Once a center of America’s whaling industry, this shabby-around-the-edges New England port city now juggles dueling reputations as a tourist destination (history, museums, and an artsy, revitalizing downtown) and a place possibly too dangerous to walk around or park your car.
It’s not New London. It’s New Bedford, MA, the number one whaling port of the mid-19th century (New London was number three, after Nantucket), and the place Ishmael went when Manhattan’s crowded streets and offices drove him to fantasize about “knocking people’s hats off.”
I visited New Bedford fully expecting to be jealous. The city was a case study in the downtown revitalization plan that New London commissioned in 2010, and it seemed to have cornered the “gritty former whaling hub” market. I thought seeing New Bedford would make me wish that New London could finally get over whatever has been holding it back for decades and just catch up already.
What I found was somewhat different. New Bedford was neither a landscape of urban doom (from some of the warnings I’d gotten, I was half expecting Melville’s “actual cannibals stand[ing] chatting at street corners”) nor a cutesy, gentrified historic district. It was just a city with cobblestone streets and empty storefronts, with charming lamp-posts and unfortunately placed highways, with hip eateries and more attractions than there were tourists to look at them.
Though I hadn’t intended to tally up differences between New Bedford and New London, I began doing so almost unconsciously. New Bedford has the 13-block Whaling National Historical Park, the excellent (and fairly expensive, at $14 for an adult ticket) Whaling Museum, Moby Dick, and one-time resident Frederick Douglass. New London has far more and varied history, having been a prominent port city since long before the rise of whaling. Its current waterfront is appealing and accessible, with more (and more centrally situated) transportation options. And then there’s the Coast Guard Academy and the Eagle. Also, New London’s historic house plaques are nicer. (At a certain point my tallying started to get petty.)
New London has Fort Trumbull State Park; New Bedford has Fort Taber Park. The stone fort there, reminiscent of Fort Trumbull with the curious addition of a lighthouse on top, is closed to the public, but the city hopes to eventually restore it. New London has the Ledge Light and the Harbor Light; New Bedford has three lighthouses, though they are more utilitarian than iconic. Both cities have multiple historic districts showcasing the houses whaling money can buy. New Bedford is much larger, the sixth-largest city in its state, with a population of close to 100,000 and an area of 24 square miles (20 of them land.) By comparison, New London’s roughly 28,000 people live within an area of about 10 square miles, half of them water.)
Driving through New Bedford’s sprawl brought home to me how compact New London is, and how lazy most tourists are. New London’s attractions can largely be reached on foot, and with a few improvements the walk could even be enjoyable. In contrast New Bedford’s waterfront is treacherous to reach (though construction is ongoing and improvements are planned) and not especially attractive once you get there. Fort Taber Park is a stunning place even without renovations, but it’s so far from the city center that getting there requires a car or a lot of time and patience.
This is not to say I disliked New Bedford. I found it interesting, and parts of it very pretty. The whaling museum is wonderful, and the Visitors Centers, though perhaps overkill, are helpful. The streets are wide and the subtly-painted old buildings bring an airy lightness to the place. In addition to a good many art galleries and little stores, there are several visitor-friendly souvenir shops that New London would do well to copy.
References to whaling and seafaring start with a huge mural on your way in and continue in little details all over the city. The library and City Hall buildings are quite distinguished and, despite the city being very sleepy for a warm holiday weekend in October, there’s a general sense of pride. Sound familiar, again?
But what I did not find in New Bedford is the character people are describing when they talk about New London being “eccentric” or “eclectic” or “funky.” The bustling 18th- and 19th-century New Bedford depicted in paintings in the Whaling Museum is lit with both whale oil and the mythology of the sea. Melville’s New Bedford is teeming with adventure and exotic strangeness. But modern-day New Bedford, despite its scenic South Coast location and its Colonial-era charm, didn’t leave a distinct impression in my mind.
I found myself thinking, as I strolled around the city I’d assumed would blow New London out of the water, that I’d better take good notes or else my mental image of New Bedford would quickly blend with some other watery town, like Newburyport or Newport, RI or Portland, ME. It struck me that the image I would be left with was not that of the city’s appearance, but its confidence. New Bedford had claimed something — whaling and tourism — and stuck to it.
Did it really need two visitors centers and two huge parking garages? It didn’t seem that way. But I was ready to believe it nonetheless.
New London can’t claim whaling as its sole focus, but that’s probably for the best, because it has so much more. If it also had confidence, maybe everyone else would see that too. There is something about New Bedford, where the streets slope temptingly down toward the water and the maxim “a dead whale or a stove boat” is frequently evoked, that makes you want to set out on a journey. But there is something about New London — or there could be, with fewer alterations than I previously thought — that makes you want to stay.