New Bedford’s AHA Moment

New Bedford, Massachusetts was recently named the seventh most artistic city in the nation. Once a month, thousands gather downtown to celebrate the arts and culture of a city in transformation at an event called AHA! (Arts, History and Architecture!). But 15 years ago, says Lee Heald, director of AHA!, downtown New Bedford was an unwelcoming place. As industry dried up, residents of the city no longer gathered together downtown, and crime rates grew.

AHA! was born in the late 90s from collaboration among community leaders looking to make an impact on life in New Bedford. What started out as a small showcase attracting just a few hundred people has blossomed into a monthly community celebration of thousands, where artists, cultural groups, and educators provide free programming and present their work to the community. Once one of the wealthiest cities in the world – thanks to its global leadership in whaling – New Bedford’s best days had past by the 1920s. Today, says Heald, there is life in downtown New Bedford, with restaurants, shops and foot traffic filling the once-empty streets.

Heald emphasizes that collaborations, not just individual museums and parks, have helped move the city forward. “It’s not just about what the walls have. It’s really about the relationships forming on the street.” The major organizational collaborations formed to provide community programming on AHA! nights have spun off smaller collaborations among individuals and small groups, and the evening is now growing organically. Heald says there have also been several projects that have replicated AHA!’s model in other communities.

Revitalizing Gateway Cities like New Bedford through the creative placemaking work done by AHA! and their partners requires a lot of hard work. It often seems that the “placemakers” are out their on their own, taking the risks required to change neighborhoods and build more vibrant cities. By building a network of community leaders and creative placemakers through MassINC’s Gateway Cities project, we can raise the impact of programs like AHA! not only in New Bedford but across the state.

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