Grit and Glamour in Gloucester
Today, Gloucester offers two sides: a historical fishing town and a stellar vacation destination.
Gloucester's working waterfront.
Photo by Robert Boyd
If you live in Gloucester, you’ve experienced it. A well-meaning conversationalist hears the name of your city and it strikes a chord. “Like in The Perfect Storm, right?”
True, the city’s fishermen were the subject of the famed book and movie. But Gloucester residents know that there is far more to their hometown than the impressive maritime heritage and historic fishing industry for which it is known. Spread out over 41 square miles, the city’s distinctive neighborhoods all have their own unique personalities, making it a dynamic destination for visitors.
“You could find a week’s worth of adventure and still not see everything,” says Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken. The bustling downtown, watched over by a giant, yellow-slickered Gorton’s fisherman, is mainly a commercial district where eateries, boutiques, galleries, and specialty shops inhabit historic brick and clapboard buildings. The city’s fishing heritage is on display just a block away, where fishing boats can be seen steaming in and out of the harbor. Though federal regulations have sharply curtailed fishing activity in recent years, the industry is still deeply embedded in Gloucester’s sense of identity.
Around the corner, a stretch of road known to locals as “The Boulevard” is home to the famed statue “Man at the Wheel,” which honors fishermen past and present. Stage Fort Park, at the far end of the road, is now a popular recreation area boasting two beaches and plenty of picnic space, but when Gloucester was first founded, the area was used to dry fish for storage before shipping.
Looking out over the water, visitors can see the wooden platform that is home base for the city’s signature Greasy Pole contest, an annual event during which local men try to scramble to the end of a slippery beam of wood and grab the flag without falling into the water below. Across the water, the new luxury Beauport Hotel opens its doors this July. Designed in the New England vernacular and offering upscale amenities, it will no doubt become a hotspot for tourists on Cape Ann.
On the other side of downtown sits East Gloucester. Scenery seekers can drive, walk, or bike along the 1.6-mile length of Atlantic Road, with stately oceanfront homes standing on one side and waves crashing against the rugged, rocky shore on the other. For the culturally inclined, East Gloucester also offers the colorful charms of the artists’ colony on Rocky Neck. Since 1850, the small peninsula has provided inspiration to painters and writers from Winslow Homer to Rudyard Kipling. Today, the artistic tradition endures; Rocky Neck is home to more than 20 galleries and studios. Performance art is represented as well—the nearby Gloucester Stage Company is a seasonal professional theater co-founded by notable playwright and sometime Gloucester resident Israel Horovitz. “The arts are alive and well here,” says Ken Riehl, chief executive officer of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.
Further from the center, quiet, leafy Lanesville abuts the winding riverfront streets of Annisquam, where a pair of chefs trained by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse run the much-acclaimed (but well hidden) Market Restaurant. Nearby Dogtown Common offers more Gloucester heritage; the former settlement is now a wooded park, studded with the foundations and cellars of the houses that once stood there.
Taken together, the city’s natural beauty, deep history, and lively culture give Gloucester an authenticity that sets it apart from other destinations, according to Riehl.
And though the city offers an array of experiences, it is bound together by a sense of community that is truly remarkable, adds Romeo Theken, pointing to recent efforts to raise money for the restoration of City Hall and its historically significant murals. The paintings were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s; they’ve been restored and are available for public viewing during the week when City Hall is open for business. (Restoration work has also been completed on the building’s bell tower and architectural detailing, and work continues on its infrastructure.)
“We are all proud of our culture and our community,” the mayor says.
See a Gloucester must-do list here