NEW BEDFORD — In the 19th Century, New Bedford was the world’s richest whaling city. In the early 20th it was a manufacturing hub. Now, with thriving museums and new businesses opening downtown, it has the feel of a city on rise once again.
But when you move away from the trendy cafes and art galleries, it’s clear the former whaling capital’s problems with jobs and education still run deep.
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New Bedford Whaling Museum president James Russell says visitors are flocking to the city’s historic center and waterfront, including a budding artists’ colony and the restored Zeiterion Theater.
“People are responding to this. They are coming downtown, with greater frequency, and they’re investing,” Russell said.
Russell hopes that vibrancy can extend to the city’s other sectors, too.
“We like to say that arts and culture is a driver. That when industries are looking to relocate to the area, that a fullness of life, a great deal of activity, and a heightened sense of cultural awareness is a reason,” Russell said.
But this is a tale of two cities: the New Bedford visitors see, and the one where 91,000 residents live, work and struggle to get by every day. Anti-poverty advocate Missy Gilbarg says the city’s problems run too deep to be fixed by a few tourist dollars: The city still has problems with crime, a lack of jobs and a school system that’s failing a lot of students.
“Why aren’t we trying… putting as much effort into changing the education system as we are to racking up tourism or getting more tourists in?” Missy Gilbarg said.
“There really isn’t any meaningful work here, certainly people can try and apply for a job at McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts,” Gilbarg said. “And I don’t think anybody’s opposed to doing that because I think the reality is that everybody wants to work.”
19 percent of families live below the poverty line and unemployment is at 13 percent — and many jobs are either part-time, minimum wage or both.
Take single mom Rachel Mulroy, who’s trying to balance working two jobs and raising two young girls. She got the word “perseverance” as a tattoo during a particularly rough patch last year.
“It’s very time-consuming to have two part-time jobs instead of one full-time job, because you spend so much time traveling and arranging for babysitters, things like that. It gets frustrating,” Mulroy said.
Mulroy says she’s also worried about her daughters attending the same New Bedford schools — plagued by overcrowding and low MCAS scores — that she did.
“The feeling around here, even among the kids, that were going to these places was that you’re not getting much of an education,” Mulroy said.
Missy Gilbarg says the jobs and schools problem are really one big problem.
“So if you have a failing education system, businesses aren’t going to want to set up shop here because they’re not going to get the type of employees they’re looking for,” Gilbarg said.
Nobody knows that better than ex-Chamber of Commerce president Jim Mathes.
After 22 years in the job, Mathes had something of an epiphany about fixing New Bedford’s problems. At the time, he was pitching New Bedford to a representative for several manufacturing companies.
“He said that he wouldn’t refer one of his clients to locate here if they needed a significant number of well educated employees,” Mathes said.
Mathes was shocked to learn in order to bring the New Bedford area up to the state average,14,000 people would have to earn high school diplomas. With a drop out rate of 50 percent, the city was built for an economy that no longer existed.
“A generation ago, a young man in New Bedford who dropped out of school, had a good chance at getting a job at Goodyear Tire & Rubber or Morse cutting tools or Chamberlain manufacturing,” Mathes said. “We’ve lost in excess of 15,000 manufacturing jobs – the kind of jobs that paid a living wage – someone could in fact start their life, start a family.”
It was clear there would be no quick fix. So Mathes decided the best way to fix the city was one kid at a time. So he started a mentoring program he calls SMILES.
Shanae Pina is a sixth-grader chatting about her mentor, Marie-Frances Rivera.
“I just wrote this thing about, what I want to be when I grow up, and I wrote about how I want to own my own daycare. But I told my parents that the other day and they were like: Why would you own your own day care when you could be a lawyer and Marie told me that I could be a lawyer,” Pina said.
Rivera explained what she does with Pina.
“We’ve been to New York, we’ve been snowboarding, we’ve done things that a lot of kids around here don’t get to do very often,” Rivera said. “And she likes that and she knows that she needs to get good grades and she needs to go to college and she needs to do well in order to do that on her own once she gets older.”
New Bedford Police Chief Ron Teachman is also a mentor. He says a problem that took a generation to create may take a generation to fix, but it can be done.
“I think the reason for hope is that you’re not waiting for someone to solve it for you. The solution is within us, if we just accept that responsibility and step up to it,” Teachman said.
Pina says she’ll wait and see.
“I don’t want my future to be in New Bedford … well I don’t care if it’s in New Bedford as long as things get better in New Bedford,” Pina said.
A big challenge. But like their whaling ancestors, it’s one people here say they’re willing to meet.
“There is an underlying bullish optimism in this city that we will not fail, we will succeed,” Russell said.
And Mulroy’s ready for the challenge.
“Life’s a struggle. That’s what it is. And sometimes that’s all we can expect it to be. And the important thing is to persevere,” Mulroy said.
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