NEW BEDFORD — On a Sunday afternoon at the Bisca Club, a Cape Verdean social club, Gabriel De Rosa raised a drink to a friend from across the low-lit barroom. It was April, and the first time he had seen that friend since the pandemic took hold. With social distancing, they couldn’t embrace, so raising a drink would have to do.
“A lot of the folks here, we used to see every day, and now we haven’t seen in over a year,” said De Rosa, a founder and former president of the Bisca Club. “This is a place to socialize, to connect, not just to drink. That was lost. It’s been tough on all of us.”
The Bisca Club, with its vibrant history of music, card tournaments and celebrations of culture, marriage, life and death, instead held a somber spirit of reflection on this April afternoon. Patrons spoke quietly, catching up on the events of their lives over the last year. The banquet hall upstairs, where those events would have been celebrated, was quiet and empty, with liquor cabinets collecting dust and chairs stacked in a corner.
The Bisca Club was able to reopen as the city emerged from the pandemic, De Rosa said. But they were one of the lucky ones.
In the last year, some social clubs in New Bedford have closed their doors, perhaps even permanently. The Young Cape Verdean Athletic Association and the Elks Lodge have listed their properties for sale. Two of the oldest and most predominant Cape Verdean social clubs, the Band Club and the Verdean Veterans Memorial Hall, only just reopened in the end of May, and many worry for the future of these fixtures, which have long stitched together the social fabric of the city.
“The community has been hit hard by the pandemic. Many lost friends and relatives,” said Diane Gomes, chairperson of the Cape Verdean Recognition Committee and member of both the Band Club and Verdean Veterans Memorial Hall. “To lose these clubs also would be that much more.”
New Bedford has a diverse assortment of social clubs, each representing the many cultures that make up the city. For the Cape Verdean community, many clubs are located in the lower South End, once a stronghold for generations of Cape Verdean immigrants through the 19th and 20th centuries, when New Bedford was known as the “Cape Verdean Ellis Island.”
From then on, the social clubs in New Bedford have remained a place for Cape Verdeans from all over the country to connect through a shared cultural history.
The Cape Verdean Ultramarine Band Club, established in 1917, is the oldest Cape Verdean social club in the country. Every Sunday, before the pandemic, the traditional sounds of big band and Creole brass could be heard echoing from the Verdean Veterans Memorial Hall. At the Bisca Club, De Rosa said, it was common for a Cape Verdean from Brockton or Rhode Island to wander in, share a drink, and inquire about their heritage. And for 47 years, all Cape Verdean social clubs would convene to put on the Cape Verdean Recognition Parade — the largest parade in the city and the largest Cape Verdean cultural festival in the country.
But the very thing that made these clubs so special left them vulnerable to a virus that preyed on close human contact. As the pandemic took hold, the social clubs shuttered. Unlike many bars and restaurants, they weren’t equipped to serve food, and couldn’t transition to sustain business through takeout or outdoor dining. For some, like the Band Club, their financial records were not in good order, barring them from receiving the federal relief loans that buoyed many other businesses, according to their treasurer, Cassia Gage.
The clubs all fell quiet on Sunday nights, as well as every other night of the week, for the first time in memory, members said.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Gage. “It’s a place for dancing, for weddings, for funerals. It’s a place of refuge, where we can be amongst family and friends. And that’s exactly what people needed during the pandemic.”
The intention of the clubs was never about revenue, members said. Even while shut down, the Verdean Veterans Memorial Hall has ramped up efforts to host food drives. “They are really there to support the community. They stayed very active and involved through the pandemic,” Gomes said.
But owning an establishment has costs, like liquor licenses, taxes and utilities. Without revenue, and with members finding it hard to pay dues, the clubs struggled through the winter and into this summer. The Band Club had been saving money for renovations to its historic banquet hall, which has hosted generations of Motown and jazz musicians. Those funds were depleted to keep the heat on through the winter, Gage said, and the banquet hall likely won’t be used until renovations are complete.
Then, the Cape Verdean Recognition Parade, a summer weekend that members said would bring in enough business to get them through the winter, was canceled for two consecutive years. Gomes said she fears that loss of revenue will have a ripple effect through the years to come.
In May, the Band Club opened its doors to the community for the first time since the pandemic took hold. The day before, a group of longtime members swept up 15 months worth of dust and cobwebs in anticipation. There was no dancing, Gage said, but there was a strong feeling of hope and camaraderie. “You could see the hope in people’s eyes, that we could finally get over this hump,” Gage said.
The Bisca Club was able to adapt earlier. When it was announced over the winter that bars could reopen, only if they served food, the roughly 250 members pooled funds to build a small but costly kitchen. They have since been able to reopen, first at a limited capacity and only recently in full.
But on that April afternoon, the feeling in the barroom wasn’t one of celebration. As The New Bedford Light reported, the pandemic has disproportionately struck communities of color in New Bedford, mirroring a national trend. Three members of the Bisca Club died from COVID-19 this past year, De Rosa said. One was Timmy DeBarros, a U.S. Marine who served 26 years in the armed forces and received many honors, including a Purple Heart. The other clubs also lost prominent community members to the novel coronavirus, Gomes said, including Tarby Richards, a veteran of the Vietnam and Gulf War, and Antone “Toi” Fortes, a Vietnam veteran and youth gymnastics trainer for more than 50 years.
In the back of the Bisca Club hangs a wooden plaque, plated with gold, and inscribed with the names of members who have died over the years. But the names of the many lost during the pandemic have yet to be added, De Rosa said. That will have to wait for a full service in their honor.
“This thing hit us, hit everyone, so bad,” De Rosa said. “But this club is about keeping our heritage and culture alive. COVID hurt us, but that part isn’t going away anytime soon. Looking into the future, you have to have hope.”
CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this story misidentified Bisca Club President Ayres Gonzales. Also, this story was updated on July 15, 2021, to correct information about the name and events of the Verdean Veterans Memorial Hall.
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