“The Fort” is the name for a small peninsula jutting into the harbor of the historic fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Named for an earthwork fort built to protect Gloucester’s harbor during the Revolutionary War era, the area known as the Fort has been considered an ideal spot to build wharves, dock fishing boats, process fish, and build homes for the families of fishermen. Like many waterfront neighborhoods in the U.S., the Fort has served throughout its history as an industrial center for all types of marine-related business. Although it is no longer a fort, the remains of the original earthwork structure remain visible today on the highest geographical point of the peninsula.
The expression “down the Fort” is a part of Gloucester’s vernacular. Gloucester people say they are going “down the Fort,” that they grew up “down the Fort.” They trace the roots of family trees “down the Fort.” They do business “down the Fort.” They go to the beach “down the Fort.” They attend the St. Peter’s Fiesta “down the Fort”. The expression is universal and unquestioned among Gloucester residents. Whether it is a result of being one of the town’s earliest landmarks, or because it is situated on the water at the very lowest point of the hillside community, the destination and the journey are one and the same: down the Fort.
a part of gloucester's history
One of the oldest communities in New England, the town of Gloucester and the history of the New England fishing industry are tightly linked. Gloucester’s deep natural harbor near rich fishing grounds have long made it an ideal port for fishing and, for 350 years, it has attracted newcomers seeking a new life, or a chance to maintain a familiar livelihood through fishing. Upon arrival, immigrant fishermen chose the convenience and low cost of living and raising their families near the boats they worked on, so from the early 19th century on, the Fort became the entry residence for newcomer families.
In addition to convenience, living in the Fort also allowed newcomers to stay together, maintain traditional ways, and avoid uncomfortable interactions with folks in town. Newcomers came from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Scandinavia, Portugal, Ireland, and Sicily; each new wave replaced others before them. They lived in multiple family homes of all sizes lodged right alongside the docks, and next to the fish processing facilities that provided work opportunities for wives, children and extended family members. And although there were many new options for those who settled there, life wasn’t always easy for those down the Fort. They worked hard, and depended on the sea, each other, reasonable weather, and good fortune to get through each year. There were tragedies at sea, and losses at home. But many families did prosper. And, as families became more financially secure, some chose to leave the neighborhood and move into town; others remained in the same homes for generations. For this reason, many families in Gloucester today trace their emotional and physical origins to the little peninsula in the harbor.
a sicilian enclave
During the early 20th century, the neighborhood became an almost entirely Sicilian enclave. It is estimated that 5,000 Sicilians lived in the Fort during the 1920s, and nearly half of the Gloucester fishing fleet was at one time worked and owned by Sicilian families.
How and why did Sicilians find their way to Gloucester? Sicilians began coming to the Gloucester area from the early 19th century as salt traders. The trade in codfish depended during this time on the salting and curing process, and Gloucester salt cod producers learned the hard way that the type of salt used to preserve their product made a big difference. At the time, the town of Trapani, on the Western coast of Sicily, was considered to be one of the finest salt works in the world, so cod producers chose to import this finer quality salt for the cod business in Gloucester. And as salt-trading boats from Sicily began to make routine visits to the Gloucester harbor, they spread the word back to the fishing communities of Western Sicily about the great opportunities available in America, and in Gloucester.
Decades of poverty and economic oppression in Sicily spurred Sicilians to look for just such opportunities, and they began migrating in large numbers throughout the 19th and early 20thcentury. Although anti-Italian discrimination during the war made it tougher for Sicilians in the U.S., things shifted after the war was over when there was another increase in both the push and the pull for Sicilians to come to Gloucester. First, newly returned U.S. soldiers began to take advantage of the GI Bill in the U.S. and leave fishing for good. Second, a war-ravaged Sicily compelled more Sicilians to migrate. And, in Gloucester, Sicilians could get work in the fishing industry. Many of the first Gloucester Sicilians originated from the salt trading center of Trapani. Later waves came from other Western fishing towns at or near Terrasini, another fishing community near Palermo.
Once in Gloucester, they moved into the Fort, and joined other Sicilian families living close together in traditional ways, making due on income generated from small fishing boats. Through the late 19thcentury and on into the 1970s and 1980’s, the wives and children and extended family members of Fort fishermen worked nearby as fish processors or ‘lumpers’ on the docks, and the entire neighborhood shared a way of life, a diet tied closely to the sea, and a dialect that was unique to themselves. In this fashion, historic family ties and ethnic clans from old Sicilian villages were transplanted to an entirely new landscape, through an ancient way of life. While this may resemble features of other historic American immigrant communities, life in the Fort has had a resilient quality to it that remains unique. Not only was nearly everyone in the neighborhood Sicilian, or descended from Sicilians, they mostly originated from the same town in Sicily, and carried with them the regional language, the characteristically Sicilian methods of fishing, and the ancient customs and traditions of honoring and celebrating the sea, the fish, and the fisherman’s way of life. Prejudice and discrimination played a role in isolating the community from the rest of Gloucester, and simultaneously reinforcing what some describe as the ‘tribal’ ties between Fort families. But over time, the Sicilian names, traditions, foods and festivals of the neighborhood have become as important to the life and livelihood of Gloucester as the fishing industry.
st. peter's fiesta
One of the most well-known and enduring Fort traditions is the annual St. Peter’s Fiesta, which is held on and around June 29 (dating since the 4thcentury in Rome). Peter, a fisherman who became a disciple of Christ, is the patron saint of fisherman, and has long played a role in the spiritual and economic life of fishermen and their families. The annual festival includes a 9-day religious novena to bless and protect the fleet, along with carnivals and large family feasts. In addition, there are a number of traditional sports contests that involve feats tied closely to the skills needed in traditional forms of fishing, such as seine boat racing and walking a greasy pole (a ship’s mast placed horizontally). The Fiesta culminates in a procession-parade that winds through the city and features the statue of St. Peter. Through good times and bad, the Sicilian fishing families of Gloucester have managed to find the finances and the time every year to keep this tradition alive. And, although it has become a Gloucester-wide event, it remains a unique legacy of the Fort and its people, begun by a Fort family in 1926, and revered and anticipated by Fort residents and former residents to this day. “It is bigger than Christmas,” more than one Fort resident has been heard to say.
the fort today
Although the Fort is probably among the last mixed use working class waterfronts on the East Coast – combining industrial with residential land use – the city of Gloucester today struggles with competing interests to re-zone and redevelop the area to make it more amenable for hotels, restaurants and shopping. The Gloucester economy could use the boost that tourism and luxury housing appears to promise, and the cycles of the fishing industry make it no longer a solid source of revenue for the city or the neighborhood. Planners cannot help but see that the Fort is a prime spot with beautiful views, a beach, and many buildings in need of repair, next to an idyllic tourist-friendly harbor. In this way, Gloucester struggles with the same issues that plague many waterfront communities. Traditionally, urban waterfronts began as the centers of commerce, trade, and manufacturing for their community. But as fishing has declined and the manufacturing base has shifted, industrial waterfronts in many places have become centers of abandoned, unused and in many cases, contaminated property. Since the 1970’s, the prospect of converting old underused waterfront properties into more economically ‘viable’ space has been a provocative issue among many American port cities with industrial waterfront histories. Cities in many places are forced to grapple with questions about whether to convert their waterfronts into entirely different uses – departing entirely from their function as seaports – or to attempt to retain and preserve the economic infrastructure of the industry that shaped the city. One view has it that conversion is an inevitable response to contemporary economic demands and cultural expectations, while another insists that this guts the community by emptying the place of its history and of its work.
The city of Gloucester has been struggling with the same profound questions about its own waterfront. Many in the city are committed to the preservation of a genuine working waterfront that retains its character as a historic fishing industry town by keeping the fishing industry and its infrastructure alive. While others perceive this as an economically foolish effort to cling to the past, and avoid inevitable realities. Pressures from some powerful city residents also express the view that the historic marine industrial Fort neighborhood is a dirty, smelly eyesore in need of redevelopment and aesthetic improvement.
In the face of these threats of possible demolition, residents and business leaders of the Fort have organized to speak out in resistance against gentrification efforts, certain rezoning and redevelopment schemes, and for an alternative vision of the future that can sustain continuity with the long and treasured history of the neighborhood.
documentary and archive
Down the Fort: A Documentary and Archive Project began in an effort to provide a channel of expression for this struggle, and the underlying implications it suggests for other communities, other waterfronts and other moves to polish, gentrify, re-develop and demolish historic working spaces. The project is also intended to create and sustain a public archive of oral history, images, and video that will help to secure the Fort community’s past against an uncertain future, and to offer the comfort of preserving neighborhood ties across generations and family clans.
However, we continue to learn more about the role and meaning of the Fort today. In the process of collecting, filming and sharing images and oral histories and images during the past months, it has become apparent that families and businesses of the Fort have a deep and abiding affection for this place and the people that have inhabited it. Community members repeatedly express a profound emotion for the neighborhood that often takes on spiritual dimensions. Although it is a geographically small piece of land, it has become deeply imbued with large histories, long stories, multi-generational families, and unforgettable smells, sounds and tastes. So this project also seeks to explore what it means to love a place. In addition to honoring the lives of Fort families, it seeks to tell a story that is meaningful for those who do not know the Fort or have a personal connection to it. There are many lessons to learn from this place, lessons of value to communities and those who long for them, everywhere.