Sea Fair in Annisquam: Illustrating the Eras with Posters

Annisquam Moonlight.  Jon Corbino (1905-1964)

Every year’s Sea Fair poster is unique, none more so than those created by Lisbeth Bornhofft in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Her creations derived from individual silk screens, individual printings. Each was a one-off work of art. Hung on phone poles and in various public places, a number of them disappeared every year. Presumably, people appreciated the value in their individuality and helped themselves, Lisbeth notes.

AHS AVC Lisbeth’s 1979 Sea Fair poster

For the last 172 years Annisquam’s Sea Fair, and before that its Church Fair, has graced the village center in mid-summer. The poster announcing the event bears the date of the year it was produced. Thus, it is that the posters serve a historical purpose and make a contribution to the Annisquam art scene.

Lisbeth took on the Sea Fair artist’s mantle for over ten years, when her brother Hank Bornhofft was in charge of Sea Fair’s staging. Creating a new design every summer, Lisbeth produced silk-screened posters by the hundreds. Each one depicts an aspect of the village that is mirrored in its landscape or architecture-scape. The water figures prominently, as do familiar village scenes. In Lisbeth’s artwork, we see reflections of the Church and Lobster Cove, the Lighthouse, sailboats and lobster pots. The scenes she chooses carry meaning, meaning shared by residents and visitors who have forged unique, personal ties to the place and its scenery. Lisbeth says her image choices are intended to evoke emotion, a sort of nostalgia.

“The images bring a flood of memories, feelings of connectedness in the web of family and friends, generations who have come and gone,” Lisbeth says. “These are iconic Annisquam views. I think my mother [Nancy Bornhofft] was the inspiration for the color schemes at first, the blues and greens. Then, in later years I sometimes chose different colors, just to be different…oranges and yellows, like in the lobster pot poster.”

Producing a silk-screen poster “involves a high level of craft, as much as design,” Lisbeth explains. All of the posters are multi-color, with each hue applied as a discrete element. In an approximate print run of 100 posters, each one was screened separately. Lis begins with the lightest shade, which is usually applied as background and adds detail in progressively darker shades. Thus, lettering and shadows are added last.

All of Lisbeth’s posters have the same font and layout, a unifying visual theme that distinguishes hers from those created by others. With a requirement to list all activities and events planned for Sea Fair, laying out the print portion was painstaking. She started with a whole sheet of letters in different fonts. With the screen on a table, Lisbeth chose the letters she wanted to use, pressing each one by hand to produce text on a master poster. From that she made a screen photograph with an emulsion.

AHS AVC Lisbeth & 1987 poster

Lisbeth only has one or two screens nowadays. “I saved all my silkscreen tools and the apparatus until last year,” Lisbeth says. “When I retired [from the New England Aquarium], I realized the technique is outdated for mass production.” Nonetheless, if she ever feels so moved, she still has those couple screens, as well as the know-how and talent to again produce distinctive and eye-catching pieces.

***Annisquam’s 2018 Sea Fair will take place on Saturday, July 28 in the village center.***

Lisbeth Bornhofft’s Sea Fair posters will be on view in the Annisquam Historical Society’s Firehouse this summer. A naturalist and scientist, Lisbeth worked at the New England Aquarium for 25 years. She retired this last Spring. Previous to her career in science, Lisbeth was a practicing artist and art teacher. She graduated from Smith College with a BA in Fine Arts (concentration in screen printing) and an MA in Education from the Philadelphia College of Art (University of the Arts).

 

Holly Clay is settled in Gloucester after many years of living overseas and in Washington, D.C. Holly is a member of the Gloucester Historical Commission and the Annisquam Historical Society.  With a background in education and writing, her professional energies are currently devoted to studying and teaching yoga and meditation.

 

Stairs to the Harbor

Town Steps, Gloucester. 1916.        John Sloan (1871-1951)

by Eric Schoonover

      I leave by the kitchen door, thinking that the flowers in the small urban courtyard might offer some joy, but they seem to have seen the best of their summer days. The door to the street, a grand wooden affair, swings inward and I step out through the lovage and the rosemary and the sage and the chicory still holding on. Once this land was empty, but here in Gloucester these small ways have become streets; short, often one-way and called “courts.”

I walk toward the staircase, toward the sea: the sea.

My house was built by a fisherman almost four hundred years ago. He would have had to scramble down five hundred feet of granite ledge to reach his boat. Today, there are 57 steps. I inform casual climbers of this fact and of its Heinz connection but they seem indifferent to this older person descending from a world of ketchup and chili sauce. But then, perhaps as a consolation, I gesture toward the flowers and shrubs growing on either side of the staircase.

            Winslow Homer painted from the top of these fifty-seven steps, John Sloan from the bottom.  Homer’s view is not informing.  But Sloan’s observes the social niceties of dogs and shoppers and women chatting with each other. But that does not reveal the nature of this unusual staircase.

            In the fisherman’s time, long before a staircase, it was a dramatic place, the denizen of wolf and fox. Those must have made his early morning descent rather interesting—if indeed he took this route to his boat. Today, a monstrous skunk haunts my dreams with his malodorous character. One night, I rose to see his giant form slink away, his mark of white now yellowed over, presumably his badge of many years of hunting through our refuse.

            Look through the trees and you can see the Atlantic, a shard of ultramarine blue, flat and harmless, hardly a harbinger of a fall hurricane.

           Most of the streets run down to the harbor, as Gloucester is a city of the sea. Their architecture is mostly domestic—triple-deckers, with mansard toppings and wrought iron Victorian frostings. Begin with Pleasant and proceed along Prospect, past Elm and Chestnut until you get to Spring. None of these houses is new, although some have obdurate metal siding offering a hardened aspect to the world. It’s the modern way.

          But I don’t take these streets that lead to the sea. Rather, I choose the stairs. I want that glimpse of the sea and a more woodsy approach, bordered with flowers wild and cultivated.

 

Eric Schoonover’s next novel, Harboring, set in Gloucester, will be published later this year.  Sloan’s painting, Town Steps, Gloucester, is held by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Beyond Beauport

James Tarantino

Summer Read.        ©️ Maryanne Jacobson

One of the hottest takes this summer is the soon-to-be-released adventure novel Beyond Beauport by long-time Gloucester resident James Masciarelli.

Part fiction, with truth based in its accurate portrayal of real people and history, the author combines his passion for maritime adventure, blue-collar upbringing, and his expertise in psychology to appeal to the desires in all of us for love, the sea and a desire to take on great challenges in life.

Masciarelli cleverly stimulates all the senses as he pulls you along with the main character, Shannon Clarke, on a high-seas adventure rich in pirate history.

Check it out at  https://jamesmasciarelli.com   You don’t have to wait for the book launch at 6:30 p.m., July 29th at the Rocky Neck Cultural Center. Beyond Beauport is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

James Tarantino (Jimmy T.) is an exemplary outdoor enthusiast who heralds his love of family, his friends, and his passion for all things Gloucester.

Ralph Coburn, an Artist’s Artist

Peter Anastas

Paris Landscape. n.d.

Painter and long-time Lanesville resident, Ralph Coburn, who died on June 5th in Miami at the age of 94, was an artist’s artist.  This is not to say that his “spare, beautiful, abstract art,” (Boston Globe) wasn’t appreciated by the many who came to view it at the Cape Ann Museum, Wellesley College, the Arts Club of Chicago, David Hall Gallery, or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where Coburn’s innovative, geometric paintings were exhibited.   Rather, it denotes the deep appreciation that Coburn’s unique abstractions received from those who best understood the thought behind them and how they were part of an ongoing attempt of American painters to move beyond the dominant Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s.   Yet Coburn, whose work ethic was memorable and whose knowledge of art, from the frescos of Masaccio in Florence to Ellsworth Kelly’s bright, elemental abstractions, was extensive, did not insert himself into the art world in the manner of today’s careerists.

“Not enough people know about Coburn’s work, which is spare, beautiful, witty, and uncannily satisfying,” Sebastian Smee, Boston Globe art critic, wrote in 2010. “Coburn himself, I’ve been told, is modest to a fault, which is no doubt one reason why we don’t know more about him.”

Sea Study. 1985    Courtesy of Cape Ann Museum

I can attest to Ralph’s modesty. We met in 1986 while doing our laundry at the laundromat in Dunkin Donuts plaza in downtown Gloucester.  I might have been reading a book that Ralph commented on, or maybe it was the other way around.  A conversation began that ended with the last item of clothing removed from the drier and was taken up again the following Friday; for it was invariably on Friday mornings that we met to do the week’s wash, two aging men talking excitedly about Gertrude Stein or the latest recording of Bartok’s Quartets, while children ran between our legs and their mothers sat smoking and thumbing through tattered copies of People.   One of the most surprising moments of those early talks was our discovery that we had both been in Florence at the same time; in fact, our paths had nearly crossed in the Tuscan hill town of Settignano, where I was then living and Ralph had come to visit my neighbor, artist Susan Nevelson, daughter-in-law of the sculptor Louise Nevelson.

As far as I knew from what Ralph had disclosed, he was at the point of retiring from a job in graphic design at MIT, where he had been an architecture student before the war.  It took a long time before I learned that Ralph was actually a painter, who had been close to a group of post-war artists in Boston, many of whom had studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, including Ellsworth Kelly, Bernard Chaet, and Ninon Lacey.

Landscape Distallation. 1950

It turned out that Ralph was also friends with James Mellow, the Gloucester born biographer of Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, and Ernest Hemingway, whom I had met through playwright John Coyle, who spent his summers in the family home on Church Street.  Mellow and his partner Augie Capaccio had a summer cottage nearby Ralph’s home and studio in the former Folly Cove Designers barn overlooking Folly Cove.  Soon we were gathering for drinks and dinner at each other’s houses, joined by Mellow’s cousin Dr. June Mellow, a retired clinical psychologist and avid reader, and clinical social workers Peter Parsons and Helane Harris.

Those dinners became a summer routine, a night on John’s deck on Church Street, or at Augie and Jim’s, or at our house where Peter and Maria Denzer, our friends from Houston, MN prepared an unforgettable seafood risotto and the talk ranged from who was doing what in art to Mellow’s National Book Award for his biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which reviewer John Updike had called “the finest biography ever written” about the novelist of Salem’s dark secrets.

If Ralph had been modest about his art, which we were finally to experience when we were invited to his house for dinner, he was even more modest about his cooking.   That first night—there would be many others—Ralph, who had spent a great deal of time in France, prepared a fish soup of white fish in a clear broth with fresh vegetables and herbs.  Everyone pronounced it “exquisite.”  But that was only the prelude to the dishes that Ralph would cook for us on subsequent evenings.

Ralph and I shared a love of Modernist music, not to exclude Mahler, and the novels of Andre Gide.  Ralph was also a lifelong jazz fan, having spent countless nights at George Wein’s Storyville Club in Boston, while a student at MIT and later working at Boris Mirski’s gallery of vanguard art on Newbury Street. He greatly admired the playing of another Gloucester native, trumpeter and orchestra leader Herb Pomeroy.

What Ralph did not talk about much was his art—he merely did it, carefully and painstakingly, day after day, year after year, without the thought of recognition.  It was thrilling to see the paintings emerge.

Thinking back to the time we spent together, which now seems never to have been enough, I remember most our laundromat days, when we talked non-stop about art and life, while our clothing whirled in the driers and the children ran and jumped around us.

Ralph Coburn 1950

Ralph Coburn and his niece Carol C. Metcalfe. 2011

 

 

Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

 

 

 

 

“Gloucester Speaks”

By Shep Abbott

Gloucester View II.           Robert Stephenson (1935-2016)

As a filmmaker, one is always blessed if one’s subject allows one to literally roll out of bed, grab one’s camera and make a beautiful sequence literally from one’s deck, or at worst, from the dock adjacent to one’s domicile.

I now reside in a large multi-room studio at the venerable Beacon Marine Basin (c. 1865) with a stupendous view of the inner harbor. As it happens, on my walk across the wharf last night as the sun was firing on all cylinders across the harbor, bathing the waters in an incandescent glow, a school of mackerel hatchlings were, as my landlord Jack Alexander says, “conducting a circus”, gleefully smashing around in one ring, disappearing, then hitting another on a distant stage—all within that setting sun’s brilliant circus lighting. I “ran” (at age 74, the quotation marks are advised) up a flight to grab my camera and down to capture this exuberant sunlit display for my documentary “Gloucester Speaks”.

Later, I met friends at another venerable Gloucester institution, The Rhumb Line eatery and stellar music venue, to catch Willie Alexander on keyboards with Sag on bass and full band. As I thrilled to Willie’s remarkable fingerplay on the keys, I was reminded of the mackerel circus of that afternoon and I knew what part Willie’s frolicsome fingering and the infant mackerel circus would play together in my film. That’s called “Blessed!”

Since I returned to Gloucester from New York City in 1990, I’ve delighted to ply my trade here as opportunities presented themselves to my camera. With Joe Palmisano, I produced a documentary on the Fiesta of St. Peter in 1997, a lasting tribute to our Sicilian Community. The following year, I was fortunate to document the dismantling on Pavilion Beach of the last wooden fishing vessel (St. Rosalie) built in Essex—a sad and poignant affair made all the more poignant when I discovered a fine film had been produced in the late 1940’s of the very same vessel being built—rib and plank by keel and rudder.

Later, I was fortunate to be awarded national grants to complete “More Precious Than Gold,” a one-hour documentary covering the discovery, founding and first 200 years of this City, which won an award from the Gloucester Historical Commission. That film is available at the Cape Ann Museum and Maritime Gloucester.

Today, and for the past two years, I’ve been at work on “Gloucester Speaks,” a documentary whose theme is change, covering the past, present and unknown future of America’s first, iconic seaport. With our 400th Anniversary fast approaching, it seems appropriate that we both celebrate and question where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going.

To this end, I’ve conducted over 60 interviews with some of Gloucester’s most opinionated and eloquent talkers, as well as delighted in capturing fish, fishing, fish processing, fish fertilizer making, building demolition, hotel building, festivals, concerts, City Council debates, Mayoral debates, expert appearances by scientists, artists, poets, historians and more. The film, literally, is speaking for itself with no “all knowing” narrator guiding us to a typically sensible and safe conclusion. In the end, it is the “baby” we are presenting here, but without neglecting the bath water.

For me, “Gloucester Speaks” is a love song to the City that I spent my developing years working and playing in, and the one I returned to, finally, to find a home.

“Gloucester Speaks” is being financed by myself with additional local donations through our non-profit fiscal agent, The Center for Independent Documentary at 1300 Soldiers Field Road, #4, Boston, MA 02135. Donations are certainly welcome, and if you so choose, you may visit the film’s information and donation page at https://www.documentaries.org/gloucester-speaks.  But it is Gloucester, herself, I must thank for her innumerable private and public expressions of trust and camaraderie in welcoming my camera.

 

Shep Abbott has been an award-winning filmmaker since 1970 and served as principal cameraman on the Academy Award Winning documentary “Broken Rainbow.” Shep spent his formative years working and playing on the Gloucester waterfront. Returning from New York City in 1990, he formed and ran Fishtown Artspace for youth and adults, while continuing to produce documentaries.

The Waterfront Today

Patti Page

Boats in Harbor, Gloucester. 1911                Hayley Lever (1876-1958)

Rowing season is underway in Gloucester harbor.  Gig rowers from Maritime Gloucester have been in the water for several weeks.  The dories tied at St. Peter’s Commercial Marina are seen moving around the harbor with more women rowing this season than I have noticed in the past.  The Gloucester High School sailing team started their season in March.  They are well underway to their third consecutive winning season.

As small boats maneuver around the harbor, they negotiate the coming and going of fishing boats.  Gloucester lobstermen are busy shuffling lobster traps from land to sea for the harvesting season.

More than two million pounds of lobsters were landed in the port of Gloucester in 2017.  Gloucester leads the State in lobster landings each year.

In April, approximately eight Maine scallop boats visited Gloucester to harvest scallops.  These vessels, referred to as transients because their home port is Maine, contribute to the economic viability of our working waterfront.  Each boat lands 400 pounds of shucked scallop meat per day.  In Harbor Cove, both Ocean Crest and Fishermen’s Wharf offload day-boat-dry scallops.  This is high quality, locally harvested and landed seafood. With a boat price of $8 per pound of meat, their landing value is appreciable.  In addition to the value of their catch, these boats contribute to the local economy in other ways.  Dockage fees paid for otherwise empty wharves, temporary housing for crew and supplies for fishing trips.  Some boats tie up at The Gloucester House and several others dock in Smith Cove.

All these activities, fishing, rowing, and sailing are important historic cultural activities.  It is who we are.  It is our identity.  All these activities require access to the water.

Is there adequate public access to the water in Gloucester harbor?

Let’s look at the City’s inventory of publicly accessible waterfront locations in the harbor.

County Landing is the only point of public water access to the harbor.  It is located at the beginning of the Boulevard, abutting the Tavern.  This landing was once used for launching boats from trailers and amphibious vehicle tours.  It is now in such disrepair it is difficult and dangerous to launch kayaks or paddle craft there.

The City has entered into a 30-year lease agreement with National Grid for 19 Harbor Loop which houses the Harbormaster.  The City is seeking $2.5 million to invest in the building to develop a public boating facility.  That seems to be ample funding to develop a dual purpose boating facility.  A boating center which serves the community with amenities for use by residents and seasonal visiting yachters.

For those interested in participating in a discussion on Community Boating and expanding public waterfront access, there will be a public discussion held in the Friend Room at the Sawyer Free Library on Tuesday, May 29th at 6:00 pm.  Come meet Guy Fiero, Executive Director of Cape Ann Community Boating to learn more.  For more information email CapeAnnCB@gmail.com.

 

Patti Page, of Gloucester, is retired from a career in federal fisheries regulatory compliance work and a past member of the City’s Waterways Board.  She is a founder and former director of Sail GHS, the sailing program for students across Cape Ann, and is dedicated to a broad range of working waterfront advocacy issues.

 

 

Very Fine Cypresses

Mary Ellen Lepionka, May 21, 2018

Early Autumn. 1906                      Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925)

This is Part 5 of a six-part series on The Colonists and Indian Land. The first four parts were published in Historic Ipswich (https://historicipswich.org/).

Aside from the matter of sheer scale—impacts of Europeans on the environment rose as their population densities rose across the continent, the chief difference between them and Native Americans lay in their definitions and use of the land they occupied. Consider the forests. The earliest accounts of European explorers describe the peninsulas north and south of the Great Marsh as “forests primeval”. On the northern tip of Cape Ann, tree species included a mixture of softwoods such as black spruce, red spruce, hemlock, cedar, and fir, and hardwoods, such as white oak, rock maple, sugar maple, elm, ash, sycamore, hickories, chestnut, walnut, beeches, aspen, black birch, dogwood, and basswood (linden). Today, some of these species remain, and some have disappeared. Present-day dominant tree species include red oak, black willow, flowering shad, black cherry, and pitch pine.1 According to another source, the original forest in Essex County was a mixed deciduous forest of white pine, oak, chestnut, poplar, maple, birch, and some other hardwoods and conifers. In the early 20th century Cape Ann had second-growth oak and chestnut trees in uplands and scrub oak and pitch pine in areas with dry sandy soil.2

Today, chestnut trees and sugar maples are in decline, with the old elms long gone and native magnolias, hemlocks, and dogwoods endangered. Some American elm and white ash may still be found, and red and white oak, white cedar, red spruce, juniper, black walnut, and white pine are still here. Black oak and scarlet oak predominate in tree communities recovering in watersheds such as Dogtown, which also has red maple, gray birch, paper birch, red cedar, black gum, black cherry, sassafras, pitch pine, white pine, and beech. Most of the trees there are less than 135 years old.3

Champlain remarked on the cedars of Cape Ann, which he referred to as cypresses:

The woods are full of oaks, nut-trees, and very fine cypresses, which are of reddish colour and have a very pleasant smell….4

Budding Oak. 1906               Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925)

The Atlantic forest, as a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest, thus contained an incredible diversity of species. Native Americans both exploited and maintained this diversity.

They designed, marked, and protected individual trees for specific uses, often well into the future—big oaks for dugouts, big birches for canoes, burled trees for wooden bowls, young ash and dogwood for arrow shafts, cedars for sleeping platforms and storage pits, red spruce roots for bowstrings, knotted plum tree roots for clubs, medicinal trees for the leaves or bark—such as hemlock needles or slippery elm phloem, oak bark for winter wigwam covers, and numerous trees and shrubs for berries fruits, and nuts. Many species were multipurpose. Pines, for example, provided softwood to carve for many uses, and the needles were woven into baskets or stored as fire-starting brands. Pine pitch, boiled into tar, was an essential ingredient for caulking canoes, waterproofing baskets, applying to wounds, and burning in lamps and torches.5

Cape Ann lies near the southern boundary of birchbark canoe culture and the people also made dugout canoes. According to William Wood:

[They] crosse…rivers with small cannowes, which are made of whole pine trees, being about two foot & a half over, and 20 foote long: in these likewise they goo a fowling, sometimes two leagues to sea; there be more Cannowes in this town [Salem] than in the whole Patent; every household having a water-house [water-horse, common name for a canoe] or two.6

Log Boats

It is perhaps only a matter of time before remains of a log boat will be discovered in the mud in Jones River or in the banks of Cape Pond. Log boats remained popular with colonists into the eighteenth century. They were used to ferry passengers, animals, and goods across rivers and island channels and to haul manure and salt marsh hay. Individuals even reserved certain trees for making canoes. In 1679 in Essex County, for example, Robert Cross, Jr. testified that one Samuel Pipen [Phippen] “sold deponent a canoe tree that grew upon the north side of a hill amongst ledges of rocks”. Some towns even enacted laws to protect so-called “canoe trees”.7

So it is that the Algonquians preserved in large groves the trees they used for food, tools, fibers, medicine, building materials, and transportation (e.g., oak, chestnut, walnut, cedar, beech, ash, sugar maple, birch, witch hazel, sassafras, willow, slippery elm, and pitch pine). They also conserved trees that forest animal species they used depended on, especially cone-bearing trees that provided winter subsistence for deer (e.g., firs, hemlocks, and pines). There is no evidence that the people planted trees to replace those they took, although they undoubtedly protected selected saplings to ensure sufficient forest for the future.

Laurel Woods. 1906                    Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925)

For Native people, forests were essential resources to be governed, while for the English, forests represented wilderness to be tamed. Expecting to find forested wilderness in coastal New England, Europeans were surprised to find instead vast expanses of managed land: grassy parkland with evenly spaced trees cleared of undergrowth. They also found planted, cultivated, and cover-cropped fields; protected wild food resource areas; and contained groves of diverse old-growth trees. These effects were achieved through Native stewardship and routine controlled burning of the land.8

The Algonquians cleared forest undergrowth twice a year, spring and fall, by setting fire to it. The process provided a collective hunting opportunity to drive game to kill sites. It also kept trails clear and made any approaching enemies visible. The burned vegetation returned nutrients to the soil and maintained habitats for berries (especially wild blueberries and mulberries, which still depend on periodic burning). Burning spared most conifers and left behind roasted cones to collect for the pine nuts or to leave as winter forage for deer. Burning also encouraged the growth of grasses in new clearings as forage for deer and created new habitat for small game. The burned ground at the same time deposited potash-rich pockets of inter-forest soil, which the people mounded up after each rainfall to conserve moisture in the soil in preparation for future cultivation. Demand for new soil was constant, as corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder and needs new ground to grow in every two to three years.

William Wood observed in 1635 that Native Americans burned the tops and slopes of hills but left stands along the river bottoms untouched, perhaps as hunting blinds and to screen trails from canoe traffic on the rivers. The heat and ashes from controlled burns conserved soil warmth and fertility.

Chebacco woods

For the Indians burning it [the ground] to supresse the Underwood, which else would grow all over the Countrey, the Snow falling not long after, keepes the ground warme, and with its melting conveighs the ashes into the pores of the earth, which doth fatten it.9

Fall burnings thus were most desirable. However, because fires sometimes got out of control, the General Court in 1631 passed a law making it illegal for colonists and Native Americans alike to set fire to the land in any months other than March or April, when damp spring weather would help control conflagrations. Court records clearly suggest that fire was a routine hazard. A 1638 law banned tobacco smoking in or near any common land at any time of year, and a 1652 law banned the starting of wood fires outdoors between January and March and on Fridays and Sundays generally.10

So Europeans were not solely responsible for deforestation and practices that altered or damaged the environment, as is commonly believed. They cut a lot of white pine for masts and spars and a lot of red oak for hulls and planks for the British royal navy and shipyards as well as for the growing New England shipbuilding industry. Timber for masts and spars for the royal navy and sassafras for the treatment of syphilis were the earliest exports other than furs.11  For more than 5,000 years, however, countless generations of Native people routinely killed trees for firewood, resource wood, and bark by girdling, burning, cutting saplings for wigwam frames, felling trees for dugout and birchbark canoes, and clearing land by the “slash and burn” method for the practice of swidden agriculture, growing maize in mounds of ash and soil where forests once stood.

At the same time, both Native people and colonists practiced conservation. In their slashing and burning, Native people were careful not to clear-cut forests, for example, saving thin forests soils from loss to erosion. In a sense, Native Americans were more future-oriented than Europeans. Their conceptualization of time was circular rather than linear: all times were one time, and that time was the present. Life, as lived, was an expression of all time, integrated on both a spiritual and a material plane. So while Europeans frequently took environmental resources for immediate consumption or application or for stockpiling or export, Native people often modified the environment with no expectation of immediate benefit. The idea was that in a year or two or three, or even in some future generation, some benefit would accrue. Examples include girdling trees to harvest in some years’ time as dry firewood, fashioning tools in living wood, and shaping trees to mark trails or to wrap spirit rocks in ceremonial landscapes.12

Green Canopy. 1908                    Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925)

The timber industry on Cape Ann, well underway by 1645, specialized in the manufacture of boards, clapboards, hoops, and staves, as well as the cutting of cordwood for outside consumption. Streams and tides were channeled to power a gristmill at Beaver Dam in 1642 and later sawmills on Sawmill Brook and in Riverdale, West Gloucester, and Freshwater Cove. Allied barrel and shingle making enterprises sprang up. Salem and Boston were the chief markets for Cape Ann timber and wood products and for her wooden barrels and boxes, which were crucial to the fishing industry and transatlantic trade. Mackerel, cod, cider, flour, and tobacco were packed in them. Consumption of wood quickly threatened to outstrip supply, however, and the people were fully aware of it. As early as the mid-17th century they rationed wood lots and enacted conservation laws. In 1667 Gloucester voted to restrict the cutting of cordwood to the area between Brace’s Cove and Good Harbor Beach, for example. Then, in 1669 the sale of low-cost cordwood out of town was prohibited (it had to fetch a minimum of 3 shillings and sixpence per cord), and each family was limited to cutting 20 cords of wood per year on the Commons (Dogtown).13

Wooded areas today have less diversity because of land management practices of the English settlers, which called for a more ambitious selection and removal of trees as part of the process of taming the wilderness and establishing timber and shipbuilding industries. Nevertheless, surviving groves containing old growth specimen trees of diverse species in proximity are very likely a result of Native agency.  Few old-growth stands of trees remain in eastern Essex County. The Manchester-Hamilton area known as Chebacco Woods and Gordon Woods contains trails through old forest, and the Manchester-Essex woods (including Cathedral Pines, the Millstone Hill Conservation Area, and the Cedar Swamp Trail) has 1,500 acres of forest that were never farmed. In Gloucester, Ravenswood Park and Mount Ann Park contain specimens of old trees. The Cox Reservation in Essex has a grove of red cedars growing through an Algonquian clam midden and dating at least to colonial times, and Choate Island preserves ancient hickories growing up through an enormous clam midden, bearing nuts feasted upon by colonist’s hogs. Single ancient trees of great girth, sometimes called “founder trees”, may also be found abutting parks, playgrounds, and cemeteries throughout Essex County.14

 

Notes and Reference

1. Oaks, elms, sycamores, one pine tree, and John Endicott’s famous pear tree are featured in James Raymond Simmons’ 1919 book on The Historic Trees of Massachusetts, reflecting the enduring priorities of English colonists.

2. Other accounts of trees then and now include Foster and O’Keefe, New England Forests through Time: Insights from the Harvard Forest Dioramas (2000); Fergus, Trees of New England: A Natural History (2005); and Wessels, Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (1997). See also the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region.

3. This information comes from Harold Cook’s 1908 Handbook on Forest Mensuration of the White Pine in Massachusetts and from Melvin Copeland and Elliott Rogers’ 1960 book, The Saga of Cape Ann. See also Rogers’ article, Botanist’s Eye View of Dogtown Flora, in the Gloucester Daily Times (August 27, 1954).

4. Champlain is quoted in Volume 1 of Langdon and Ganong, The works of Samuel de Champlain (1922): 351-352, as well as in other translations.

5. See Tom Seymour’s Foraging New England: Edible Wild Food and Medicinal Plants from Maine to the Adirondacks to Long Island (2013). A primary source on Native American plant use is John Josselyn’s 1674 New England’s Rarities Discovered in birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, and plants of that country. An ethnographic source is Ralph Dexter and Frank Speck, Utilization of Animals and Plants by the Micmac Indians of New Brunswick (1952), in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 41 (8): 250-259. A Native American source is Indigenous Plants and Native Uses in the Northeast on the NativeTech web site: http://www.nativetech.org/plantgath/plantgaht.htm.

6. Wood (the 1897 Boynton edition), p. 35.

7. Robert Cross Jr.’s canoe tree is referenced in Essex County Court Records 1913-1919, Vol. 7, p. 203. For insight on Native canoes and dugouts, see especially Gordon Day’s article on pp. 148-159 in Vol. 15 of the Handbook of North American Indians (1979, Bruce Trigger, ed.); Ann Marie Plane’s 1991 article, New England’s Logboats: Four centuries of watercraft, in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society 52 (1): 8-18; Howard Chapelle’s article, Colonial and Early American Boats, in American Small Sailing Craft: Their Design, Development, and Construction (1951); and Edwin Tappan Adney’s 1964 (2014), Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America.

8. All the early explorers and settlers remarked on the Algonquian practice of setting fire to the woods. For example, see accounts in Champlain Voyages (1605), Higginson, New England’s Plantation (1629) and General consideracons for ye plantacon in New England (1630); Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence (1654) and Good Newes from New England (1658); and Wood, New England’s Prospect (1634).

9. Wood, p. 17.

10. Laws related to fires are in the Book of the General Laws of the Inhabitants of the Jurisdiction of New-Plimoth, and Generall Laws of the Massachusetts Colony (1632-1676). See http://www.princelaws.pdf.

11. For a perspective on the pre-colonial and early colonial lumber industry, see New England masts and the King’s Broad Arrow by S. F. Manning (1979). Read about the timber industry on Cape Ann in Eleanor Parsons’ book, Fish, Timber, Granite & Gold (2003). See also Bishop, Freedley, and Young, A History of American Manufacturers, from 1608 to 1860, Volume 1 (1864).

12. See Mavor and Dix (1989) Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization; Mitchell (1984) Ceremonial Time; and Downes (2011) Native American Trail Marker Trees.

13. The tree cutting laws of 1667 and 1669 are reported in Babson, pp. 203-204. See also Alina Bradford’s 2015 article, Deforestation: Facts, Causes and Effects, in Live Science: http://www.livescience.com/27692-deforestation.html. A “cord of wood” is a stack of logs 4 feet high, 4 feet deep, and 8 feet long.

14. Friends and stewards of Chebacco Woods, Gordon Woods, Cathedral Pines, Millstone Conservation Area, Cedar Swamp, Ravenswood, Mount Ann, the Cox Reservation, and Choate Island all maintain informative websites. See the web sites of the Trustees of Reservations, Essex County Greenbelt Association, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Norton Memorial Forest, New England Forestry Foundation, Norton Tree Farm, Natti Woodland, Annisquam Woods, Willowdale State Forest, Bradley Palmer State Park, Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Parker River Wildlife Refuge, and Cape Ann Trial Stewards. Of special interest is GloucesterForests.pdf, containing Liam O’Laughlin’s 2010 report in The North Gloucester Woods Study.

 

Mary Ellen Lepionka lives in East Gloucester and is studying the history of Cape Ann from the Ice Age to around 1700 A.D. for a book on the subject. She is a retired publisher, author, editor, textbook developer, and college instructor with degrees in anthropology. She studied at Boston University and the University of British Columbia and has performed archaeology in Ipswich, MA, Botswana, Africa, and at Pole Hill in Gloucester, MA.  Mary Ellen is a trustee of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society and serves on the Gloucester Historical Commission.

My Conversation With Harvey

“Boy on Stacy Boulevard”  @1976 Lynn Swigart  Courtesy of Trident Gallery

A post showed up on my Facebook page recently that asked who I would like to spend an hour with on a park bench talking about the state of the nation and the world.

Initially, I thought about men and women like Robert Kennedy, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks.

But then I realized the person I would really like to spend some time talking with, as a sixty-year-old gay man who remains very concerned about the still tenuous progress my community has made on the civil rights front, is Harvey Milk.

In November, it will be forty years since  Harvey and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, Harvey’s colleague on the city’s board of supervisors.

In 1978,  when Harvey and Moscone were assassinated, I was a junior at Merrimack College. I was living in a state of constant fear that someone would find out I was gay.

I dated girls, played intramural hockey and lacrosse with a level of intensity and aggression that was totally counter to who I really was. But appearances and illusions in 1978 were critical, or so I thought, to survival itself.

I was in my dorm room with friends drinking beer and doing bong hits, with the Grateful Dead blaring on the stereo, when the news came on about the assassination of the nation’s first openly gay elected official.

The things my “friends” had to say in response to Harvey’s murder were the last straw. Still, I kept silent.

I decided I could not spend my senior year in the dorm. My parents, not knowing the truth about why I wanted out of the dorm so badly, agreed to let me live my senior year at the beach house and commute to school.

I got a dog of my own, decided to get honest with myself, and ever so slowly began to inch out of the closet.

Thirteen years later, I wound up moving from Cambridge to Gloucester to oversee NUVA’s HIV and AIDS counseling, testing, and prevention programs.

Prior to coming to Gloucester, I worked for several human service agencies in New Hampshire and metro Boston. It was in those positions that I, for the first time in my otherwise very sheltered and privileged life, saw the impact poverty and economic struggle have on individuals, families and entire communities.

Harvey Milk saw that impact as well. When he migrated from NYC to San Francisco to settle in the increasingly gay Castro District, he quickly recognized the long-standing working-class nature of the neighborhood. He worked hard to build bridges between long-time working class, straight residents of the Castro and the thousands of gay migrants flocking to the neighborhood from all over America.

Harvey’s camera shop became not only a hub of gay rights activity but also a place where union truck drivers who delivered Coors beer met to organize and strategize against the Coors family’s efforts to bust their union.

For many blue collar residents of the Castro, Harvey was the first openly gay man they’d ever met. Many were impressed by his commitment to working with them to fend off the gentrification going on in the rest of the city.

That gentrification was a phenomenon driven by wealthy, downtown elites, many of them erstwhile liberals, gay and straight, like California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s multimillionaire real estate developer husband, and the very wealthy gay man who founded the national gay newspaper called “The Advocate”.

But Harvey really won the hearts of the long-time, straight, blue-collar residents of the Castro, and the union truck drivers fighting Coors in particular, when he got all the gay bars in the Castro to stop selling Coors beer in a show of solidarity with the truck drivers.

Those blue collar, straight, Castro residents were as significant a factor in Harvey’s election to the board of supervisors as the newly arrived gay boys who never dreamed one of their own could win elective office anywhere.

Ironically, members of the wealthy, downtown, “liberal”, gentrification pushing establishment, including Dianne Feinstein, her husband, and the owner of the Advocate, did all they could to prevent Harvey from winning the Castro district seat on the board of supervisors because he was an obstacle to their agenda.

So, I’d like to sit on a park bench with Harvey to pick his brain about two things.

The first is the troubling rise of classism and elitism within certain elements of the gay community that mirrors what Harvey confronted and challenged in 1970’s San Francisco.

Harvey warned the gay community, particularly its more affluent members, that it was making a mistake aligning itself with San Francisco’s wealthy “liberal” elites, whose agenda of unregulated real estate development and gentrification would, in the long term, alienate and anger the long-time blue-collar residents of old city neighborhoods like the Castro.

In one speech, Harvey warned that the wealthy downtown, “liberal”, gentrification pushing elites were transforming San Francisco into a city where only the wealthy would be able to afford to live.

That speech went over like the proverbial lead balloon with Dianne Feinstein and her real estate industry political contributors.

Harvey gave that speech more than forty years ago. To say that speech proved prophetic is an understatement.

I see very real similarities between what Harvey warned about forty years ago in San Francisco and what is happening in Gloucester today.

I am sure if Harvey was sitting with me on a bench on the “Boulevard” in the city I affectionately call a “mini San Francisco,” he would wholeheartedly agree.

The second thing I would like to pick Harvey’s brain about is the gay rights front. Much progress has been made in recent decades, but there are some very troubling signs looming on the horizon. I worry more than a few in the American gay community, especially among the community’s more affluent and largely self-anointed political leadership, are not paying attention because they have grown complacent and too comfortable with the current status quo and their relationship with today’s affluent, straight, liberal, elites – particularly within the Democratic party establishment.

The troubling signs on the horizon relating to gay rights are not just limited to the United States.

The rise of far-right, faux-Christian, neo-fascist, nationalist politicians and parties is a global phenomenon, and in more than a few cases, gay men and lesbians are routinely scapegoated as the “others” that right-wing politicians, like Donald Trump, blame for a country’s problems to mobilize their followers.

A case in point is Costa Rica. A far-right, fundamentalist Christian minister may yet win the presidential runoff election, and the cornerstone of his campaign is his rabid opposition to gay marriage.

More locally, the Reverend Scott Lively is challenging Gov. Charlie Baker in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Lively is a rabid homophobe who, in 2009, was a consultant to the Ugandan government as it contemplated implementing the death penalty for gay and lesbian Ugandans.

Although Lively will never be the MA GOP’s gubernatorial nominee, he does have a following among the Bay State’s small but vocal far-right, Trump-loving, Republican base – including several people on Cape Ann.

But more troubling than Scott Lively’s longshot candidacy for governor, at least for this old school, Rooseveltian liberal, is the sad reality that many of the gay community’s straight, liberal “allies” have often been unwilling to go to the mat on our behalf.

For example, in 2009 the fundamentalist Christian organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast invited a Ugandan bishop who’d been a forceful advocate of the death penalty for people involved in same-sex relationships to attend the event.  Since its inception in the 1950’s, the breakfast has been a “must attend” event for sitting US presidents and any politician who aspires to the presidency.  When word got out about the Ugandan bishop’s presence, the gay community begged Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to boycott the breakfast. Neither one of them did.

So, for a long list of reasons, the person I would love to have a conversation with on a bench overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Stage Fort Park is Harvey Milk.

And what a fascinating conversation it would be.

 

Michael Cook is a long time liberal and gay rights activist who saw the uniqueness of Gloucester from the first moment he drove over the bridge during his move from Cambridge to Cape Ann in 1991 to run NUVA’s AIDS education and services programs.

 

SPRING

By Eric Schoonover

Gloucester Harbor, 1894.                  Childe Hassam (1859-1935)

 

When they put up the signs NO PUBLIC TOILETS

I’ll know. And when the daffodils bloom in

front of the bank on Rogers and the gulls

fight and flutter over the chimneys, I’ll know.

When the sailing team yanks their amazing 420s through

the wretched gusts in the harbor; and when the

night thermometer reads 38 and it’s rain and rain,

then I’ll know its spring in Gloucester . . . maybe.

 

 

Eric Schoonover is a writer who does enjoy Gloucester’s spring. Eric is also a  boatbuilder and watercolorist, who lives in Gloucester in a small 1735 Cape Ann cottage with his wife, also a writer. He is the author of the award-winning The Gloucester Suite and Other Poems and a novel, Flowers of the Sea. His latest book, Telling Tales, has just been published.

 

 

Main Street

Peter Anastas

Middle Street, Gloucester. Paul Cornoyer (1864-1923)

During the many years I used to meet her, she seemed unchanged, a little old lady full of energy: gray-haired, walking jauntily on Main Street, coming over to me in the post office to say she liked a column I’d recently published, or gently disagreeing with my argument.  She never offered her name, and I never asked because she seemed so much a part of my daily life.  A brown pillbox on her head, along with brown Oxford walkers; what our mothers referred to as “sensible shoes.”  Opaque nylon stockings, a short, light, cloth coat in spring, quilted parka in winter, both brown.  Lovely Yankee voice, pure Gloucester—“’’Twas” for “it was”—“’’Tis,’” for “it is”— locutions that have persisted in local speech.

One day I saw her, as I had during all the years past, and the next day I didn’t.  Had she died?  Was she suddenly in a nursing home or hospital?  At her age she couldn’t simply have moved away; not her, with the sense she projected of continually having been rooted here.

Was she a retired teacher?  She looked like one, had the rimless bifocals Miss Harris and most of our teachers once wore, hair in a bun.  Had she been a secretary in a law office?  There were many, women who hadn’t married, but who, like my mother, had gone to work out of school with typing, shorthand and bookkeeping skills they’d amply acquired in the former Commercial Course at Gloucester High School.  They staffed the banks, or they clerked in the gas and electric company, as my Aunt Harriette had done all her life.  They became operators in the Bell Telephone Company office building on Elm Street that later became National Marine Fisheries, where my mother also worked and is now the Cape Ann Museum’s library.

For weeks I agonized over her disappearance.  I could have asked my friends in the post office who knew everybody in town.  But it didn’t occur to me to ask.  It didn’t occur to me to do anything but remark her absence.  It didn’t even occur to me to check the obituaries in the Gloucester Daily Times, even though I didn’t know who she really was.

It got to be that way as I lived my life on Main Street during the thirty years I spent working at the city’s anti-poverty agency.  Two trips daily to the post office, one to pick up my own mail at 10:30 each morning, and a second in the afternoon to post the agency’s, but more to get out of the office during coffee break, when I could afford a few minutes for a walk around town:  Dale Avenue from the post office, City Hall and the library to Middle Street, then down to the Joan of Arc statue in front of the American Legion Building.  Around the corner to Main Street, through the West End, and all the way back to the office on Elm Street. Soon I began to think of myself as an old Gloucester dog, making his habitual rounds; that is, before the city instituted a leash law.

On those daily strolls I came to know dozens of people by sight, men, women, natives I’d recognized since childhood, having seen them every day in Woolworth’s, Sterling Drug, the Waiting Station, all of them gone now, the people along with the places themselves: Sears & Roebuck, W. T. Grant, Gorins, W. G. Brown.  Dr. Benno Broder’s dental office on Pleasant Street, with a human skull in a glass-doored bookcase; the old Western Union’s tiny dark storefront from which you could telegraph a message anywhere around the world.  Willie Alexander’s father’s Baptist Church across the street from City Hall and the Museum, torn down for parking.  Elks Lodge, now condos; Knights of Columbus, likewise; Red Men’s Hall vanished; Masons moved to Eastern Avenue.  Bradford Building burned down, the fire in which E. E. Cummings’ Harvard classmate, painter Winslow Wilson, lost the manuscript of his autobiography.  Hotel Gloucester, on Main across from Elm, where, in a small rented top floor room, I worked on my second novel—gone in urban renewal, along with the old police station and the Fishermen’s Institute, a bethel for retired mariners, who gathered to swap stories in front of the bank on the corner of Main and Duncan, or in the sun across the street at Sterling Drug.

One by one they’d disappear, like the little old lady in brown—the fishermen, the retired letter carriers, the women who sold us toys in Woolworth; those who drew the chilled root beer out of the casks at Kresge’s or measured out the penny candy.

Jake’s on Granite Street, where we bought bubble gum on the way to Hovey School, now an apartment house; Cher Ami’s ice cream parlor on Washington converted into a barbershop.  Bart’s Variety on Pine and Washington streets, where we went for Italian ice, a driving school today.  Captain Bill’s on Main and Washington, once Frank Barkas’ restaurant and pool room, now the Blackburn building with Giuseppe’s on the ground floor, until it, too, closed, to be replaced by a tonier Tonno.

I could see the old clapboard or redbrick buildings as they were abandoned or torn down, residents displaced. I watched them emptied of what they sold, windows gone blank.  Though devoid of human habitation, the places themselves had a lingering presence; even their smells persisted—yeast from the Sunnyside Bakery, burnt almonds at Mike’s Pastry, sawdust in front of the National Butchers.  But the people, like my little old lady in brown, had an equal vitality, which, as they too disappeared, slowly ebbed out of the city itself, along with the local dialect and the natives’ slouching walk, draining the city of its uniqueness and spirit, except for the young people I run into today on Middle Street.  They’ll be heading home from high school, pierced and tattooed, their hair in dreadlocks, often speaking Spanish, a language I never heard until I went to Europe, or Brazilian Portuguese.  Or they’re African-American.  It wasn’t until I moved to Rocky Neck in 1951, and started sneaking over to the Hawthorne Inn Casino to hear jazz, that I actually saw a black person.

What would these teenagers in 50 Cent T-shirts and slashed jeans think of the skinny kid in the maroon and silver sateen Mighty-Mac baseball jacket, coming toward them from Central Grammar as he headed home down the Cut?  He’s hatless and his hair, slicked down even in the autumn wind, has been cut at Bill Maciel’s barbershop on Duncan Street, next to the Fishermen’s Institute.  Theirs goes wild and they wear hooded sweatshirts against the cold.  They talk on cell phones, get their music from iPods, living in a digitized world that was imagined only in the science fiction novels I read at their age.

I find it remarkable that sixty-eight years later I’m taking the same route I took home from school, the route that led past the old “Y”, the Solomon-Davis house, and C. F. Tompkins’ furniture store, all since disappeared; past the Lorraine Apartments that managed to survive condo mania only to be destroyed in a fire that took the synagogue next door with it; past Pike’s Funeral Home, where my father’s and my brother’s memorial services were held and my mother’s ashes reposed before her grandchildren and I scattered them at sea; past Trinity Congregational Church, rebuilt after the fire in 1979 that destroyed the original structure, where my brother and I attended Sunday school during the war because the gas ration prohibited travel to the Greek Orthodox Church in Ipswich.  When I was twelve or thirteen, had anyone predicted that I’d be walking on Middle Street, balding and gray-bearded, or told me I’d still be in Gloucester in 2018, I would have been incredulous.

But it’s not myself as I appeared then I miss, it’s the old people I grew up knowing with their sense of correctness in what they wore and how the men still tipped their hats to women on the street, asking each time, “And how’s your mutha?”   Live in a place long enough and its entire history replays itself in your head.  You come to know where everyone’s house is, even in childhood, where their parents came from, their grandparents.  You saw their little sisters in strollers on the Boulevard or at St. Peter’s Fiesta.  You went to Hovey School or Forbes with their brothers and cousins.  You could tell from anyone’s face who he was, who his father was.  Each beautiful blond Finnish girl in school had a beautiful blond Finnish mother who’d gone to school with your mother or your aunts.  The minute you met the mother you knew who her daughter was, or her sister.  Visiting Gloucester High School today, I see the great-granddaughters of my classmates and know exactly who they are, even though I can no longer remember their mothers’ names.

Live in a place long enough and it enters your dreams.  There was another woman I saw one day on Middle Street, getting out of her car in such a way that I felt I was reliving a dream.  She’s tiny, like my mother, and she’s Lebanese, probably related to Freddie Kyrouz, who used to run the shoeshine parlor on Main Street before he became city clerk.  I know this woman from city hall, from the bank, from the post office, yet, like the lady in brown, I don’t remember her name.  We always say hello and smile.  And the other day when I caught the lovely clear expectant look in her eyes, her smallness like my mother’s and my aunts’, I was overwhelmed by impending loss because I realized she will become one of those people I may no longer see, one of the many who are ebbing away just as the city itself is being erased by strip mall commercial complexes, proliferating donut franchises, cheap modular houses jammed into pocket-sized lots, imposed upon us by those, as Charles Olson wrote, “who take away and do not have as good to offer.”

A bitterly contested retail complex with a mega supermarket was recently completed near the Route 128 entrance to the city.  Called Gloucester Crossing and billing itself as “the premiere shopping destination on Cape Ann,” the center is competing with downtown businesses that have been struggling for years to stay afloat.  Soon it will be accompanied by a 200-unit “market rate” housing complex with added retail space and a new YMCA.   And on the Fort, one of the last remaining ethnic enclaves in the maritime heart of the city, a billionaire developer has built a 94-room “boutique” hotel and function center in a neighborhood where a delicate balance has long existed between residents and a thriving marine industry.

I walked sadly away after I met the Lebanese woman getting out of her car across the street from St. John’s Church, in front of the house that used to be Dr. Doyle’s office, where my brother and I were taken when we got sick or had poison ivy infections.  In her persistence in my daily life, her smile of recognition, she embodies for me what my life here has meant, a connection to a single place and a sense of duration I never expected to experience when I was younger.

I don’t have to ask anyone in my generation who Pat Maranhas is, or if they remember that he played tenor sax in the Modernaires, or that his grandfather was a fisherman named Captain Green.  We take people like Pat, with whom we went to kindergarten or worked with at Gorton’s or see at the bank or walking his dog in Magnolia, for granted, just as we understand why a house covered by aluminum siding should never have been put up where our junior high school shop teacher Tom Brophy’s graceful 19th century white frame house once stood on the corner of Pleasant and Shepherd streets, or why it was unthinkable to tear apart the lovely wooded, granite-bouldered, hill above Brightside Avenue and wedge a bunch of houses into it that look like they were made from kits you’d buy at Wal-Mart.

And unless they happened to be born here, who will ever know what it felt like to walk home from high school every day along the waterfront, smelling the gurry and the rendered mink food, the codfish cakes at Gorton’s cannery, and the tar and oakum caulking from the railways; listening to the screech of gulls and the idling engines of the boats at dock.  Or returning home from Hovey School through the sumac bushes clustered high on Rider’s Rocks, the entire harbor spreading out beneath you, all the way to Boston.  Or even Middle Street, on the way home from Central Grammar, day after day, knowing the Solomon Davis house like one’s own, the two sisters who lived as recluses in it, apparitions from the 19th century, or that the YMCA bought it for a mere $25,000 and tore it down, the city’s stateliest example of Greek Revival architecture, for a concrete basketball court that was never built.  Or the Parsons-Morse house on Western Avenue, another of the North Shore’s endangered First Period houses, which Olson fought to save but couldn’t, torn down by the state to widen the highway that never got widened.

They wouldn’t know that if you walk to the post office through the parking lot behind City Hall, even on the hottest day in July, there is always a cool breeze; and if you choose the same route in the dead of winter, an icy wind hits you in the face and makes you shiver even in your warmest fleece jacket.

What about sitting in the Miami Pastry Shop, later Mike’s, among the fishermen speaking Sicilian, sipping the first espresso that was sold in town and eating a ricotta pie that one could not find the equal of in the bakeries of Boston’s North End?

And what of the smells and tastes that Proust insists are primary?  There were the strips of salt cod we pulled off the big fish drying on the clotheslines outside my grandmother’s house and ate like potato chips, and the taste of anise cookies our Italian friends’ mothers baked at Christmas.  There was the smell of the grass on the river bank after it had been mowed and the sickly sweet perfume of clethra, or the flowering locusts in June, which the fishermen could smell offshore, on their way in from a trip: When the locusts are in bloom the fish come home.  And always in Gloucester, the smell of fish—fish cooking and fish rotting—and the salt air off the ocean often combined with the rank smell of kelp.

In remembering these things I don’t intend to be nostalgic.  I mistrust nostalgia because it’s usually not about things that no longer exist—lost people, customs, ways of being—but about yearning for those things we thought we possessed but only imagined we had; and everyone will have a Gloucester of his own, no matter when they came or left.  I’m only recording what I remember of daily rhythms, of the names of people who still come to me in my dreams, of the ways these people who inhabited each neighborhood, even their dogs and cats, become so deeply embedded in our consciousnesses we can’t even articulate them, we just feel them in our blood.

There are expectations, or there were, of how each day would be, who you’d meet, who would tell you a story about whom, who would have lived next door or down the street at a time when hardly anyone ever moved, when moving was a momentous event; who would have gotten sick or died and was laid out in the family parlor, like Barry Clark’s grandmother, or little Joey Nicastro, who died in second grade from “ammonia,” and was one day in the neighborhood, reading Superman comics with us on my back porch, and the next in Addison Gilbert Hospital and then, when we saw the ribbon of black cloth pinned to his front door, lying with a suit on in a small coffin in his living room with the women in black all around him saying the Rosary and the men, home from fishing, consoling his father in the kitchen.

Don’t believe for one minute that having grown up and lived in a small town we had seen nothing of life.  We came upon rotting carcasses of deer that lay dead in the woods; saw our friends’ sisters naked in their bedroom windows; watched half-dressed couples making love under the bleachers at Newell Stadium; heard neighbors screaming at each other in the dead of night; saw a sailor who had been beaten nearly to death along the Boulevard, where his blood remained for days drying in the cracks of pavement; knew the drunken sea captain, who always came into my grandfather’s shoe repair shop on Stoddart Lane, speaking perfect Greek even though he was Portuguese, because he loved the tarama Papouli prepared from fish row in the back room, packing it in small wooden casks to sell to the Hellenic markets in Boston.  Yes, and we heard from our mothers talking together about the fisherman who strangled his wife, cut her body into pieces and ate her liver after frying it in a skillet; about the daughter who beat her mother to death with a hammer; the son who drowned his father in the bathtub; and the other son who killed his mother, cut her head off and tried to shred it in the Dispose-all.

We heard and saw these things, and more: the sutured wounds in Irving Morris’s head after he’d been attacked and robbed one night on Middle Street, while returning home with the day’s earnings from his First National grocery store; the blood all over the snow on Main Street after the city worker had his leg torn off by the snow removal machine; the body of a five-year-old Sicilian girl, who was run over by a trailer truck on Commercial Street (I wrote that story as a young reporter for the Gloucester Times), her tiny foot with its little red sneaker sticking out from under a tarpaulin the workers at a nearby fish plant had gently covered her with.

And I think we also came to understand certain moments of human vulnerability—the eager look I caught on a boy’s face as he approached the toy store on Pleasant Street with his father one Saturday morning, his excitement propelling him just ahead of his father, who was straining to catch up with him; or the other boy on his bike in Riverdale, shyly taking orders for Christmas cards door-to-door one August afternoon, who reminded me of my son Ben, who once sold them himself, and it made me think of my three children away at summer camp in Maine, missing them so much that I rushed home from my walk to sit alone in the darkened house on Vine Street counting the days until I would see them again.

Small events and moments—a teacher’s sharp rebuke, a neighbor’s reprimand if you stepped on her marigolds while on the run in war games—that stayed for years, returning again and again in the vacuum left by loss or abandonment.  Comments we made that hurt people’s feelings, stupid remarks in school, pain inflicted: the Irish kid who called me “Pinocchio Nose” and pushed me off the sidewalk in front of the “Y.”  And when I went home crying and asked my mother why he’d done it, she said I shouldn’t have been at the “Y” anyway with all those ruffians.  I was so terrified it would happen again, not so much the shove as his remarks about my nose, which I was sensitive about, that I never went back to the “Y” until high school, when I played piano there at Saturday night dances with the Modernaires.  And even when I saw that kid for years afterwards, still a bully—he was the son of a patrolman in Gloucester—long after he’d obviously forgotten what he’d said and done to me, maybe even forgotten me as I got older, my body would stiffen and I would find ways of avoiding him.  I can still see his pinched face, can tell what the beanie he was wearing looked like the day he pushed me off the sidewalk; can even remember the sound of his voice, the humiliation has stayed with me that much.  Why didn’t my mother comfort me, explaining to me why certain kids bullied or threatened us, instead of telling me not to go back to the “Y?”

So much about growing up here is about pain that you may wonder why I ever came back, or why I still love the place of my birth; and maybe it is about masochism, or the fear of new or unknown cities, which my children appear never to have experienced—Jonathan, at seventeen, on the road with his hardcore punk rock band—that kept me in Gloucester; or the inability to let go of family, of the place itself.  We often speak of an “island mentality,” which natives seem to share, the sense of innate comfort we take in remaining in one place, a house, a street, a certain neighborhood (I’ve only lived at the Cut, in East Gloucester and Riverdale during all my years in the city), and the inability ultimately to leave Gloucester.  Older people once boasted of never having “crossed the bridge,” when we only had one bridge out of town.  I knew some of those people.  They had never seen Boston and they apparently hadn’t needed to, their lives were that sufficient; though my mother took us often to the city on the train for shopping or to visit the museums.  We drove to the Witch City Candy Company in Salem to pick up the chocolate bars my father sold in his corner store, walking its then dark streets and visiting the Peabody Museum, full of artifacts from the city’s East India trade.  And we even ventured farther out to Newburyport, to Plum Island and the beaches of the New Hampshire coast.  So, slowly, I began to leave Gloucester, though, as the years go by now, I want less and less to do so.

In the end, it comes down to this.  In a shrinking world, when every place has either been destroyed or homogenized, when the culture, the national intelligence, has been reduced to the lowest common denominator; when the young hope only to consume the world’s goods, not yearn to know the world itself in all its particulars, or to embrace its arts and its languages, the books that beckon to be read, paintings to be seen, monuments to visit, cities to wander in at night, as I once did in Florence; in a shrinking world, we must have something, some place, to hold onto, and an ethos, related to that place, its history, and our own in it.  We must have such a thing or die from the lack of it.

So that little old lady in brown I knew without even learning her name is even more precious to me now.  For a long time I could count on her presence in Gloucester, in my own life, just as I could count on the presence of my father, my mother and my brother, who are dead now; or Charles Olson, who showed me how to know the place we inhabit through an immersion in its history; Vincent Ferrini, who first taught me about poetry; or John Rowe, the eighty-year-old carpenter on Perkins Road, who, as a child, I watched as he slowly rebuilt our front porch, hour by hour, day by day, plank by plank; patiently, carefully, purposefully, and not without delight, addressing the task, as I myself have finally learned how to write.

Now, I fear, we have come to an end of rhythms, of traditions and folkways, at least as I’ve known them; an end, too, of expectations, though the ocean remains and the seasons return, however more unpredictably.  Toward the end of his life, Olson said that a writer has two choices: you either oppose the destruction of the things you love or you describe the tragedy of their loss.  I’ve tried to do both, often with mixed results, but in the end, it is the loss that has remained with me, touching every aspect of my thought and being.  The only Gloucester that exists for me now is the city of my mind.

(This is the first chapter of Peter Anastas’ recently completed memoir From Gloucester Out)

 

Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.