Friday, December 24, 2010

A Landmark Year for Gloucester's Waterfront

Decision Time On The Waterfront

The year 2010 will be remembered as a turning point in Gloucester’s history. After 45 years, local government finally took control (temporarily) of the I-4 - C-2 parcel downtown, long considered critical to our Main Street economic revival. The second happening was the acquisition of the idle Birdseye property by a local investor. These two events could positively change Gloucester’s future economic direction, if we are prepared to make the necessary hard zoning decisions.

Mac Bell’s multi-use Birdseye proposals, currently under city government review, already have initiated vigorous public debate by activists bent on preserving the run-down status quo character of the “Fort” area. The arguments pro and con in this debate will play out publicly, and should influence any future decision-making by the city’s planning and zoning boards.

The larger more pressing problem is the Fort Point, direct harbor frontage land area which has remained ignored and undeveloped for decades. This blighted, unproductive land area, currently devoted to lobster pot storage, is not the highest and best use for this prime water frontage. The 1-4 Amero harbor frontage properties of the former Cape Ann Fisheries and Producer’s Fish Co., cry out for development. This whole neglected area resembles a war zone. Why aren’t the marine related developers and promoters of the spin-type “wave energy and ocean acidification projects” attracted to these shovel-ready, properties currently lying fallow? This is where the Fort’s major future development should be focused.

Yes, there certainly are “positives”. Ocean Crest Seafoods, Cape Pond Ice, and Felicia Oil Co. can justify their continuing need for wharf frontage. Neptune Harvest/Ocean Crest with their trendy organic fertilizer and new green storage tanks, as well as Intershell’s new retail expansion showcases upgrades in the area. These ongoing investments demonstrate continuing faith in the Fort’s commercial community. Survival in any business depends upon renewal, innovation, and staying competitive. Neptune Harvest products are today’s fertilizer innovation.

In fairness, there’s not much new about processing fish waste. In the 1940s, the products of LePage’s Glue, Rogers Glue and Isinglass Co., and other fish waste plants, were considered novel for that era. These facilities were located in West Gloucester and in a field now known as Pond Road Industrial Park. From its Commercial Street location, Good Harbor Fillet Co., a fish processing plant, moved to a modern building in Blackburn Industrial Park. Lobster business activity, conducted in a rented Commercial Street building, could be accomplished anywhere.

The reality is: fertilizer, fuel oil sales, lobsters, tuna landings, and retailing of exotic seafood products can be processed, shipped, and marketed almost anywhere away from a wharf on Commercial Street. In other words, the work of the often clichéd “working waterfront” can now be “worked” anywhere!

1. Gloucester and its fishing industry have changed. The men are gone, the boats are gone, and the fish are off limits!

2. We have a federal government and an ever-growing NOOA-NMFS, intent on regulating independent fishermen – the core of Gloucester’s once famous
industry - out of business!

3. Any and all fish landings can be processed at one wharf, the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction.

4 FACT: At the height of 1940-‘50s, millions of pounds of fish were processed on only 60% of the available wharf frontage.

5. FACT: We have more available vessel wharf space in our harbor today than at any time in Gloucester’s history.

6. FACT: Booth Fisheries relocated inland to I-95 North in Portsmouth, N.H., in the 1960s, proving fish processing can be accomplished anywhere.

7. FACT: Barren prime waterfront land and unimproved, obsolete buildings impact negatively on the entire tax paying population. Failure to react to this fiscal reality is to place politics ahead of government’s fiduciary responsibility.

8. FACT: Gloucester is no longer the fishing capital of the world. Change has come to the Fort for many reasons; to survive economically, Gloucester’s city officials must respond to this change.

Ron Gilson

Monday, December 6, 2010

Out of the Ashes Rises A Symbol of Hope

December 6, 2010

Congratulations to our Cape Ann Jewish Community, especially to their synagogue design and architectural oversight committee, for the beautiful futuristic building taking shape on historic Middle Street. This modern temple sends a message of hope and inspiration. Our Jewish community is alive and well, moving forward with an edifice that inspires hope for the future while honoring their founding fathers from the past.

Gloucester has been my home for a lifetime and some of my most memorable experiences involved my Portuguese neighbors and lifelong Italian friends. Reflecting on my formative years, our Jewish community the smallest of Cape Ann’s ethnic groups influenced my life more than any other; I am truly grateful.

It has been my good fortune to have lived in some of Gloucester’s most exciting times. The period from the end of WW II – 1945 to the opening of the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge in 1951 (when we were still an island) was for me, undoubtedly Gloucester’s finest hours. It was in this brief period that Gloucester was a community like no other. We were the leading fishing port in the world! Millions of pounds of fresh fish were landed daily. Hundreds of wharf workers and vessel support personnel worked the waterfronts, three marine railways, and numerous processing plants. A fleet of 200 vessels sailed from Ipswich Bay to the Grand Banks, a thousand miles away! The whole city prospered, Main Street was alive! Gloucester was like no other place. It was a special time.

My father worked for Ben Kerr of the National House Furniture Co. at the corner of Elm and Main Streets during the 1940s. Around the supper table we were introduced to the Jewish community, listening to my father’s stories working for the Kerr family. On several special occasions, Dad was recruited by Ben to pump the organ (bellows) in the synagogue. It was quite an experience for my dad; he even donned a yarmulke.

One hot summer night in July of ’45, my mongrel dog was severely injured in a fight. The vet’s phone rang and rang. My father remembered that Dr. Morris Pett was a dog lover. He called the doctor, and was told to come to his office on Middle Street, but to enter the back way with “Rags” wrapped in a sheet. While Dr. Pett’s patients unknowingly waited in his outer room, Dr. Pett sutured my dog’s neck in his rear examining charge! Dr. Pett was a little boy’s hero. He was a kind, compassionate and giving person, a Gloucester legend.

I only recall three Jews that worked the Gloucester waterfront in the mid forties. Nathan Flasher, a lumper (longshoreman) and my friend Gene Marshall, a lumper and marine insurance broker, who rented a one room office in the green building (still there) on the Gloucester House wharf. The third person was a “worker of the wharves”, Harry Slafsky. Across the street from Ed Bloomberg’s Strand Theater (now Palazola’s Sporting Goods store) on the West End of Main Street was Slafsky’s Pawn Shop. Harry was a short, portly man, a natural salesman with an outgoing personality. His pawn shop was not in the busiest section of Main Street, so Harry conducted business daily on the waterfront, reminiscent of the peddlers of old. In those days, Gloucester hosted a large 15 - 20 vessel southern fleet each summer. These southern crew members lived aboard their boats between trips – a captive clientele. Harry, with rings on every finger and a dozen wrist watches on each arm, brought his wares to these customers. This was my first lesson in retail merchandising.

Upon my return from the service in 1961, I took my first job at the Gloucester Safe Deposit & Trust Co. on the corner of Main and Duncan Streets. All the tellers belonged to “Bob” Kramer’s suit club. Every week “Bob” would collect a buck from each of us, placing us in the “lottery” with a chance to win a free suit. The trouble was, after a year of contributing, I never won! I expressed my displeasure to “Bob”. Low and behold, the next week, I was “shocked, shocked” to learn that I had won the grand prize of a nice suit. “Bob” threw in a Dobb’s felt hat to boot. Bob Kramer was my friend, long before and after the suit experience. He called me “Herbie”, my dad’s name. Everyone in Gloucester who knew “Bob” Kramer, owner of Bob’s Haberdashery, loved him.

In Sarah V. Dunlap’s wonderful, informative chronicle “The Jewish Community of Cape Ann”, an oral history, she tells the story of the five musical Sandler brothers. Sandler’s Music Store was on the corner of Hancock and Main Street (where the curtain shop is today). High school kids flocked to the store’s record department to test play hit records of the day in one of six soundproof booths at the rear of the store. On the second floor the brothers gave music lessons.....perhaps Fred Slafsky and “Louie” Norton, my fellow R.O.T.C. band friends, were taking sax and trombone lessons at the time. Both are retired medical doctors today.

Twenty years later in the early ‘70s, I acquired Gene Marshall’s marine insurance business after his untimely passing. I was associated with attorney Solomon Sandler who conducted his law practice directly above my ground floor office, with his son Mark and their associate “Bob” Laramee. Attorney “Sol”, became my marine insurance adviser. He was like a father to me; he was my mentor.

When I reminisce about Gloucester’s Jewish community members, I think of the Alper family. Leo sold me my first college topcoat for one dollar weekly. “Ted” Linsky gave me credit and auto service for years. His son, “Steve”, still continues the Linsky family business. “Lenny” Linsky, was a WWII wounded survivor of the Normandy Beach landing. Richard and “Winnie” Bell were in our restaurant every weekend. Fred Axelrod sold me a suit for my engagement – 50% off! Dr. David Cohen, with his soft, kind voice treated me when I was ill as a youngster. Dr. Broder was my dentist on Pleasant Street. These people and many more impacted my life. They contributed significantly to the prosperity of our community.

Arriving from Europe as peddlers and laborers, Gloucester’s Jewish population, while few in number, would become a major influence in the Cape Ann community. Religiously they moved forward from their humble shul beginnings on Liberty and Addison streets to Prospect, and then Middle Street. Professionally they became prominent Main Street merchants, doctors, lawyers and educators. Their story is a classic American story; it’s what this great country is all about! These are my thoughts when I pass the beautiful temple rising out of the ashes on historic Middle Street.

For those who disagree with the architecture of the new temple, I remind you that the designs of preeminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright were met with serious criticism during his early career. Locally, Gloucester High School was faulted for its design in 1938, dubbed “the factory”. Now 70 years later, it is still a vital component of our community!

After three negative and demeaning letters to the Times, I say, “enough already”! YOU, Mr. Golden, “just don’t get it”. You are too busy looking at the trees! The people of Cape Ann know the “cut of your jib”. On this noble temple project, Mr. Golden, the train has left the station and you’re not on it!

Ron Gilson