New Bedford’s Holy Acre: ethnic prejudice in the textile era

The upper part of Holy Acre, Turners Court, south side looking east from Acushnet Avenue, 1907. (1981.61.408)

The upper part of Holy Acre, Turners Court, south side looking east from Acushnet Avenue, 1907. (1981.61.408)

“Holy Acre” was the unofficial name for a small section of New Bedford, Massachusetts, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, a time when the city was rapidly transitioning from a whaling port to a textile and manufacturing center.  A working class neighborhood of immigrants, Holy Acre, was located south of Wamsutta Mills, east of the rail yards spanning east to the water’s edge of the upper harbor. Acushnet Avenue marked its western border; Wamsutta and Pearl Streets its northern and southern borders respectively; the tidal marshes of the near upper harbor its eastern border. It included “Turner’s Court,” a dead-end street east of the avenue.  At the turn of the 20th century, a new embankment constructed to elevate the railroad – stretching south from the trestle bridge over the intersection of Wamsutta Street and Acushnet Avenue – formed Holy Acre’s eastern edge.

Atlas of 1911 shows the area known as Holy Acre isolated by the rail yards and tidal lands.

Atlas of 1911 shows the area known as Holy Acre isolated by the rail yards and tidal lands.

Who coined the name of Holy Acre remains undiscovered. The New Bedford Standard-Times noted  “the surmise is that it was so named by some member of the Police Department in an earlier era when it was known as an unsavory neighborhood.”[1] Located literally on the wrong side of the tracks this area was constantly enshrouded by the heavy smoke of locomotives borne by the prevalent southwesterly winds. Several murders are purported to have been committed there, however, only two such crimes, in 1901 and in 1908 are cited in the same newspaper account.

Another theory for the moniker may be that it was a sardonic reference to the holy city of Acre, located in the Levant of old Syria, today part of northern Israel. Located north of the larger city of Haifa, the ancient section of Acre today remains surrounded by the sea on three sides and fortified by massive walls, which date to the Crusades, the site of many battles for its control. The allusion to an impenetrable enclave set apart from a larger community and located against the sea is made in a 1914 article titled “Holy Acre an Alien Walled Town Set Down Within the Limits of New Bedford,”[2] in which the local newspaper noted its denizens hailed “from Portugal, Syria, Turkey, Italy and men of the Jewish faith live here.”

The south side of Holy Acre, Pearl Street & Acushnet Avenue, 1908. (1981.61.221)

The south side of Holy Acre, Pearl Street & Acushnet Avenue, 1908. (1981.61.221)

Holy Acre was by the 1890s widely recognized as a settlement of Italian immigrants; however, the 1914 article also claims the neighborhood was originally built by Irish immigrants. “They made the town. From them, it came to be called Holy Acre and was known as a little emerald isle amid a population of nationalities.” In any case, the area was considered by New Bedford’s Anglo establishment an unsavory and dangerous section of town, “which has long been a menace to the health of this community.”[3] Not only in New Bedford but throughout the textile and manufacturing towns of the Northeast, mounting anti-immigrant sentiment was fueled by competition for mill jobs. Growing competition from southern mills and increased pressure to reduce wages and increase productivity were set amid an influx of immigrants seeking the promise of American prosperity.

Under the headline “Italian Colony – Numbers about 300 in New Bedford – Few Women in Holy Acre – Successful Italians Who Have Established Themselves in Business,” a 1909 Sunday Standard newspaper article (despite the latter half of the title), goes to considerable length to disparage the community. “In the work of excavating for the new mills, a large amount of unskilled labor is required, and such work is adequately supplied by the Italians who work with pick and shovel…. Education has been aptly called the gloomiest chapter of Italian social history; a chapter full of painful advance, of national indifference to a primary need and of a present backwardness that give to Italy, (next to Portugal), the sad primacy of illiteracy in western Europe.”[4] Almost as an obligatory to the headline, the article notes in closing two Italian grocers, a dentist of the second generation and an Italian-American policeman – whose beat was Holy Acre, as examples of success in the community. The article is remarkable in its prejudice, ignoring such national figures as Marconi, who six years earlier achieved the first U.S. transatlantic wireless transmission at nearby Wellfleet, Massachusetts and was a topic of the national press.

A view of Holy Acre's immediate neighborhood: the rail yards. The Holy Acre is just out of the picture to the right. 1994.39.20

A view of Holy Acre’s immediate neighborhood: the rail yards. Holy Acre is just out of the picture to the right. 1994.39.20

The threat of epidemics from foreigners arriving in port was a constant concern of the authorities, which included a quarantine officer whose job was the inspection of vessels before disembarkation was allowed. In 1893, the Evening Standard under the headline “Holy Acre to be Purged” detailed the Board of Health’s condemning of buildings “deemed unfit for habitation by the authorities.” The newspaper listed the owners and occupants’ names of the six houses condemned, out of approximately 40 structures in the neighborhood. The surnames were of a wide variety of origins rather than representing a majority group. Noting “Holy Acre had long been a menace to the health of the community” and “already known as one of the worst localities in the city,” the writer continued: “…as the land is below tidewater it is surprising that the unfortunate people who are obliged to occupy the buildings in this court have not long ago succumbed to contagious diseases more terrible than those which afflict children. It has been a regular breeding pen for diphtheria and kindred ailments, and during the smallpox outbreak many people in the community entertained fears that this disease would develop in this closely tenanted hamlet… water has been known to remain in the cellars of some of the houses nearly the whole year, and the yard next to the corner building presents a most sickening spectacle.”

The Police Department in its annual report to the municipal government kept detailed records of the ethnicity of those arrested under “Country of Origin.” Numerous articles appeared in New Bedford papers, which focused on the ethnicity of various sections and neighborhoods in the city. In 1914, the annual report of the Chief of Police listed 38 countries under its “Nativity of Prisoners” files. Three murders were committed that year out of 4,042 offences listed for 103 categories of crimes, which ranged from “Breaking and Entering” (69) to “Night Walking” (20), in a long list of wrongdoings which included Stubbornness, Injury to a Shade Tree, and Stealing a Trolley Ride. The largest number of arrests was for Drunkenness (2,426). The reports do not list the locations of offenses, and Holy Acre does not appear as a reference in any of them from 1880 to 1918.

Holy Acre is referenced in the Board of Health’s 1893 annual report as it related to drainage issues and the outbreak of typhoid fever across the city that year, however, a map of confirmed cases indicated only one case in that neighborhood.

City of New Bedford Board of Health Annual Report 1893.

City of New Bedford Board of Health Annual Report 1893.

Disease, contagion and risk to public health rather than violent crime appear to be more the general concern about Holy Acre. The Board of Health was established in New Bedford in 1878 under a new Act of the Commonwealth. Health concerns included stemming plague and disease from immigrant-laden vessels, implementing quarantines and investigating outbreaks of illness among mill operatives. Almost immediately, their annual reports document the work of licensing cesspools and extending sewers to the river’s edge. The “lagoon” south of Wamsutta Mills in the vicinity of “Turner’s Court also known as Holy Acre” is noted in reports dealing with the health risks of the generally filthy conditions in this area due to inadequate drainage, unlicensed cesspools and the need for sewer extensions.

"The house of the organ grinders" at Pearl Street & Acushnet Avenue on the Holy Acre, 1914. (1981.61.215)

“The house of the organ grinders” at Pearl Street & Acushnet Avenue on the Holy Acre, 1914. (1981.61.215)

Before its development this area consisted of tidal marshland and the 1883 report lamented that there was not in existence a city regulation restricting building or moving structures onto low land due to the unsanitary living conditions they created.

The lagoon was ultimately filled, which created new land east of the railroad corridor. The houses of Holy Acre as well as several shops and manufactories including a paint factory were demolished over the years into the 1940s. Addendums to the 1923 Sanborn Atlas of the city reveals the disappearance of all but a few structures along the streets of Holy Acre: Turner’s Court, Wall, Pope, Seneca and Peal Streets east of Acushnet Avenue.

The 1909 newspaper article concludes an ultimate solution for Holy Acre: its occupants’ migration to the interior of the country (the Ozarks, for example). “What the future has in store for Holy Acre and for the Italians of New Bedford is difficult to say. Whether or not the movement, now so prevalent in America, toward sending immigrants out to develop the rural districts will include such Italians as live in New Bedford and incidentally most effectually benefit their condition, is a problem which time alone can solve.”

Nearly a 150 years later, the irony is that New Bedford’s  Holy Acre did not entirely disappear, insomuch as its maligned reputation – earned or unearned – remains: a vestige of cultural weathering[5]  in the minds of some citizens. Contemporary Google Map® images overlaid with the 1911 Atlas reveal the current footprint of the former Holy Acre. Now the site of rubber recycling, supply and trucking companies, it remains an isolated district of the city, as hardworking, and perhaps for some few, as off-putting as it was formerly. Today, its high viability along the Route 18 Connector, which brings traffic from Interstate 195 into the downtown, has earned it the ire of urban planners and those who would promote a best first impression of the city to visitors. As for a solution to Holy Acre’s modern-day looks, it may be one that “time alone can solve.”



[1] New Bedford Standard-Times, December 2, 1951, p.16.

[2] New Bedford Sunday Standard, March 1, 1914, p. 12.

[3] New Bedford Evening Standard, April 14, 1893.

[4] New Bedford Sunday Standard, November 7, 1909

[5] Heath, Kingston W. The Patina of Place University of Tennessee Press, 2001. P.xix

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