Back by popular demand. Limited engagement only!
Fairhaven, a town just across the harbor from the old whaling port of New Bedford, is one of my favorite places in New England. Like the still relatively undiscovered Newburyport and Bristol RI it has been spared both the pessimist’s child urban renewal and the optimist’s darling gentrification.
It was the second largest port early on, only later eclipsed by New Bedford, at which time it became a center for seafaring support and a close in suburb for the wealthier class. Melville has the Pequot setting sail from Fairhaven in Moby Dick.
The “downtown” area is lovely but raises questions. The architecture is stunning — a gargantuan town hall
a public library
and various public buildings and churches, some more monumental
and some stripped down New England.
And a few blocks from town hall, a massive and ornate high school.
But there are disconnects. First, where is the village center? The significant public and religious buildings are clustered but that is that. Given the grand scale of these buildings and their appeal you might expect some commercial activity. There is very little to be found. The impression is that of an imposing grouping of buildings dropped into a 19th century neighborhood.
Fairhaven is and was a town —16,000 souls today and less than 3,000 in the time of whaling. Quite small for such architecture.
The town describes the town hall:
The interior features quartered oak paneling, solid brass fixtures and leaded, stained glass windows. The tower houses a four-faced clock. The magnificent auditorium on the second floor, restored in the 1990s, has been the site of many town meetings, dances, concerts, plays and theatrical performances. Humorist Mark Twain, a close friend of Rogers, appeared on stage here on February 22, 1894, as the keynote speaker at the building’s dedication ceremony.
But in discussing its current functions:
Among the services that visitors to Fairhaven might need from the Town Hall are:
• Shellfishing Permits
• Boat Stickers
Further, it is not the case that the buildings showcase the town at its whaling prime. Whaling started its decline in the 1860s while the grand architecture came later, around the turn of the century. So they cannot be evidence of the extreme wealth of New Bedford across the harbor, for a time the richest city in the world.
The answer is to be found in that curious class of elites, the WASP aristocracy. Turns out one of Rockefeller’s oil boys, Henry H. Rogers, was a local, and on his own dime built the grand structures and gave them to the town (along with a water system and other improvements).
So it seems that the sense of place is not really related to the industry we associate with the area. It is not an illusion exactly but it is not exactly organic either.
Used to be philanthropy had a good name and for the most part it earned it. Nowadays it is about 1) put my name on it for status or, far worse and far more common at extreme levels of “giving” 2) let us change the world in very specific ways to my liking. It is not so much about supporting a worthy endeavor than about me.
Too bad the prudence and restraint of our forbears was so easily hacked.
Following the tour of Fairhaven my wife and I made our way to our favorite Portuguese restaurant, Antonio’s, a neighborhood joint in New Bedford. The kind of place where in Portuguese style they figure glasses of liquids, including wine, are meant to be filled up.
And where $18.99 buys you enough pork, clams, shrimp and fried potatoes in a garlic paprika sauce to feed an army.
My concerns about philanthropy old and new vanished for a couple of hours.