There’s something very special about Custom House Park.

The downtown pocket park, tightly wedged between Fifty-Fourth Regiment Plaza and The Garden pub, is the downtown’s largest patch of greenery even though it is not quite as large as a city block. Its grassy knolls are topped by a variety of trees from all the corners of the world where New Bedford whaling boats once visited. There’s a small granite mall where bands play in the summer and a few — not enough — park benches are placed so that you can eat lunch in the sunshine on a good day.

Not that this downtown park is without its problems. Both Custom House and the adjacent Wings Court are often beset by street people during the good weather. They hang out, unroll their sleeping gear, do their drug deals, and all kinds of unsavory stuff that street folks do. It’s much to the dismay of the gentry and businesspeople who have begun to live and be successful in the downtown. There’s more than a good argument for police to be more aggressive about arresting these folks for loitering, even if the city loses a few of the cases in court.

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But overall, Custom House and Wings Court have a lot of potential. I say potential because they are still a work in progress. People used to dine out on some tables at Custom park before the loiterers wrecked many of the structures and the city stopped putting them out. But the summertime festivals continue to draw large crowds to the little garden on weekends, and at lunchtime, Destination Soups and Brick attract plenty of outdoor diners to Wings at the right times of year.

And then there are the Christmastime light displays. Well, Christmas displays at Custom House because the city has never put much effort into holiday displays at Wings Court.

Every year since 2013 when Mayor Jon Mitchell first built the Custom park, at Christmas, the little hills on this green space have brightened up the night sky with the downtown’s biggest lighting display. The cluster of trees, small and large, have always looked like they were sprinkled with magic dust for a month or so when the twinklers transformed the urban oasis during these darkest days of December.

Mitchell, by the way, constructed Custom park despite the cranky protests of a handful of naysayers who had wanted the space to remain a parking lot that was more often empty than full.

Unlike Clasky Common about a mile north of the downtown, where the trees at this time of year sport festive, multi-colored lights amidst a Christmas Village for little kids, the downtown lights are usually white, and in keeping with the more upscale image that New Bedford has tried to project in the city’s largest tourist and restaurant destination. The city does do a good job hanging lighted garland around the colonial lanterns in the historic district and throughout the main downtown streets.

But this year, for the first time in a decade or so, there are no Christmas lights at Custom House Park. The downtown squirrels evidently ate through the wires for so many years that the DPI has given up, declining to spend what Assistant Commissioner Justin Chicca said are “thousands and thousands” of dollars on replacements for the annual display.

Bah humbug to this attitude, I say.

Sure, there’s a big Christmas tree in front of the downtown library and at the foot of Union near Route 18. And the two flowering trees in front of City Hall have their customary lights. Maybe the squirrels don’t go there. But the lighted Custom House display, because there are so many trees in one grove, was special.

A squirrel wanders around Custom House Park recently, but the critter won’t find Christmas lights to chew on this year. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The mayor’s PR spokesperson was quick to point out that for the first time this year, the city added red and green lights to the Purchase Street Broadway-type strings that New Bedford installed on the lead-up to the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. And there are Christmas activities planned for New Year’s Eve where there will be light projections on Wings Court, at which are located, year-round, a couple of wooden fir trees. There’s also a wooden tug boat and snowflakes at Custom House Park and they’re looking for garland for the boat. And let’s not forget the old Santa’s sleigh that used to be at City Hall has been moved down to the Custom spot the last few years.

But really, those little forlorn trees at Wings Court and the tugboat at Custom House are what they are pointing to for investment in these parks?

The city is even calling the holiday theme “Light up the Night” which I have to say takes a little bit of chutzpah in a year when you’ve stopped putting up the biggest lighting display. Ah, marketing!

The city has added green and red bulbs and a star to the Broadway-type lights leading up the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center this year. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Squirrels eating Christmas lights, of course, is not a uniquely New Bedford problem. Other cities and even private displays face the same problem and somehow manage to keep the lights bright. Maybe the folks on Shawmut Avenue should make a call to the city of Boston to see how they deal with the issue at Boston Common. Or how about dispatching a letter to the good fathers at LaSalette in Attleboro to see what solutions they have come up with.

“It comes down to how much money do you want to spend on them,” said Chicca, explaining that when he was at the park one year, a squirrel ate through a wire right after it had been reinstalled.

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Chicca says they’ve tried all kinds of solutions — noise, chemical solutions on the wires — and nothing has worked. This year they put up snow fences around the displays at Clasky to see if that will work. No snow fences around the downtown trees, though, as they have just given up at Custom House.

For some reason, Chicca says, the squirrels in the downtown are more aggressive than the ones at Clasky. Well of course the downtown squirrels are more aggressive, they’re city squirrels!

I suggested to Chicca that in keeping with the Christmas spirit, the city should at least install the lights at Custom House Park one time, and as the squirrels eat through them, let them go dark. If the city is that financially hard-pressed, at least the downtown revelers would get to enjoy the lights for a short time. Chicca said he would check with the powers-that-be to see if there is any interest.

Don’t hold your breath.

I think DPI walking away from the Christmas lights at Custom House Park betrays a bigger problem. The city puts a lot of effort into planning festivals, concerts and events at these downtown parks and courtyards. But it does not put nearly as much muscle into the park’s upkeep and maintenance. They are downtown parks. Maybe they need some sort of security guards that work them. Maybe they need some kind of increased budget to replace the Christmas lights.

What they don’t need is for the city officials to walk away, shake their heads and give up.

Custom House Park is downtown New Bedford’s centerpiece. It deserves better than Christmas with no lights.

Email Jack Spillane at

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  1. This little park is indeed beautiful and the surrounding area has tons of potential. It also my little dog’s favorite destination on our walks because there’s always a good supply of squirrels for her to tree.

  2. Maybe the City should do what Nahant did and hire some exterminators. Though cute and cuddly, squirrels are plentiful and in most cases a nuisance! Lights please?

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