The Fish Return: Reflections on Coral Reef Restoration and Downtown Holyoke Text Size

Did you know that a Holyoke man has made it his personal mission to restore a coral reef off the coast of Puerto Rico? Would you believe me if I told you that this man grows corals in his own garage? And would you believe that observing this man’s work helps me better understand my own?

Gerardo Ramos has fond memories of swimming and fishing off the coast of Punta Pozuelo in Puerto Rico. That’s where his father first taught him how to snorkel, and later to dive, and to appreciate the uncanny elegance of a coral reef.

Not only was the reef of Ramos’s childhood beautiful; it was the anchor for his community’s whole way of life. Because a healthy coral reef attracts an abundance of fish, the town’s fishermen never lacked for work.

“I got a lot of my food from the reef,” Ramos remembers.

When, in 1994, a barge carrying over a million gallons of oil struck the reef, the whole community felt the impact. After a few years of living in Massachusetts, Ramos returned to Punta Pozuelo to find much of his beloved reef either dead or decimated. And worse still, his community had lost an essential piece of its selfhood.

After I watched Jesse Kerman and Scott Hancock’s documentary about Ramos, I did a bit of research about coral reefs. What I discovered was that reefs are astoundingly resilient. A 2012 NPR article described one reef’s, having been dead for thousands of years, gradually coming back to life. Just as changes in climate, or a human-made disaster can bring about a reef’s demise, so too can changes in climate bring about a reef’s revitalization.

Of course, folks who reside in reef-dependent communities don’t have thousands of years to wait. Ramos set out to find ways to make a difference in the short-term. “The good news,” he says, “is the right human intervention helps the reef come back faster.”

And so, understanding the reef’s enormous value to his entire native community, Ramos has made that “right human intervention” his life’s work. At his local business, Marine Reef Habitat, Ramos grows coral for commercial use—pet stores, personal aquariums, and the like. He uses the money from this business to make frequent trips back to Puerto Rico to aid in the renewal of the reef. Diving down to the reef, he locates and cuts healthy corals off of the reef, and re-plants them in wounded areas. Once re-planted, those corals multiply; they grow; and the whole area is reborn.

“If I keep doing this,” Ramos says, “the whole ecosystem will be restored in twenty years. And if I do it, others will follow, and it’ll be a better world. Why wait?”

As mayor, I find Ramos’s example instructive—not because I intend to start growing corals in City Hall, but because I admire his creativity and long-term vision. When I look around Holyoke, I see a community that has the people, the energy sources, and the infrastructure to become a truly world-class city. All the right materials are in place; what we need is the right climate.

Now, it is true that a city’s economic rebirth usually doesn’t happen overnight. More often than not, there are larger forces to consider—forces that are beyond the direct control of any government, or any single community. The American economy’s turn away from industrialism, for example, took a toll on Holyoke, and many communities like it. For decades now, the City of Holyoke has struggled to remake itself for a new economy in a new age. We have waited—for the game to somehow change, or for an outside economic savior to come to our rescue. Some simply resigned themselves to the fact that Holyoke’s best days were past, and left town.

But just as Gerardo Ramos refused to let the oil spill become an excuse for inaction, we in Holyoke have gotten to work to build a better future. Today, we recognize that cities likes ours can come back. And to paraphrase Ramos: With the right intervention, Holyoke’s economy will make a faster comeback.

When we make sound investments—whether by pursuing and securing funds for a train platform, or by working with folks who want to rehabilitate our old buildings, or by allocating funds to renovate our parks—those investments multiply. When we work to provide maker-spaces for today’s innovators and entrepreneurs to collaborate and discuss new ideas, those ideas multiply. Those ideas and those investments grow. As an ecosystem of innovation is restored, the whole area is reborn. People from outside town, taking note of our vibrant civic life and abundance of economic opportunities, want to make Holyoke their new hometown. Businesses, sensing the possibilities in our community, want to set up shop here. People who’ve long made Holyoke their home become more engaged, sensing that, in Holyoke, they get to be part of something special.

I was amused to learn that you can’t always see when a coral reef is coming back to life. Apparently, it’s not always obvious from the outside. Walking through downtown, it’d be possible to miss all the exciting things happening inside our old buildings. Throughout my summer tour, folks have seemed genuinely surprised to hear about all the investments we’ve made, and all the exciting projects happening, hidden in plain sight.

How can you tell when a coral reef is coming back to life? You see the fish return.

Just yesterday, we marked the groundbreaking of the Chestnut Park Apartments project, which will renovate the old Holyoke Catholic High School building for 55 new apartments. As I write this post, several of our old mill buildings are being rented, renovated, and rehabilitated—amounting to over $20 million of investment in our downtown. Almost every day, I meet Holyokers who say they’ve never before felt this level of excitement about their hometown. I hear from folks who are impressed with what we’re doing here and are looking for a chance to move to town.

I consider myself extraordinarily blessed to be your mayor, especially at a moment such as this one. Because of you—people from all across town, from all walks of life—Holyoke’s rebirth is well underway. And so my job, as mayor, is to follow your lead—and to see where the right government intervention will aid the process.

So let’s keep up the good work. Where we see threats to our environment, let’s take our destiny into our own hands. Let’s all commit to investing in our future, and then watch those investments multiply and grow. Let’s restore our community. And let’s bear in mind the words of Gerardo Ramos, a man who saw a way to help his community and didn’t hesitate to do so: Why wait?

Posted on August 19, 2014 by