Tribute to Kent Bowker (1928-2017)

Peter Anastas

 

I grew up in San Francisco, knew the old California of cities with limits, bare brown hills dotted with live oaks, glorious orchards, and deep dark redwood forests.  San Francisco’s fog, shifting beauty filling voids, never either hot or cold, chilly often, no more. The smell of ocean sweeps through the gate, tumbles over the hills. North end bars filled, fifty years ago with poets, before money came.

My old California no longer, I depart, return
to my New England home, to the marshes,
granite ledges of the older sea.                     (Kent Bowker, “The Hand Off”)

 

John Donne wrote that every death diminishes us.  I thought of Donne’s words after a mutual friend emailed me on June 24 to report that Kent had died at 7 a.m. that morning at Kaplan House, following complications from a pacemaker procedure.

I had known Kent for nearly thirty years.  We’d sailed together, dined with our families, and worked together on the board of the Charles Olson Society.   In recent years we met regularly for lunch and conversations that ranged from the day’s pressing political issues to Kent’s years in Berkeley during the 1950s, where he studied physics and became friendly with some of the Bay Area’s finest writers, including poets Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer, during the era known as the San Francisco Renaissance.

Kent really was the “Renaissance Man” that his Gloucester Times obituary and the family’s Facebook tribute describe him as being.  He’d studied theoretical physics at the University of California in Berkeley and worked at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project had originated.   Concurrently, he painted and wrote poetry at a time when writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, John Wieners, and Charles Olson were either living in San Francisco or passing though.

After Kent moved to the Boston area to work at the Lincoln Laboratories and Itek, he continued to write, adding sailing to his repertoire.   He designed the house in Essex he and his art historian wife Joan lived in.  Filled with books and paintings and situated on a hill surrounded by fields, forests and wetlands, it was an ideal place for meditation and creativity.  After he retired he devoted his entire time to painting and writing—when he and Joan were not sailing or traveling.  Kent was also a superb cook.

When I first walked into Kent and Joan’s house for a Christmas party, I was attracted to Kent’s impressive library.  Personal libraries tell us much about the person who has created them.  As soon as I discovered the collected poems of Charles Olson on the bookshelves, along with those of the San Francisco poets Kent was close to, I knew that I had met someone I could talk with about the things that meant the most to both of us, not only poetry but the larger cultural and social issues the poets we both admired addressed.

Kent was always modest about his learning.  Berkley at the time Kent was a student there, along with Gloucester novelist and playwright Jonathan Bayliss, and woodworker/sculptor Jay McLauchlan, was arguably the most exciting place to be in America, especially if you were a writer.  New York, yes—and always.  But there was an atmosphere in San Francisco the likes of which we had never seen and, sadly, would never see again.  The Pacific light, the blue ocean itself, the astounding Bay and its iconic bridge were part of that atmosphere, along with North Beach bookstores like City Lights, cafes and housing that was affordable to writers and artists.

But Kent did not engage in nostalgia.  He did not romanticize Berkeley.  He lived in the present, depicting the marshes and woods around his house, the beaches of Ipswich and Plum Island he sailed past; himself and family members.

When we started Enduring Gloucester five years ago I asked Kent for a poem.  It would be the first of many he contributed—wryly humorous or passionate.  Poems about the passing of time, the changes in nature; about Gloucester lobstermen and the sea itself.

Kent was a Progressive long before those who use the term today.  A conversation with Kent was like his poetry—articulate, knowledgeable, and deeply humane.  We will miss Kent while cherishing the gift of his poetry.

 

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.

All from Somewhere Else

Peter Anastas

Old Gloucester           Theresa Bernstein (1890-2002)

In 1908, my father arrived in America wearing his mother’s shoes.  He had come to join his father, who was working at the Massachusetts Cotton Mill in Lowell.

He was wearing his mother’s shoes because he didn’t own any.  When the officials at the port of Piraeus saw that my father was barefoot, they refused to let him on the ship to America.  It was then that his mother took off her own shoes and handed them to her son.  He would never see his mother again.

When my father arrived in Lowell, he discovered that his father had died from consumption, his lungs packed with textile fibers.  Dad was 9 years old.

A year later, my father was hawking newspapers on the corner of State and
Court streets in Boston.  When he had earned enough money, he bought a shoeshine stand.  At night he taught himself English using Webster’s New International Dictionary and the Boston Evening Transcript.   I still have that dictionary.

At the age of eighteen Dad enlisted in the army and was sent to Europe as a medic, where he remained for the duration of the First World War.   After the war, Dad began to pursue his dream of owning his own business.  He entered the wholesale candy business, eventually coming to Gloucester where he and a partner bought Johnny’s Morgan’s Candy Company on the Boulevard.   When the city took the properties to create an esplanade for Gloucester 300th anniversary in 1923, Dad relocated the business to the corner of Western and Centennial avenues, calling it the Boulevard Sweet Shop.   In 1949 he sold that business and we moved to Rocky Neck, where Dad opened a luncheonette and S.S. Pierce gourmet grocery store called Peter’s.  The store, which for many years became the social center for Rocky Neck life, exists today as Sailor Stan’s.

Papou the Elder. Rocky Neck

Years after he had come to Gloucester, Dad continued to speak English with a strong accent.   I remember once when Eddie Bloomberg, whose father owned Bloomberg’s clothing store and the Strand Theater on Main Street, joked that Dad, like his own father, “murdered the English language.”

“I’d like to know what you would do,” Dad shot back. “Alone in a strange country and no one to turn to.”

My father never went beyond fourth grade in school, but he valued learning.  He sent my brother and me to college, not because he wanted us to do better than he did, but because he wanted us to become “educated,” as he often said.  When I was studying Greek in college, Dad and I used to translate The Iliad together.  He hadn’t forgotten the Ancient Greek he learned in grade school and he could still recite from Homer’s great epics.

After Dad sold the store on Rocky Neck in 1964 and retired, he spent most of his free time collecting and reading books about Greece.

I have a photograph of my mother’s family.  It was taken in front of the Fitz Henry Lane house, where they lived.  It is dated April 6, 1914.  The photograph shows the entire household, my maternal grandparents, all my aunts and uncles, except my uncle George Polisson, who wasn’t born yet.  There are other people in the picture, relatives from Boston and a couple of the men who boarded with the family.

Everyone in the picture is Greek.  Two men are seated playing “bouzoukia,” Greek mandolins; another holds a pitcher of wine and a tray with glasses.  Still, another holds a whole leg of lamb on a skewer.  It is Greek Easter.  It says so in the lower corner of the picture.  In the upper left corner it reads, “Christos Anesti,” which means “Christ is Risen.”

Polisson Family – Lane House. 1914.

The people in the photograph are “different,” the men swarthy, the women exotic with long dark hair done up in buns.  They are holding objects from their own culture, the wine and the lamb, the “bouzoukia.”  The writing on the photograph is in Greek.

I didn’t think I was different until once, in Miss Parks’ second-grade class at the Hovey School, we were asked where our parents were born.  When I told the teacher that my mother had been born in Gloucester but that my father came from Sparta, Greece, one of the kids (I’ve never forgotten her name) piped up: “Sounds like a can of grease.”   After that my brother and I were called “Greasy Greeks” or “Greaseballs.”  When I went home crying one day, my father said, “Tell them that you’re proud to be Greek.  Tell them that the democratic system of government they live under was invented in Greece.”   This happened during the Second World War and I cannot help but think that the war had colored people’s attitudes toward immigrant families like my own.

In the Gloucester of my childhood one heard many different languages and smelled many different kinds of cooking on the way home from school:  Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Yiddish, French Canadian, Finnish, Polish and Russian, among others.   Our grandmothers learned enough of each other’s language to converse over the backyard fences.   Growing up down the Cut or at the Fort, we and our friends had a working knowledge of Italian, exchanging some pungent swearwords in Greek and Italian.  The first African-Americans I saw were jazz musicians, who came to perform at the Hawthorne Inn Casino, in East Gloucester, beginning in the early 1950s, when my brother and I sneaked up the back stairs to listen to this wild new music, which we soon began to play ourselves.  It wasn’t long before we heard Spanish on the street and even Vietnamese and Cambodian.  Though it has always been a cosmopolitan city due to its many ethnicities and art culture, Gloucester has continued to change.  Yet the incredible diversity that defines us has remained the same.

We are all superficially different, and we all came from someplace else.  What brings us together are the stories we tell.  The people in those stories may have different names or speak in languages we do not know, but the tales of arrival and loss, of recognition and assimilation, pain and joy, are uncannily alike.  And so are we fundamentally.

 

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.

The Land Within: Further Thoughts about an Ecology of Place

Peter Anastas

Horizon at Gloucester c. 1905 Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) Courtesy Cape Ann Museum

Horizon at Gloucester c. 1905        Frank Duveneck (1848-1919)        Courtesy Cape Ann Museum

When I was living in Maine with the Penobscot Indians during the early 1970s, there was an expression I would hear over and over again.  “You can take an Indian out of the woods,” it went, “but you can’t take the woods out of an Indian.”

The saying fascinated me.  Like any good aphorism it was beguiling, though it wasn’t until later that I began to see it as a really beautiful example of what ecology is all about.

In effect, we do not begin to live in places until they dwell in us, become part of us, as we, in our external lives—our bodies, homes, possessions—make up the sum total of those places along with their own natural attributes: sea, rocks, trees, birds.

So it’s not enough, then, to inhabit the surface of your own life, as on the crust of the earth.  You’ve got to dig in, and at the same time, let the place where you live into yourself, your consciousness.  You’ve got to participate in its rhythms, the fluctuations of the weather, the color of the light, the smell of the air, the taste of it all.  You’ve got to let the land dwell in you, which is how many Penobscots claimed they were able to survive living in cities or working in factories miles from the woods and rivers of their childhood.

When the first English settlers arrived in New England in the 17th century, they started cutting down the trees, clearing the land, buying and selling what did not belong to them to the horror of the natives for whom every tree and clod of earth was sacred.  “The Earth is our Mother.  Would you sell your Mother?” they asked colonists angrily interrupted in their orgies of acquisition.  To no avail, for whites could no more grasp this organic concept of the earth any more than Native Americans could understand what it meant to regard the land as “real estate” or “property,” as a commodity of sale or exchange—something to be owned or used, “developed.”  (Doesn’t this pertain today in the conflict between those who believe that a beautiful meadow or forest should be left alone to be enjoyed by everybody in its naturalness and those who are uneasy unless it is sub-divided, built upon, fenced off—owned?)

What I’m suggesting here is that the ecological movement, as it’s named and practiced in America, is always going to be a one-dimensional process and therefore an incomplete and ultimately abortive effort unless we confront the central issue, which is our relationship to the land and the land’s to us: our inter-relationship—how we live on the land and how the land lives in us; a dwelling-in and an in-dwelling, if you will.

Living here for nearly eighty years, it has been my sense that Gloucester people have an edge when it comes to an intimacy with the place you were born in, or have adopted as your hometown.  Not only are we reluctant to leave; once away, many of us can’t wait to get back.  Or if we’ve moved semi-permanently (no native ever goes away for good), we harbor the hope of returning as soon as we can.

Our nostalgia for the Gloucester we knew or have left isn’t like most of the nostalgia one encounters today, a yearning after something that really never was—lost happiness of childhood, or the places of our carefree years of youth.  It’s a true nostalgia: a desire to come home, home to where our roots are, home to our family and friends, to the streets and neighborhoods that remain in our blood.

Still, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture.  Let me enter a caveat.   The ecological balance of our life on Cape Ann—our own inner harmony as we attune ourselves to the changing seasons—is going to depend upon the preservation of our forests, wetlands and open spaces, the wisest possible use of the ocean, and the continued vigilance of an absolutely informed citizenry.  An ecological consciousness is not enough.  People have to come together, not only to protect their neighborhoods from encroachments that could destroy their character or make them unsafe for their children, but also the spaces around us from being closed up, our light and air shut off, our daily lives suddenly claustrophobic like the lives of many big city dwellers.

The existence of neighborhood associations is essential, as we have learned from many an attempt to protect our heritage from those who would steal it from us for their own profit.  Who else is going to look out for our rights if we don’t daily?  Politicians have to be held to their campaign promises of wise development and controlled economic growth.  The city needs an up-dated Master Plan.  We cannot develop in a piecemeal fashion—a hotel here, a school there—without a holistic sense of the needs of our entire community.  We can’t even begin to talk of living in harmony with the earth if all we see around us—and allow—is loss and destruction in the name of progress.  Gloucester—all of Cape Ann—belongs to each one of us, and we’re all going to lose something inestimable if we lose our habitation, our own home-place, even by the default of apathy.

All of the people Peter Parsons and I talked with while we were working on an oral history for Gloucester’s 350th anniversary expressed their love for this place.  At the same time, they were very open about their fears for our city’s future, and the feeling of resentment they experienced toward the uncontrolled growth they were beginning to see around them.  “It’s just not going to be the same,” many sighed—and that was nearly 45 years ago!  They were not referring to the good old days.  They were talking about the look and feel of Gloucester as they experienced it in their current lives, and, above all, the natural world that is now more threatened than ever by climate change.

One of the most perfect expressions of feeling rooted to a place came from fisherman Fred Hunte.   In the clearest language, he described the intimate understanding of the natural world, coupled with the practical turn of mind, that’s required to live your life daily in it.

“I don’t go much by the Farmer’s Almanac,” Fred told us, “I look at the skies in the morning or the night, the way the sun goes down.  Watch the gulls what they do in the air.  You see the gulls up in the air?  You see them going round in a circle high in the air?  That’s a sure sign of a change of wind.  Wind coming.  Look at the sun going down in the west nights as you see these streamers going up to it.  These streamers going up from the horizon, up to the sun, used to call ‘em sun dogs.  That’s a sign of wind too.  And if the sun took up bright red in the morning, that’s a sign of rain.  When you been a fisherman all your life, you been out in a dory a lot alone.  You’ve had to learn all that stuff, figure it out.  You gotta watch it yourself.  That’s survival for yourself.”

 

Peter at Museum (1)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.

Telling Tales: A Gathering of Stories by Eric Schoonover

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Telling Tales: A Gathering of Stories by Eric Schoonover

A Review by Peter Anastas

(Dogbar Publications, Gloucester, 2016, 142 pp.,  $15)

 

“We tell stories for as many reasons as we live. They celebrate the beginnings and endings of our lives. They are the hand that rocks the cradle, the hand that wraps the shroud. They give meaning to the long or short haul of our lives.” –from the Preface

 

In Telling Tales, Gloucester poet and novelist Eric Schoonover has given us a collection of essays as finely written as they are delightful to read.   Each essay explores an arresting theme and tells a particular story, so that in reading them we are doubly rewarded.

We experience the taste of dates in Egypt with their author, who shares his thoughts about the role of memory in our lives.  In an essay that dramatizes issues of class and companionship, we accompany Schoonover as a young college instructor, who travels from his Eastern American classroom to Washington State to join a fire fighting crew in the Palouse hills.  We’re with him in a car race in which a relationship is also explored, and we assist him in building “Tuva,” his Micro sailboat, which still plies the waters off Cape Ann (he also builds a bed for his grandson Jacob to whom the book is dedicated).  Most powerfully, we climb into the mountains of Switzerland, where Schoonover travels to scatter the ashes of his parents near the small Genevan village where the family spent several memorable vacations.

Yet for all their variety and Schoonover’s scintillating prose, these essays are seamlessly constructed, as befits the boat builder who wrote them.  The word essay comes from the French essai, which means “an attempt.”  In writing an essay one begins by setting down tentative thoughts about a subject.  In the process we may also be trying to discover what we actually think about that subject, and what we want to say about it once we begin to write.

Essays have generally been categorized as “formal” or “familiar.” Formal essays usually consist of an impersonal analysis of a subject, while familiar essays are generally written from a personal point of view and  tell us as much about the writer as his or her subject.

Our era may well be one in which we have witnessed the primacy of the familiar essay, through the popularity of personal essays and memoirs, the profusion of Op Ed columns, and, more recently, the explosion of individual blogs, in which writers write as much about themselves as they do about their subjects.  Yet the new digital technologies (not to speak of texting and Twittering) with their inherent demands to think and write fast, and therefore more superficially, have helped to create a literary culture in which care of construction and thoughtfulness of intent have often been eclipsed by the pressure to post or respond to other posts.  While this has arguably afforded more democracy of access and expression (everybody is now seen to be a writer), the inevitable consequence has been a sacrifice of depth.

For this reason Eric Schoonover’s Telling Tales is all the more welcome.   The personal voice is here in these wonderfully luminous essays, which are both autobiographical and a history of the sources and growth of a literary sensibility.  We come to understand who the author is through the gathering details of his life—fishing with his father as a child; experiencing his first misunderstanding by a teacher in the rural Western Massachusetts school he first attended, in a town where he was the only paperboy; teaching English and literature in a variety of settings; and traveling to remote places whose cultures fascinate him, with his family as a child and later as a mature traveler and writer

With this collection Schoonover has in effect restored the essay to its proper place as an invaluable yet ever flexible mode of expression and exposition, a means of coming at the world in multiple ways, while sharing with the reader what the writer has discovered during the journey.

In describing what he has set out to achieve in this rewarding book, Schoonover quotes Joseph Conrad’s own reason for writing: “I want to make you see.”   And we do see through Schoonover’s eyes some of the world he has experienced and remembered, just as we feel through language that rises to poetry what he has felt and wishes to share with us.

Telling Tales may be a slender book in terms of page length, but it is brimming with the kinds of wisdom, humor, insight and sheer intelligence that are certain to make a lasting impression on the reader.

 

eric schoonover

Eric Schoonover is a writer, 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.

Proud to be Greek

Peter Anastas

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You gotta love it.  Due to the success of the Academy Award-nominated film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Greeks suddenly found themselves to be “in.”  According to the New Yorker, Greeks, who once rushed to Americanize themselves, were “now adding syllables back to their names.”  So, in keeping with this new ethnicity, let me tell you a secret.  My real name isn’t Anastas, it’s Anastasiades.  Yes, there really were a couple of syllables dropped from our original family name.

It happened to my father like it did with so many other Greeks.  Upon his arrival at Ellis Island in 1908 at the age of nine, the immigration authorities couldn’t handle Dad’s given Greek name, Panos Anastasiades.  So they changed it to Peter Anastas.  My actual first name is Panayiotis, which means “little Peter” or “junior.”  But my parents only used that for my baptism, after which they reverted to Peter, like my dad.

If you are wondering what Anastasiades means, let me explain.  Anastas is the past participle of both the ancient and demotic, or modern, Greek verb “anisto-anastasis,” which means “to stand up, rise or be resurrected.”  So Anastas means “having stood up” or, like Christ, “having risen.”  The final syllables, “iades,” stand for “the son of,” like the Russian suffix “ovich.”  Therefore, my name literally means “son of the one who stood up” or “son of the arisen.”  Not bad for the child of an immigrant, who arrived in America at the age of nine wearing his mother’s shoes.

Ah, but it wasn’t “in” to be Greek in 1908, anymore than it was hip to be Italian or Jewish.  When my father arrived in Lowell to join his father as a laborer in the Massachusetts Cotton Mill, he witnessed some horrendous battles between the newly arrived Greeks, the French-Canadians and the Anglo-Americans, who made up the primary workforce.  They were turf battles that later became labor struggles, eventually driving many immigrants to other towns, or even back to the “old country,” as the Greeks called home.  In fact, my father, whose own father had actually died before Dad arrived, soon left Lowell to sell newspapers and shine shoes in downtown Boston, where he remained until his induction into the army during World War I.

From boyhood I heard these stories about my father’s arrival and subsequent life in America, stories which I’ve passed down to my own children.  Dad’s story is the story of many Greeks, who came here penniless or orphaned, went to work, educated themselves, and eventually started their own businesses, not untypically lunch rooms or grocery stores.

Some immigrants, like my uncle Cyrus Comninos, who was a physician, or the sculptor George Demetrios, whom Dad knew when they were both young men in Boston, became successful in the professions or the arts.  Yet, while Greeks, like Theodoros Stamos, have become major painters in America, and Harry Mark Petrakis has written powerfully about Greeks in Chicago, we have not produced a novelist of the stature of Jewish American writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, or the Italian American novelist Pietro di Donato, whose Christ in Concrete is one of the great novels of immigrant experience in this country.  But look how long it took for Greek American life to make its way into the movies!

For all its popularity, which led the New Yorker to compare the film unfairly to a sit com, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is a remarkable picture of Greek American life, pitting first generation children like me against their foreign-born parents.  On the afternoon I happened to be seeing it, the audience was comprised mostly of Greek Americans.  There were a lot of little old ladies in black dresses, whispering to each other in Greek before the film began.  And once it started, I listened with delight as many in the audience anticipated the words before they had even come out of the mouths of the characters, especially the father, who, naturally, owns a restaurant at which the entire family works.

“Oh, God, how I know that world!” I exclaimed during the film, tears of recognition streaming down my face.  Tears, too, of immense sadness because the father, who is constantly reminding his children of their Greek heritage, was so like my own father, now dead.

Of course, the power of the film, and, indeed, its immense appeal, is not only because it’s about an ethnic group that many Americans know very little about.  It’s also because the film depicts family dynamics that we all share—a child’s need to separate herself from an overprotective family, a traditional father’s conflict with modernity, and the terrible difficulty we all experience in letting go, no matter what our ethnic backgrounds may be.

If anything, the film’s sequel, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” just released in time for Greek Easter, is even more relevant, as it explores the relationship between the teenage daughter, Paris, and her mother, Tula, who, in the first film, was struggling to individuate from her Old World parents. In choosing to leave Chicago for college at NYU, Paris separates herself from her loving, if often stifling, Greek family; but in the process she learns that they will always be part if her life.

And, yes, even for the strength of their critical insights into the crippling aspects of Greek American culture that so many in my generation tried to escape from, these two films, which I highly recommend, still made me proud to be Greek.

 

Peter at Museum (1)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.

 

 

 

Night Train at Wiscasset Station

Peter Anastas

Showdown at Roundhouse Corral, (Boston Railyard) © 2000 ~ David Tutwiler (b. 1952)

Showdown at Roundhouse Corral, (Boston Railyard) © 2000                              David Tutwiler (b. 1952)

 

I come from the era of trains.  As a child during the war, I would lie in bed on Perkins Road listening to the shrill whistle of the Boston & Maine’s  Gloucester Branch crossing the trestle over the Annisquam River.  Ever since then I have associated trains with the mystery of travel.  I could never get enough of them, pestering my grandfather Angel Polisson to take my brother and me to the station in Gloucester to see the trains arrive.  I especially loved it when we could watch the passengers getting off and I could only imagine where they had been or where, if the train was about to depart, they might be headed.

As we got older, our mother took us to Boston on the train, when she went shopping at Jordan Marsh’s or Filene’s.  I’ll never forget the time I got separated from her in Filene’s basement.  I went screaming up and down the aisles of bargain clothing piled on tables that women fought over, cursing each other, sometimes tearing the garments to shreds in their furious attempts to possess them.  After that incident, my mother took to pinning a name tag on my brother and me, so that if we got lost or separated from her the clerks would know whom to page.  Luckily, it never came to that, and we quickly learned how to navigate our way around the big department stores, or the Peabody Museum in Salem, where our mother also took us so we could look at the ship models that fascinated us, or the life-like local birds and mammals that the taxidermists had exhibited in large glass cases.

Recently I thought of those cities I came to know in wartime when the gasoline ration prohibited travel by car—Boston, Salem, even New York when we got older—and the trips on trains it took to get to them.  I was on the train to New York again, racing along the Connecticut coast, in and out of harbors and across russet colored fields on the way to see my new grandson in Brooklyn.  The train was packed, the early spring day was bright, and I felt like a child again on an adventure.

It was the way I felt in Europe, where I took the train everywhere, never thinking of schedules or reservations.   If you wanted to go somewhere, you showed up at the station and there was a train waiting or about to arrive.  One night a group of us were sitting over dinner at the Buca Niccolini, on Via Ricasoli in Florence, just behind the Duomo.  It had been a grand meal, well moistened with the local red wine the Florentines call “vino nero.”  We were about to order desert when someone suddenly suggested, “Let’s go to Vienna for desert!”

We jumped up, settled the check and set out for the railroad station, a short walk from the restaurant.   The Brenner Express was about to depart.  We knew we would never get to Austria for desert, but we did arrive in time for one of those marvelous Viennese breakfasts.  We took a spin around the city and got back on the train, arriving in Florence in time for dinner.

Naturally, this was the kind of gambit you engage in when you are young—we were in our early 20s, students: Americans, English and Italian.   I never did it again, but I took the train at every opportunity—to Bologna for lunch (best pasta ever); Pisa for a run up the steps of the Leaning Tower with my high school classmate Bob Stephenson; Viareggio to get my beach fix when I missed Gloucester.

Trains were even more important for me before I lived in Europe.  I went to college in Maine and most of the time I took the train to Brunswick or back home.  I’d hop on a Gloucester train to North Station, where the Flying Yankee left for Portland, Bangor and points north.  There was a club car serving beer all the way to Portland, where it was uncoupled before the train left for Brunswick.   On many a night we could be seen stumbling up to our rooms from the Brunswick railroad station.

At midnight the mail train stopped in Brunswick, allowing those who had girlfriends in Boston to post letters that would be delivered to them that morning.   I can see myself hastily typing a letter, throwing on parka and boots, and trudging through the snow from my room on Federal Street down to the railroad station on Maine Street, often getting there just as the train was about to pull out.  The guys in the mail car knew us.  Obligingly, they would lean out of the doors to accept our letters on the fly.

At four a.m. every morning the Milk Train coming through from Northern Maine to Boston woke up those of us who lived near the railroad bridge on Federal Street.  If I was reading or studying late, I knew that its whistle in the dead of night was the sign for me to go to bed. But the big event of the day was the non-stop rush through Brunswick of the freight train.  Imagine an engine pulling 100 or more cars all the way from Aroostook County tearing through the center of town, the late afternoon traffic sometimes halted for close to 30 minutes.  Our philosophy professor told us that if we still believed in the non-existence of un-thinking matter we should stand next to that freight train as it roared through town each afternoon.

While some students had their own cars, most of us depended on the train for a fast getaway to Portland to see a movie or to eat Chinese food.   Often enough we traveled north to Rockland, and sometimes further Downeast, stopping at Wiscasset on the way to Rockland, Camden or Belfast.   There was something special about Wiscasset, a sense of arriving in a small riverine town with redbrick buildings, the train pausing, it seemed, until the very last passenger appeared out of the dark, the conductor waiting with his lantern and finally shouting, “All aboard, all aboard,” as the train pulled slowly out of the station.  I can still hear the chugging of the steam engine, the way the wheels clicked on the tracks, and the eerie whistle as the train plunged into the darkness.

It is the image of that night train at Wiscasset Station that remains with me above all others, a sense of the isolation of the station itself and the deserted town, the slowly diminishing sound of the whistle and the rhythmic clicking of the wheels on the tracks, the lights from the cars gradually becoming bright points in the darkness and then disappearing altogether as the train itself faded into the night.   It is an image that takes me back to the boy awake in his bed on Perkins Road, listening attentively each time for the train to cross the trestle over the river, imagining what it might be like to travel on it, to arrive in unknown places, connected only by the trains themselves, the infinite network of tracks, as they raced through the vast spaces of the night.

 

Peter at Museum (1)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.

The Consequences of Unplanned Growth

Peter Anastas

“Stop this renewing without reviewing.”

–Charles Olson, “A Scream to the Editor”

Prospect Street, Gloucester. 1928 Hopper, Edward (1882-1967)

Prospect Street, Gloucester. 1928 Hopper, Edward (1882-1967)

What do the proposed “Soones Court” Back Shore luxury housing project and the recently floated ideas for the development of Ten Pound Island have in common, aside from the fact that they have provoked vociferous public opposition?

These are projects that have no foundation in planning.  They were neither anticipated nor considered as part of an overarching plan for the growth and development of Gloucester or the protection of our natural resources.  Why is this?  Simply put, it is because the city effectively does not have a Master Plan that is currently valid.  Our Master Plan is neither valid nor relevant because, having last been drafted and voted upon in 2001, it is fifteen years out of date.  As such, it does not—and did not—anticipate major projects like Gloucester Crossing or the Beauport Hotel on the Fort, both of which also stirred divisive public opposition.

The purpose of good planning is to avoid such controversies as much as possible and make clear in a democratically created document what is needed for the orderly growth and development of the community; in other words, what should be built in the future and where it should be built.  Such a plan also provides for what the community wishes to preserve in  terms of landforms, historic sites and buildings, neighborhoods, or cherished places— iconic locations like the shore side of our Back Shore, Ten Pound Island, Dogtown, or the Magnolia Woods.  It is possible through planning to set aside such “magical places,” as Janice Stelluto, who shepherded Plan 2001 from the talking stages through to its completion, called them, so that they would remain undisturbed to be enjoyed by future generations of Gloucester citizens and visitors drawn to the natural beauty of our city.

Good planning also anticipates the impact on the economic and social well- being of the city of foreseen growth; for as a community considers what it hopes to live with in the present—which amenities it needs, what kinds of new business might be provided to create necessary jobs, how new growth and development will affect tax base—it also looks at what is not wanted.   It provides for the preservation of what is valued like the untrammeled view out to Thatcher’s Island from the Back Shore, or Ten Pound Island left in its natural state for students to study its geology and birdlife.

Plan 2001 did not call for a shopping plaza adjacent to the Fuller School, nor did it consider the marine-industrial Fort as an ideal location for a “boutique” hotel or conference and function center   These were not developments growing out of the community’s pressing desire to have them (there was consensus about a downtown hotel but not on the Fort); they were developer-driven projects, coming, as it were, from a vacuum created by a lack of planning.  Taken by surprise, as the community was when these unanticipated and unplanned for projects first surfaced, many in the community reacted like we all do when we are confronted with the unexpected.  There was anger, frustration and, naturally, resistance, creating rifts in the city, which deepened as one unanticipated and unplanned for project followed another.

To be sure, the planning process cannot anticipate or parry in advance every controversy; nor can it satisfy all sectors of the community.  But it can help us to avoid the divisive acrimony we now experience in Gloucester with the concomitant anger against and distrust of government and public officials, neither of which help to promote or sustain our wellbeing as a people, collectively hoping for a deserved quality of life in the place we call home.

Without good planning a city is helpless in the face of the relentless drive to develop that we and many seaside communities like Gloucester are facing, just as a family that does not budget its finances or plan for the future is stymied when there is job loss or catastrophic illness.  Good planning can help to avoid the raucous public hearings that have been a sad feature of local life, pitting neighbor against neighbor and ward against ward, only fueling the enmity and distrust of government that have come to characterize national life as well.  Good planning can also help the community avoid costly litigation that drains both public coffers and private citizens of funds that could be more wisely and creatively spent.

So, before we get into another battle royal over the next development proposal to come down the pike (and there will be many), would it be too much to ask if we, as a community, could take that superannuated Master Plan off the shelf and revise it?  Or better: couldn’t we begin again, utilizing all the experience we have gained during the past fifteen fractious years, and write a new one?   Call it a roadmap for the present, or a GPS helping us to navigate our way through the complex terrain of the future.  Call it what you will, but for the sake of all of us let’s not move forward without knowing what’s ahead.

(On Thursday, March 4, 2016, the Gloucester Planning Board said “No” to preliminary plans for Soones Court.  However, developers have announced that they will return in July with “a more definite proposal.”

On Monday, March 21, there will be a community meeting hosted by Ward One city councilor Scott Memhard, at the Rocky Neck Cultural Center, 6 Wonson Street, at 7 p.m., to discuss “Ten Pound Island: Recognizing its Past, Planning its Future.”  All are invited.)

 

Peter at Museum (1)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.

Toward a Vision for the City’s Future

Peter Anastas

Peter Anastas and Sefatia Romeo Theken. Gloucester Mayoral Inaugration. January 1, 2016.

Peter Anastas and Sefatia Romeo Theken.
Gloucester Mayoral Inaugration.
January 1, 2016.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines inauguration as “to induct into office by a formal ceremony” or “to cause to begin, to dedicate, to consecrate.”  Our Gloucester High School Latin teachers, Josephine P. Ray and Vincent Elmer, would have taken pains to point out the Latin root “augurare,” “to presage, to foretell, to look ahead.”  This gave us the Italian “augurio,” “to wish, to be of good omen, to give one’s best wishes,” as in auguri.   So, in effect, we are here today not only to celebrate the induction of Sefatia Romeo Theken into her first full term as mayor of Gloucester, we are also gathered to look ahead, to consecrate ourselves and the city we love to a future of good omen, to wish our new mayor and her administration, our new city council and school committee—the community itself— tanti auguri for the New Year ahead and for our hoped for future.

Before I speak of that bright future we richly deserve, I’d like to look back for a moment, to pay tribute to those who have made it possible, particularly our parents and grandparents; and for Sefatia, her mother and father, Rosalia and Enzo Giambanco.  Enzo Giambanco, was president of the Board of Directors at Action, Inc., Gloucester’s antipoverty agency, when I first went to work there in 1972.  I found in Enzo not only a mentor but a person of deep compassion for the low-income families we were serving, including out-of-work fishermen, children who needed a pre-school education their parents could not afford, people who did not have health insurance, and elders who were torn between paying rent and utility bills and eating.  As an immigrant he understood what it felt like to be on the outside, whether you spoke a different language or your customs differed from those of the community.   Along with Executive Director Bill Rochford, Enzo helped to steer the agency through some of its most challenging times, while never abandoning those who depended on our services, whether it was help with fuel bills, home care, or after-school care for the children of working mothers.

I will never forget the time when, after the construction of the O’Maley middle school, the city was deciding what to do with the suddenly empty Central Grammar School with its beautiful WPA murals, where many of our parents had gone to high school and my generation had spent our 7th and 8th grade years.   Action proposed a reuse of the stately building for apartments for the elderly; but there were questions about the need for such housing and the ability of an agency like Action, which had never done bricks and mortar, to undertake such a project.  A public hearing was to be held at City Hall to determine which direction the city would move, and it was necessary to show support for the agency’s plan to create quality housing for our senior citizens.   Enzo told Bill not to worry.  And that night he arrived with 500 elders and their families, filling city hall auditorium and convincing the council of public support for the project.   The present Central Grammar Apartments not only met a crucial need in the city, it became a pioneer project in the regional movement to adapt former schools into much needed housing.

Sefatia learned these innovative and caring ways from the cradle.  She has spent her entire life helping the people of Gloucester as one of the city’s hardest working councilors and as a health care advocate and human services liaison at Addison Gilbert Hospital.  During her tenure as interim mayor, Sefatia again demonstrated her skills at reaching out to citizens across the entire social and economic spectrum of the city, listening compassionately to their concerns, hearing the ideas they shared, and making decisions in a thoughtful and intelligent manner, while relating to all of us in an open, caring and humane way.  When you are hugged by Sefatia you know she means it.

Sefatia has roots that run deeply into the community and its history.  She’s gone to school and raised a family here.  She can walk down the street and recognize everyone she meets.   She can tell you who lived on which street, who worked where, and what happened to them if they got laid off.  This kind of knowledge that comes from growing up in one place and feeling it in your blood is indispensable when it comes to understanding the needs of neighborhoods and their residents, no matter which part of the city they are located in.  A public official who is not deeply in touch with the culture of the community he or she hopes to serve is already at a disadvantage.

We need a mayor who encourages our community to engage in the kind of constructive dialogue that is the cornerstone of our democracy, a mayor who will lead us toward a more vital sense of community in education, civic responsibilities, historical awareness, fiscal prudence, economic and social self-sufficiency, and love of place.  We particularly need a mayor who understands and cares deeply about our fishing industry and the importance of our working waterfront and the innovative Blue Economy.  I believe that Sefatia will be this kind of mayor.   Just as we need to move ahead, we equally need to maintain our roots as a city of families and neighborhoods, where everyone has a place at the table and everyone’s  voice is listened to and respected.  There is a yearning all over America for the sense of place, of shared history, of belonging, that we in Gloucester are fortunate to enjoy in abundance.

Gloucester has always been a city of ethnic and economic diversity—and this diversity has been one of our greatest strengths.  We live in dangerous times and we need the peace and comfort that a community like ours affords.  It is through community that we learn together and grow together, as we help our children and grandchildren grow and prosper.

Concretely we must address the following issues as we look to the city’s future.

–We need a revised and updated Master Plan so we can best manage growth and know where to build and what to preserve.

–We must recommit ourselves to our embattled fishing industry and to the working waterfront itself, continuing our long history of adaption to change with the creation of a strong seafood innovation cluster economy and the good local jobs it will create.   We are also a great boating community and while we work to make our waterfront a more welcoming place for recreational boaters, we must not forget the importance of community boating facilities for our own residents.

–We will need to look newly at tourism and its impact on the city’s life and infrastructure (traffic, the harbor, the beaches, the land), with a special conversation about the role of a smart,  human-scale visitor-based economy, the corner stone of which should be cultural and eco-tourism.

–We need to continue our conversation around the development of a public arts policy with added discussion on the place of the arts in local life and the visitor-based sector.  Essential to the future of the city as a magnet for the arts is the development of live-work housing for local artists, who constitute a bridge between the life we all enjoy here and what we want to offer to those we welcome into our community.

–Essential also is an initiative to involve more citizens in public life, volunteering for boards and commissions.  We must especially nurture a new generation of engaged citizens: our democracy will depend on it.

–As for schools, plant is important, but what happens in the classroom is paramount.  We must transcend the tyranny of standardized testing, reasserting the primary role of the imagination, critical thinking and creativity in art, music, drama, science and the humanities.

–We must do everything to keep our city beautiful, not only for those who wish to visit but for those of us who live here year round.  The restoration of Stacy Boulevard, Gloucester’s crown jewel, is long overdue.   Dogtown is our refuge for hiking, cross country skiing, berry picking, and the exploration of nature.  Let us continue to support the work that volunteers are engaged upon in preserving this treasure and keeping Dogtown unspoiled for future generations.

What we especially need, along with careful planning to account for inevitable change, is a land ethic, a way in which we view the land and its uses beyond mere profit-taking and commercial development.  We must build what we need, but we must do it in a way that does not destroy the unique character of neighborhoods or disrupt human and natural ecologies.

We must plan regionally as well as locally, always with a sense of preserving the character and integrity of particular communities; for I believe that only those places which are sensitive to their uniqueness will survive.  Without an informed, coherent and humane vision of ourselves in relation to our environment we will not survive as a community, let alone as a planet or a species.

So as we inaugurate our new mayor and congratulate the city councilors and school committee members we have elected to represent us, let us re-commit ourselves to working together, to building “not only for today alone but for tomorrow as well.” If we expect it of ourselves, those who come after us will thank us for our vision, our imagination, and especially for our commitment.

Thank you e tanti auguri a` tutti for the New Year and for Gloucester’s future.

(This speech was delivered at City Hall, on January 1, 2016, at the inauguration of Sefatia Romeo Theken as Mayor of Gloucester)

 

Peter at Museum (1)Peter Anastas, EG editorial directoris 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.