view of the harbor and sidewalk cafes offering local Portuguese favorites and a diverse cuisine. The popular lunch and dinner spot No Problemo “feeds the whole city,’’ one city employee said.
On the streets of the very walkable downtown, the New Bedford Whaling Museum welcomes visitors with suspended skeletons of the world’s largest creatures, a model whaling ship, and art, science, and interactive exhibits. Go upstairs and enjoy the brilliant view of the Port of New Bedford, with its rows of fishing boats and the blue horizon beyond.
The harbor is also a source of recreation. Taking advantage of its setting and historic infrastructure, the city is paving the top of a hurricane barrier to create another site for bicycling along the water. Inexpensive studio space inside old mills is attracting artists to a city that already has one of the highest per capita percentages of visual artists in the nation.
The real estate market hasn’t caught up to the “new’’ New Bedford yet, and locals say there are bargains to be found here, especially among the old “captain’s houses’’ in the attractive West End neighborhood. Other areas lag. City Hall acknowledges that many housing properties have suffered from neglect and trash buildup and has been making absentee owners clean up their act.
But the direction of the city impresses new visitors and calls out to sons and daughters who left town for education and career opportunities elsewhere. Locals say the comment most often heard from natives checking out one of the city’s frequent tourist events is “I want to move back.’’
BY THE NUMBERS
The number of visitors to the Charles W. Morgan,the last of an American whaling fleet that numbered more than 2,700 vessels, in a nine-day stay in the Port of New Bedford last summer. The ship was built in New Bedford in 1841.
The dollar value of the commercial fishermen’s landings at the port in 2012. About 80 percent was scallops. That year New Bedford was home to the number one fishing port in the United States in terms of the dollar value of its catch, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The year former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass arrived in New Bedford, where he and his wife Anna made their home.
Percentage of New Bedford residents born in another country (2008-2012), according to the US Census.
PROS & CONS
It’s a great walking city with a downtown core of restored buildings and cobblestone streets in the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. Museums, galleries, parks, and dozens of other walkable sites abound in the downtown and waterfront.
The schools must continue to improve. While the 2014 MCAS results showed modest gains, New Bedford’s school superintendent said, the data still point to the need for “dramatic improvement across the board.’’ The district has adopted programs to transform classroom instruction among other initiatives.
Expanding restaurant scene features a diverse cuisine, stellar Portuguese food, fresh seafood from the busy fishing port, and many independently owned restaurants and cafes.
The city is dotted with run-down properties. City officials cite neglect by absentee landlords and have created the Neighborhood Task Force to identify problem spots and turn up the pressure to clean up and maintain properties.
Robert Knox, a writer from Quincy, can be reached at [email protected]