In many ways, Acushnet Avenue in the North End is the commercial heart of New Bedford.
There are fewer empty storefronts than in the downtown, and the Latin and Portuguese, first-generation flavor of the long thoroughfare makes it far and away the city’s most interesting neighborhood.
Still, as lively and vibrant a place as the Avenue blocks are, there is a scruffy quality to some of them.
This is an ethnic, downmarket neighborhood and it’s unabashed about it. There are fewer storefronts where the brick and wood facades of yesteryear have been restored than in downtown New Bedford. On the Avenue, the vibe is more that of vinyl-sided mom-and-pop five-and-dime, a Family Dollar without the corporate overlay.
Many of the folks who live and work here like it just the way it is, thank you very much. Or at least they don’t see the reason for spending a lot of their hard-earned dollars gentrifying it.
And yet. And yet. There’s something to be said for the brick and stucco restorations of the storefronts that some Avenue shop-owners have undertaken in recent years. They shine up real well. The restored or rehabbed front walls of Cafe Europa, Cafe Portugal and Cotali Mar come to mind as rebuilds that look more attractive than the 1970s-era painted aluminum that passes for greetings on “the Ave,” long after it and its plastic and neon accents went out of style.
Mayor Mitchell on Tuesday chose the much-maligned Phillips Avenue Pocket Park in the Near North End as the location for his kickoff of the first ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds, which he hopes will give popular business districts a facelift that could attract even more customers.
Besides the Avenue, Rivet Street, lower County and upper Union streets would be prime areas for the program. There are certainly others. Census tracts that qualify will determine which neighborhoods are eligible by their demographics.
The pocket park, by the way, decried by city councilors for drug use and unsavory activity just a year ago, may soon be getting its own ARPA facelift. College of Visual and Performing Arts students are already working on designs. But on Tuesday, Mitchell was there to announce the building upgrade program that offers small businesses up to $40,000 to upgrade their storefronts. The only catch is the businesses have to pay for one-quarter of the cost themselves.
Called the Enhanced Facade Improvement Program, the Mitchell administration’s aim is to revitalize commercial neighborhoods across the city and it has budgeted $1.5 million for the purpose. The city shopping districts could all look like Padanaram village and Mattapoisett center with just a little work. Only kidding. I’m making a strained, almost absurd analogy here, but you get my point.
Mitchell’s idea to make the Avenue more attractive is a good one. The mayor, like his predecessors before him, has stressed the importance of good planning like this in moving the city forward. It will not hurt the strip to become a little more fashionable, a little more contemporary. Bringing in folks who can afford to eat and drink at the longest stretch of cafes on the South Coast is not a bad thing. As long as you can manage to do it without making the real estate so valuable that the folks who’ve lived and worked here for decades can’t afford to stay. That won’t be easy, but the city is going to try.
“We’re going to work hard to get the word out about this program because it’s a really good deal,” Mitchell said.
The mayor, trying to make a point that he “gets it” that the North End often feels neglected, oddly introduced Ward 2 Councilor Maria Giesta as the “czarina” and then the “empress” of the neighborhood. Mitchell and Giesta, after a rough start when they ran against each for mayor a half decade ago, have been working well together lately.
Giesta didn’t really need the strained accolade because what she actually is is much more important. A former aide to Barney Frank, Giesta is an authentic voice of second-generation Portuguese-Americans in the city. She came of age when the Ave was still a Portuguese and Franco-American enclave. Now it’s largely Latino, and predominantly Mayans within the Latino community. Her job is to listen to the new immigrants, as well as the older ones. And she does.
Giesta noted that her parents first lived on humble Phillips Avenue before moving a few blocks north to the slightly more middle class neighborhood of Princeton Street. They ran a bar/restaurant called Cafe Giesta on nearby North Front.
“I know how tough it is to continue to run a business when times are tough,” she said. And then she spoke for the various city neighborhoods that always argue that they are neglected, but she did it in a way that didn’t so much set up this false dichotomy between the work the downtown needs and the work the neighborhoods need. That cliche has become more than old, but some city councilors never tire of it.
Giesta gave it a new spin.
“Downtown is a very important part of every city,” she said. “But Acushnet Avenue and other places like this are truly the heart beat of the city.”
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Curiously absent from the press conference were any of the Acushnet Avenue business owners who might want to benefit from the facade program.
The city suits said they were just announcing the program, but I worried about it because I know some of the merchants have had mixed feelings as the city has tried over the last decade to build the International Marketplace — a handsome, pedestrian-friendly stretch of cafes and ehtnic businesses. Some of the shop owners were understandably concerned about wider sidewalks with fewer parking spaces and the time it would keep their customers away from their front doors for an extended build time.
After the press conference, I took a walk down the Ave to see what some of the shop and restaurant owners might think of the facade idea. Would they like it? Would they be willing to spend thousands if the city paid for three-quarters of it?
It turns out a lot of them would at least think about it when they heard about the 3 to 1 split. But they said they hadn’t heard about it and wanted to know who could tell them more.
“I’d be interested,” said Michael LaJoie, a retired police officer who owns Union Fruit. “It sounds encouraging,” said Tony Folco, whose family has run Folco Jewelers, an institution on the Avenue since 1940.
My favorite was Elizabeth Riz, a Latina immigrant who runs Elizabeth’s, a phenomenally successful cafeteria-style Spanish restaurant where all day there is a steady stream of both immigrants and longer-term Americans seeking out her yellow rice and home-cooked stews.
We spent a little time talking about who pours beans over their rice and who doesn’t.
Elizabeth said it is her Anglo customers who actually take the beans over the rice and the Central Americans who want meat and no beans.
“We eat beans and rice every day,” in Guatemala and El Salvador, she explained. “When they get here, they don’t want it!”
Elizabeth’s has a fairly new awning and sign over her restaurant, but she said she and her husband might be interested in the program, as she expects it will get faded.
More skeptical was the part-owner of Guys & Gals Sportswear, who has been on the Avenue for 37 years.
Guys & Gals has a magical quality to it. When you enter, you’re greeted by long rows of party dresses hanging from the ceiling. They are every bit as celebratory as the hanging angels at St. Anthony’s down the street, and you can see why Guys & Gals is a success.
The owner didn’t want to give her name, but she said she doesn’t think her shop’s metal exterior really needs anything other than a painting once in a while. She’d be worried the city would increase the property taxes with such improvements. “We can’t afford to do that,” she said.
Down the street at Union Fruit Market, however, manager Billy Cabral was right that the owner might be interested in the 75% to 25% split on an upgrade.
“It’s a good thing,” said Cabral, who said that despite his Portuguese name, he is originally from the Dominican Republic.
Union Street Market, and its same name counterpart on Ruth Street in the South End, are New Bedford reliables in their immigrant neighborhoods.
They have long aisles of ethnic specialites, along with the old-fashioned open meat and produce sections. This is not Stop & Shop or Market Basket where everything is wrapped up tight in plastic and lightyears away from where it came from. Think of the corner butcher shop or fruit market when you were a kid, only with a Latin flavor.
Most of these Avenue businesses, by the way, say their customers have not come back full steam since the pandemic. Cabral said he thinks people are holding back because of the increases in food and gas prices and are now worried about the war in Ukraine.
“They used to spend their whole check but now only part,” he said.
Which brings me to the purpose of the Facade Enhancement Program. It may seem a bit of a stretch, but the idea is to help these small businesses get back on their feet after the effects of the pandemic. A New Bedford version of “Build Back Better.”
The shop owners said business is coming back slowly. The Guys & Gals owner noted that she was closed completely for three months, and that had its effect. Elizabeth Riz said her customers are still not spending like they were.
Would a handsome new business front and sign help? Well it couldn’t hurt. With this pandemic relief money, New Bedford neighborhoods that have been neglected for generations will have an unusual opportunity for renewal.
Is the new facade something they really need or want? Time will tell.
But the mayor, majority of city councilors and the neighborhood leaders think it’s something that is more than worth doing.
“The goal here is to make us stronger from the pandemic than when we went in,” Mitchell said.
If a business, commercial property owner, nonprofit organizations or other entity is interested in taking part in the facade program, they can download a program application on the City’s ARPA website: www.newbedford-ma.gov/arpa.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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