In Gloucester, poetic license or media lies

Gloucester Icon a Winner
By John J. Ronan
Boston Herald
Saturday, May 2, 2009
The Man at the Wheel
He’s looking toward the
harbor, and past
The harbor to the ocean,
past the ocean,
Vision fixed in another
That two bits tell you is time.
The schooner’s easterly out
of Gloucester,
America aft, the waking
As the seaman leans into
dirty sea,
Tomorrow’s tack, at the
helm of everything.
On Feb. 9, Governor Duval Patrick opened an online, three-week voting period to allow
the commonwealth’s citizens to choose the image that would decorate Massachusetts’
new quarter.
One hundred sites were on the ballot, culled from an original list of more than 4,000. By
the time the election closed on Feb. 26, Gloucester’s The Man at the Wheel had won in a
landslide. The new round of coins, from all the states, will begin appearing in 2010.
The Gloucester statue collected 109,817 votes, with Lowell’s National Historic Park a
distant second at 26,582. Salem’s House of Seven Gables logged only 10,028 votes and
the USS Constitution in Boston, 8,890.
Why Gloucester? Lowell and Salem are worthy cities. And Boston’s Old Ironsides is a
revered heirloom. With a population of just 30,000, Gloucester is not large enough to
stuff the ballot box. Neither was there any Us vs. Them factor, as when David Ortiz
rolled over Hideki Matsui in last year’s All-Star balloting.
No, the landslide vote was a confirmation that The Man at the Wheel is bigger than
Gloucester, bigger even than Massachusetts.
As the Gateway Arch in St. Louis opens America’s West, as the Sears Tower in Chicago
defines the big shoulders of the Heartland and as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia recalls
the Revolution, The Man at the Wheel looks far beyond his own city. He sums part of the
American spirit, and so reaches across the state, the region, to become finally a symbol of
and for the country.
The Man at the Wheel has gone national.
Leonard Craske’s sculpture, cast in 1925, started and remains a monument to Gloucester
fishing and the men lost at sea. The pilot bends forward over the wheel of a schooner, in
rain gear, staring into rough weather.
Like the Gateway Arch, the Sears Tower and the Liberty Bell, The Man at the Wheel
perfectly sums up his city. It is Gloucester, capturing in one icon the courage and stamina
of a community nearing its 400th birthday.
But just as Gloucester leads the nation east every morning, The Man at the Wheel has
become the country’s pilot. America follows in his wake. Gloucester even led the way
into recession, plunging into harsh downturn months before the rest of the country,
reminding some of the noir tragedy that overtook Manuel in “Captains Courageous.”
Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for that 1937 performance, but Spencer doesn’t live here
any more.
This dynamic and hardworking city will continue to lead through heavy seas, fashioning
the economies and hopes of a new day.
John J. Ronan
Gloucester Poet Laureate
In Gloucester, poetic license or media
Media’s coverage fishy in Gloucester
By John J. Ronan
Boston Herald
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Winslow Homer’s Gloucester is dynamic, hardworking and beautiful. In “Shipbuilding:
Gloucester Harbor” and “Sailing Out of Gloucester,” he captured heritage and beauty at
once. “Gloucester Houses” and “Prospect Street,” under the hammer of Edward Hopper’s
light, portray a strong, stable Gloucester. In 2008, the city is still dynamic, hardworking,
stable - and beautiful.
For those who know this, and love Gloucester because of it, the coverage of teen
pregnancies here dismays. Not the factual coverage. It is tragic that so many girls, for the
bleakest reasons, chose to become pregnant. The city is saddened by this and working to
stop what has to be termed an epidemic. The message is not the problem.
Embarrassment is not a problem, either; no one I know is afraid of confronting a flawed
civic self in the mirror. It’s the lie that’s a problem.
The problem began in Time, in a June 18 piece stuffed with dated clichés. Gloucester is
a “fiercely Catholic enclave,” a phrase inaccurate on several counts that conjures
villagers gathering with torches. The city is “mostly blue-collar,” though the median
market price of homes is about $400,000. Time also referred to the decrease in fishing in
Gloucester’s economy. True enough, but decades late. I expected the piece to announce
Spencer Tracy’s Oscar for Captains Courageous, the 1937 movie that seemed the source
of the article’s tone.
Uninformed piety ran through most print outlets; television was worse. Descriptions of
Gloucester as a “hard luck” community were common. It is a “poor town” where
“fishing has tanked.” Skewed clichés marked most broadcast and cable coverage, topped
by the usual whoppers on Fox. And some announcers didn’t bother to look up the
pronunciation; I heard ‘glow-chester’ at least once.
The lie? The false image of Gloucester. The drawing of a shabby, Depression-drab
landscape that is neither accurate or honest: a fat, lazy lie. But a noir backdrop is
necessary to the melodrama of blame. Blame the folk and blame the benighted place that
created them. The essential fiction is that a dark anomaly has been discovered, a
distortion that lets the world feel better about its own aloof and undistorted self. It’s an
ancient tradition, of course, kept alive today by television’s many blame-and-bounce
entertainment franchises. Sadly, the format also disguises itself as news.
When a city is in the national spotlight, those who know the city well get a clear, x-ray
vision of media integrity, from the inside out. Dismay comes from not finding it. Some
balk at the word “lie,” preferring euphemisms like “misstatement” or “inaccuracy.” In
Gloucester, on Main St., at the library, in city hall, on the wharves, at the Crow’s Nest,
we are more frank. Our officials are doing their best to combat the false image of
Gloucester with fact, so often now an ironic enemy of news.
Gloucester certainly has problems. But they are not anomalous. It has, on average, about
the same frequency of teen pregnancy as other cities. It has poverty, of course. But
because Gloucester is, politically and demographically, a city, rather than a suburban
slice of the middle class, it includes all strata, rags to riches. And recently, more poverty
than money, reflecting a growing disparity in the country. Gloucester is America.
The spotlight will soon pan to new marketable scandals. Gloucester, the real Gloucester,
will survive, at once dynamic, hardworking, stable. And still beautiful, still the city of
Homer and Hopper. Its people are beautiful, too. As Gloucester nears its 400th birthday,
they are working on problems, meeting challenges, making progress. No surprise here.
Gloucester will endure:
Waves break on outcrop rock: granite,
fire-formed and hard, headland granite no coddled cape, no sandbar,
and nothing soft in its city, no knickknack,
Gloucester-by-God, attitude granite.
John J. Ronan
Gloucester Poet Laureate