Mitchell, planners fumble on fishermen’s memorial

Mitchell, planners fumble on fishermen’s memorial

The thing about the Mitchell administration is that they have gotten very good at saying they’re doing something and then turning around and doing the opposite.

The latest case in point is the ham-handed way in which they have conducted the process of bringing back The Whalemen’s and Fishermen’s Memorial to the city.

On Nov. 8 of last year, the Planning Department (and if you think it was just the planners, I have a bridge over the Acushnet to sell you) announced to much fanfare that they were seeking public input as to where the great Poseidon and sea life sculpture should be relocated.

The Whalemen’s and Fishermen’s Memorial sculpture as it stood in Tonneson Park on the New Bedford waterfront for almost 40 years. Credit: City of New Bedford Facebook page

The sculpture by renowned early 20th-century artist Anna Hyatt Huntington is indisputably one of the most valuable works of art in the city. It depicts the muscular god of the sea wrestling with a codfish and sturgeon while surrounded by a variety of other marine life swirling about a decidedly ethnic Poseidon, or Neptune, whatever you want to call the sea god of antiquity.

Huntington, a widely acclaimed sculptress for her animal depictions, donated the one-ton, bronze statue to New Bedford in 1962, at which time it was said to be worth $50,000.

The sculpture sat on a plinth at Tonneson Park on the downtown waterfront from the 1980s until it was replaced in 2016 by a statue of a fishing family. It had previously been on the grounds of the Whaling Museum. 

The Poseidon, for all its grandeur, was both loved and hated. Some complained it had too many tropical sea creatures and others that the scallop wasn’t prominent enough. 

Personally, I liked it. The mighty Poseidon vanquishing a cod was an appropriate enough tribute to New Bedford’s rugged fishermen for me. What could be more emblematic of New Bedford, after all, than a tough guy subduing the groundfish that made the Whaling City fleet famous?

Still, I could also see how some folks wanted more.

Families of some local fishermen had long sought a more realistic statue of a fisherman, and in 2016 local sculptor Erik Durant’s fishing family sculpture, also a bronze, was placed directly on the ground where the Hyatt Huntington sculpture had stood. The Poseidon then sat in the public infrastructure yard for years while the city dragged its feet on restoring it; the bronze had suffered deterioration and damage from the salt air, of all things. 

Meanwhile, the Durant tribute was a four-figure depiction (fisherman, wife and two children) but without a plinth, configured on the ground the way contemporary statues often are. Call me outdated, but give me a good base to put a statue on — what else is the purpose of these damn things, after all? They are supposed to inspire awe, make us look up to someone or something.

The Fishermen’s Tribute statue stands on the waterfront with fishing boats nearby. The Erik Durant statue is of a fishing family and is located at Tonneson Park, across from downtown New Bedford. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

I’m not sure why the fishing family statue has not caught on more. It’s a good statue, and the sacrifice of fishing families, in addition to fishermen themselves, certainly deserved their own tribute. 

Perhaps the lack of a plinth has made it too much a nondescript part of the waterfront. You cannot see it from a distance. For whatever reason, it has not gained the grand status of another famous fishermen statue elsewhere in Massachusetts. The city does not feature it prominently enough in its marketing campaigns, in my opinion.

I myself had endorsed the idea of a statue of a fisherman on the New Bedford waterfront after the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce in 2011 absurdly used the iconic Gloucester fishermen’s statue in its annual New Bedford directory. Come to New Bedford and see the famous Gloucester fisherman in his rain slicker at the wheel! Crazy.

But I digress.

The New Bedford Planning Department asked for public input on the Poseidon statue on the city’s Facebook page back on Nov. 8, and the city gave it. At least the kind of folks who comment on Facebook gave it.

They were overwhelmingly in favor of bringing Hyatt Huntington’s great sculpture back to the downtown waterfront.

Out of 174 comments (not including the “likes” of various sorts), 40 people said to bring the statue back to the downtown harbor. The only other locations receiving any votes were Custom House Park (four votes) and the site of Seagull Cinderella on Route 18 (four votes). People just love or hate that Seagull Cinderella.

Some folks also don’t like the fishing family, with its very realistic depictions of the human form.

“The current statue there (the fishing family) is a total EMBARRASSMENT to fishermen and their families, which I am one,” wrote Betty Jane Clark after the city’s Facebook post.

Clark was not alone.

“I say (bring it) back where it (the Poseidon) came from (I)t would be more prominent there than the tiny fishermen statue,” wrote Rick Correia.

So the overwhelming consensus to the city’s query was to bring the Whalemen’s and Fishermen’s Memorial back to the downtown waterfront.

The Mitchell administration, however, was evidently not moved after this first reaction to the city’s Nov. 8, 2023 inquiry.

The Planning Department offered its email address to the public for feedback about the statue, so maybe an overwhelming number of people wrote about other suggestions, such as the train station and Cove Walk. But the Planning Department never made any announcement about what those other suggestions might have been. And it certainly never publicly acknowledged that the vast majority of New Bedford’s vox populi wanted the statue returned to the downtown waterfront, if not its original location at Tonneson Park.

Instead, on June 19, the city, again on its Facebook page, announced it had narrowed down the final locations for the Whalemen’s and Fishermen’s Memorial to three sites not even remotely close to the city’s fishing fleet. None of them were even near the downtown waterfront.

One was the entrance to the new pedestrian bridge across Route 18 (near the Common Park) that will cross over to the Whale’s Tail passenger train station. The other two were at either end of the Cove Walk above the hurricane barrier in the South End cove, a place where no one fishes for cod, scallops or any of the other great commercial species that have actually made New Bedford fishing legendary.

You just can’t make it up. How the brain trust of the Planning Department, and in reality Mayor Jon Mitchell’s office, could get this so wrong is just breathtaking.

Never mind that they weren’t listening; they also weren’t thinking straight about what kind of monument it is, what kind of connection to the city’s downtown waterfront it has, and how to best protect what is indisputably a valuable piece of art.

The negative reaction was immediate and overwhelming.

Of 398 people who have so far reacted to the city’s June 19 Facebook post, a thunderous 176 of them have said to bring the sculpture back to the downtown waterfront. And again, that’s not even counting the “likes” to those 176.

What was second place? One or the other of the two ends of the Cove Walk received a total of five votes. Four people voted to bring the sculpture back to the Whaling Museum, where it had stood between the early 1960s and 1980s. The Whaling Museum, however, has made clear it doesn’t want it. (In fact, years ago the city fought a long battle with the museum over who owned the statue — something about the money and upkeep, I bet.) 

Thankfully, there is no shortage of city residents willing to save the Mitchell team and His Honor from themselves. 

Here’s a few of the well-known folks who pleaded with the city to bring the Hyatt Huntington back to the waterfront after the latest June 19 Facebook call for preferences on the non-downtown waterfront sites.

Suzanne Braga, the former head of Neighborhoods United, is nothing if not a team player. But she quickly pointed out that none of the city’s proposed locations is right.

“I don’t agree with any of the sites,” she wrote, “that’s so wrong. I’m sorry that should never have been moved.”

And then there’s Denise Morency Gannon, another voice of reason on the issues of the day on local social media.

“On the waterfront. All three suggested locations are wrong.”

Brittany Raposo summed it up nicely.

“I don’t understand where the city comes up with their ideas. Why give three options that have absolutely nothing to do with the history of New Bedford, and the reason the statue was created?” she asked. “Put it back where it was and what it was created for.”

John Vasoncellos, the respected former president of the SouthCoast Community Foundation, may have said it best in his comment about the finalists announced by the city. Like seemingly everybody else, Vasconcellos knew that Hyatt Huntington’s Whalemen’s and Fishermen’s Memorial belongs on the downtown waterfront.

He called for it to be located on State Pier.

The State Pier, especially after it is configured to allow several commercial establishments across Route 18 from the downtown, would be a compelling place for the Whalemen’s and Fishermen’s Memorial. But the pier will not be reconfigured for several years and placing it there would require the cooperation of the state delegation and mayor’s office. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

“The offered sites are an insult to the art and legacy of the city. Whatever the final plan is for the State Pier, there needs to be some green/open space there and this would be an amazing centerpiece to that space. Come on — bring some vision to this!”

I would not want to be Vasconcellos and the others when the mayor and some of the planners dress him down.  

Mayor Mitchell, political animal that he is, was quick to act like he was right on top of the whole debacle during his weekly appearance on WBSM’s Chris McCarthy’s radio show. I love my friend, Mr. McCarthy, but his invaluable forum for the issues of the day is not a place where the mayor gets pressed very hard. And that’s why the top guy is there and not in this column. 

So on the radio, the mayor claimed the city is listening to what the public is saying about where the statue should be located. He also described the sculpture as a work done by an artist of “some significant renown” named “Anne Hutchinson.”  I think the good mayor is confusing the famous sculptress Huntington with a Quaker religious reformer whose own statue is in front of the State House in Boston.

In any event, the mayor rattled off the reasons the Poseidon can’t go to various sites on the waterfront: It can’t go near the present Fishermen’s Tribute statue of the family because that sculpture is already there. It can’t go on many waterfront sites because there are utilities underground. It can’t go on the State Pier because it’s owned by the state, and anyway the pier is not yet perfectly ready for redevelopment.

You see the problem. He has an answer to everything.

It’s a shame that the mayor does not have a better relationship with Sen. Mark Montigny and state Rep. Bill Straus, as it certainly seems the state of Massachusetts might want to help the city find a prominent location on the State Pier for such an important part of the city’s history. I’m sure the legislators would not mind it having a small share of the pier, which Montigny in particular has long worked hard to knit back to the downtown tourist economy.

A contemporary sculpture reminiscent of South Pacific islands stands at the base of Centre Street hill in the downtown historic district. City officials worry that if the Whalemen’s and Fishermen’s Memorial is placed in the area, a motor vehicle might hit it. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Mitchell on the radio did mention that the cobblestone walkway at the foot of Centre Street, adjacent to Route 18 and across from the waterfront, might be an ideal location for the statue. The problem, he said, is that a vehicle might slide into the valuable statue some icy day. Centre Street slopes down toward Route 18 and the proposed sculpture site.

The mayor, however, talks as if there are no creative solutions to problems. I don’t know whether that’s for him or an unimaginative mindset over in the Planning Department. Probably both.

A simple solution to the Centre Street site might be to build a strong iron fence around the sculpture, like former Mayor Lang did around the Civil War monument at the Common Park after it was repeatedly defaced. They could even do it with the city’s signature harpoon slats, which would make the Whalemen’s memorial a little more worthy of its name.

The location at Centre Street is already more protected from a traffic mishap than the one at Tonneson Park, where the fishing family sculpture now sits. There’s both a curb and an iron traffic barrier blocking off Route 18; but perhaps something higher would help. It’s certainly a more solvable problem than moving the whole tribute away from the harbor and downtown.

The foundation memorializing Jack Markey Plaza, across from the State Pier in downtown New Bedford. Could it be a site for the Whalemen and Fishermen’s Memorial? Credit: Jack Spillane / The Bedford Light

Placing the sculpture in the middle of the Mayor John Markey plaza would be another possibility. I don’t think the late mayor would mind. There’s a big sign for him already over the intersection. In front of the National Club is another possibility. Steve Silverstein could do without a table or two on the plaza in front of his coming Mexican restaurant. He’d do it to pay tribute to the city’s relationship to the sea, don’t you think?

Where there is a will, and creative thinking, there is a solution. Mitchell also said that the city would look at a few more waterfront sites and threw out the possibility of Custom House Park. That’s not as good as the waterfront but it’s a better idea than the train station or a South End recreational area.

The truth is that the mayor seems almost passive in the amount of energy or interest he has for this issue so important to the city’s image and identity. And his promises to do the right thing are belied by what the city has done so far — inviting the public into the process and then ignoring what it has said. 

The reality is that this particular monument has never been a priority for Jon Mitchell. He’s had to be prodded on it every step of the way, and doesn’t quite get why it is so important to the identity of the city.

The mayor also is preserving his right of veto even as he asked the citizens twice where they think the monument should go.

“There’s been some pushback,” he acknowledged on the radio before making it clear it’s his own opinion that really matters in the end. “We don’t sort of hold … when we make decisions … we don’t sort of figure out where the political winds are blowing,” he told McCarthy. 

Maybe not. But in his next sentence, he made it clear he didn’t get elected six times by ignoring politics. “But when it comes to a statue, you want people to embra,” He then stopped short. “You want there to be popular support … you want people to feel they’re connected to the thing that’s being memorialized.”

This kind of double-talk certainly didn’t convince the scores of people calling, almost begging, for the sculpture to be returned to the waterfront, but I’m skeptical the mayor will ever do it easily.

“Pfft,” wrote Mindy Rose. “The city is gonna put it where ‘they’ want to put it … why even ask.” She followed it with an icon of a woman of color with her hands in the air repeated three times.

Mitchell continued on his quest to have it both ways. 

“We will take a good look at this and see if we can come up with some other ideas,” he told McCarthy. “I just want people to know we hear you, we hear the feedback, we’re going to try our best to do something.”

I don’t know. It sounds like too little too late. Based on what’s happened so far, I don’t see any assurances this particular mayor will get it right.

Email Jack Spillane at [email protected].

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