An AHA! Moment for New Bedford Arts

When one hears the name of New Bedford, MA, it would be impossible not to think of the long history of this distinguished city. Still nicknamed "The Whaling City," New Bedford was for many years the most important whaling center in the world. The city even makes a showing as the launching point for the great adventure that makes up the novel Moby-Dick. But all that is history.

Today New Bedford is remarkable not only for its rich history but for its burgeoning arts scene and its strong and diverse community. For more than 15 years now, AHA! has been cultivating and showing off this fresh, exciting side of New Bedford. On the second Thursday of each month, from 5pm to 9pm, AHA! and its partners close the city center to traffic and remake it around a theme, emphasizing local arts and community. Lee Heald, AHA!'s Director describes the spirit of the event. "AHA! is first and foremost a celebration. It is also a chance to connect with what is going on in the community, experience the new and now and have the social experience of being downtown in a common space which welcomes all ages and all interests."

AHA! is dedicated to creating free cultural events. It began as a way to bring attention to a burgeoning arts scene, and to revitalize and rebrand the formerly struggling downtown. Heald describes the first events as "attempts to bring different groups together to host an evening event in the downtown which would attract people from the surrounding communities."

It isn't the first time that downtown New Bedford has served as a place to meet friends and get a fresh look at the community, suggests Heald: "In the 50's, Thursday used to be Cruising Night in downtown, the stores were open late and it was a great social event." But it took the artistic revisioning of AHA! to realize that this sepia-toned memory could become a present reality. After all, says Heald, "It had been some time since people thought about coming downtown for the fun of walking up and down the streets to see what was going on."

Right from the beginning, AHA! was a success, notes Heald with pride. "In July of 1999 when we started, AHA! had 14 partners and about 267 people came to that event. We were thrilled!" And from there, things have only gotten better. It is now a central meeting point for the people of New Bedford and the surrounding areas, and a significant tourist draw. For the latest AHA!, says Heald proudly, the event had "over 60 partners and easily 4,000 people."

A person attending AHA! for the first time is in for a real treat. The whole community comes together for the event. There are almost always concerts, and various musicians playing in local bars and restaurants. AHA! partners with local restaurants to sell food and drinks on the street. Local galleries open their doors to the public or host events, and art is frequently on public display throughout the city center. The whole thing has an air of a giant community art opening, but with great food and music. Best of all, each AHA! event has lots of themed events for kids and adults alike. And while AHA! goes from 5pm to 9pm, people who haven't had enough celebration can celebrate After-AHA! with the local bars such as Cork Wine and Tapas, Freestone's City Grille and No Problemo that continue the live music and fun.

Heald emphasizes the spontaneity of the community driven event. "We always say, "Come downtown and have your own AHA! moment!" We want visitors to take away some new idea or experience as well as the enjoyment of being part of a community in celebration."

The whole AHA! experience is only possible because of the many partnerships and the generous support of the city of New Bedford. "AHA! partners are the best! The willingness of the cultural and educational organizations, the business community, the communities of faith, environmental groups and the health and human services sectors to participate in a free community event has been critical," says Heald. "We always say that AHA! is free, but it is only free of costs to the audience participants ? many groups make the monthly presentation possible."

AHA! has helped usher in a renaissance for The Whaling City, and its organizers are proud. "New Bedford now identifies itself as an arts and culture community with many events going on in the downtown ? and not just on AHA! nights." So come to New Bedford for an AHA! Thursday, and stay for the arts and community.

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