“Bay Village First to Go Solar, Makes History Again!” shouts the enthusiastic headline on the New Bedford Housing Authority website. Accompanied by a video, the announcement about New Bedford’s oldest public housing project has an upbeat feel that is at odds with the mixed legacy of public housing in the city.
Built from 1939 to 1941, Bay Village consisted of twenty-two brick buildings containing 197 multifamily units with one to four bedrooms. The sprawling nature of the complex evokes the post-World War II suburban housing boom more than the tightly packed public housing “projects” that followed. In theory, early public housing provided the working poor with clean and modest housing during their inevitable rise to the middle class, and suburban-style housing provided by the government would help to ease that transition.
Bay Village replaced much older, working-class housing stock on this site, much of it dating from the whaling era. The project was supported by federal Housing and Urban Development funding as part of nationwide "slum" clearance. 115 homes and businesses were razed including Monte Pio Hall, the oldest Portuguese social club in New England, and the “Irish House,” once home to itinerant whalers and other seafarers.
When completed, Bay Village represented a step up in amenities for most of its occupants. The apartments contained indoor plumbing and more space for families accustomed to crowding into one or two rooms. There was a playground and open area for children to play. On the other hand, the construction of Bay Village destroyed an existing community, and replaced the older housing, however substandard, with far fewer units, leaving some people displaced.
Bay Village foreshadowed the destructive urban renewal projects in New Bedford during the 1960s and 70s. The New Bedford Redevelopment Authority demolished entire neighborhoods to create a waterfront industrial area to service the fishing industry and to build a highway link to Interstate 195. This highway, Route 18, eventually connected the declining industrial areas of the north and south ends of the city, passing close by Bay Village. Many longtime New Bedford residents remain bitter over the loss of 203 homes and 113 businesses, many of them historic. Route 18 created a literal divide in the city, cutting off the waterfront from the rest of the city.
Bay Village provided the means for many people to move from substandard, often dangerous housing to safe and affordable homes that are still in use—and still being improved—more than seventy-five years later. Urban renewal helped the fishing industry to grow into the largest in the country. The destruction of much of New Bedford’s historic buildings spurred the creation of a vibrant preservation movement that recalled the glory days of New Bedford whaling. In recent years, the city has taken steps to reconnect the historic downtown areas of New Bedford with the working waterfront. However, some scars will always remain.