“…think not that this famous town has only harpooners,
cannibals and bumpkins to show her visitors. Not at all. Still, New Bedford is a queer place.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
When Herman Melville wrote those words for his Great American Novel, he no
doubt spoke of actual harpooners, cannibals and bumpkins, but in present day
New Bedford, none of those will be found, save in the metaphorical sense. And
without contemporary interpretation, “queer” meant nothing beyond weird
or odd. And this old seafaring city — once made obscenely rich by whaling
before the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, and shifting into livelihoods built
on textile, haddock, scallops and tourism — is still queer in the quaint sense
of the word.
New Bedford has often been too quick and shortsighted, sacrificing elements
of its rich history in the name of misguided urban renewal efforts, unnecessary
inner city highways and questionable ventures in the name of commerce over
public interests. However, the current city administrations, as well as longstanding
and well-respected organizations such as WHALE (Waterfront Historic
Area League) and ORPH, Inc. (Orpheum Rising Project Helpers), are making
significant strides to preserve the best of the past, embrace the present and
plan for the future.
New Bedford is a working-class city, but it has always had an ambitious
streak and a complex tradition of respect and nurturing of the arts. It was, for
some time, home to 19th Century painters Albert Pinkham Ryder and Albert
Bierstadt, among others, whose significant works can be seen at the New
Bedford Art Museum, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and the beautiful
downtown branch of the New Bedford Public Library.