The fires that are taking New Bedford’s triple-deckers
More than 12 hours after an April 19 fire badly damaged two multi-unit structures on Acushnet Avenue in the North End of New Bedford, firefighters continued to look for hot spots in the building. [ Jack Spillane ]
In 1859, a fire that started at a North Water Street planing mill, quickly spread northwest for several city blocks.
Before it was over, it had consumed multiple buildings on Water and Second streets, set ablaze the masts of the ship John & Edward, and burst enough oil barrels to set the Acushnet River on fire.
It was the biggest fire in the city’s history, according to the History of the New Bedford Fire Department, aided by a strong southeast wind and the fact that the structures in the 19th century town were close together.
In order to stop the inferno’s rapid advance, the fire department (only a few decades old) blew up several buildings. The explosions could be heard throughout the bustling whaling port, then in its heyday.
Move ahead 160 years and New Bedford is still a town where much of the city consists of wooden structures set closely together and which are still vulnerable to rapidly spreading fire.
Today, the historic triple-deckers that were built as immigrant worker housing during the city’s heyday as a textile power, are the structures most in danger. Every year, it seems, another half-dozen of the early 20th century buildings go up in flames, leaving in their wake the missing teeth-look of empty lots sprinkled through New Bedford’ surviving mill districts.
These are both residential and commercial buildings and many of them contain striking turrets that mark them as a noble part of New Bedford’s golden age. They are vulnerable.
Fifteen months after 12 people were displaced in a triple-decker on Ruth Street in the South End, the building still stands, its windows not even boarded up. [ Jack Spillane ]
The Ruth Street and Goulart Square neighborhoods in the South End, the Acushnet Heights and Mount Pleasant area enclaves, the near North End -- all of these are multi-family, former mill neighborhoods that are well familiar with destructive fire.
Since Mayor Jon Mitchell first announced the decommissioning of the Fire Department’s Engine 8 some eight months ago, it seems as if New Bedford has had an unusually large number of fires in multi-family structures. Just since the Thanksgiving Day fire that tore through three structures on Washburn Street, there have been 15 additional fires in multi-family homes, by my personal count.
Mitchell, however, has remained steadfast in his belief that it is time to downsize the New Bedford Fire Department. He points to reliable evidence that there are overall fewer fires than there used to be, and that most medical calls can be done less expensively by EMS personnel.
But in the wake of the April 19 fire smack in the middle of the Acushnet Avenue commercial district, the mayor has relented and announced he does not intend to decommission the four-person, round-the-clock Engine 8 fire company for the rest of the fiscal year, and maybe beyond that. If the city can afford it, he says, it will even keep the company; it will all depend on how much funding is available.
Chief Financial Officer Ari Sky says that some $1 million to $1.5 million in funding will need to be transferred into the fire budget to keep Engine 8, which is located in the nearest station to the Acushnet Avenue fire.
The Avenue fire spelled the end for Chocolate Com Pimenta, the popular Portuguese bakery, and New Bedford Food Mart II, a newly-opened Guatemalan grocery store. The Community Economic Development Center, long the go-to place for help for neighborhood small businesses, lost everything in their storefront. It was the third general alarm fire in the city in the last 12 months. All of them took place in the densely-packed, triple-decker neighborhoods.
A May 20, 2020 three-alarm fire ravaged the multi-unit building above The Pub, a long out-of-business barroom that is just a block away from the Acushnet Avenue fire. The frightful Thanksgiving fire almost took out a whole block of multi-unit and single family dwellings on tightly-packed Washburn Street in the grimy Hicks-Logan neighborhood. The intrepid work and skills of city firefighters limited the spread to just three structures.
Three buildings on Washburn Street in the Hicks-Logan area were badly damaged in a Thanksgiving Day, 2020 fire. [ Jack Spillane ]
The two multi-family buildings in the Avenue fire, 1279 Acushnet and 1283 Acushnet, were built in 1910 and 1890 respectively. Though covered with vinyl siding and pressurized windows, underneath they still retained much of their historic character.
In the space of a couple hours two Central American immigrant men died, 40 city residents lost their homes and 100 years of history went up in flames. The building in which everyone got out was sprinklered and had working smoke detectors, the one that was not sprinklered and where the smoke detectors were missing or not working is where tragedy struck.
Whatever Mitchell decides is the correct course of action for the New Bedford Fire Department in the long run, he might want to think hard before eliminating fire stations and companies from these tightly built, triple-decker neighborhoods. If companies and stations must be consolidated and eliminated, it might make sense to close the stations elsewhere.
A multi-story building at 95 Rivet Street that was destroyed by fire on January 25 in the New Bedford South End has already been demolished. When triple deckers are destroyed by fire, the empty lots that are left after demolition often remain vacant for years in New Bedford. [ Jack Spillane ]
There are deaths to be prevented in these tenement neighborhoods. And there is education to be done there about fire safety. But there is also New Bedford’s future to be considered. New Bedford’s triple-decker streets and avenues are a big part of its history.
The city has embarked upon the long and comprehensive process of placing the Acushnet Avenue Commercial District on the National Register of Historic Places. The great three- and four-floor multi-family structures of New Bedford remain mostly intact, their turret towers continue to point skyward.
It is possible to prevent Acushnet Avenue and other New Bedford neighborhoods like it from burning down amidst our savings. If we want to.