The Tunnel ‘Narration’

What with the renovation at 102-104 High Street, and the Preservation Trust ‘gang’ taking pictures of the ‘tunnel’ in the basement; many who are new to the city or have never been acquainted with the tunnels are requesting the whole ‘story’.

Well, ‘story’ it is; unlike a hideout in a Looney Tune; the owners didn’t want anyone to know what they were building; so no historical records are extant, no local permits and no proud architect, and no sign anywhere of who built them.      Smugglers do tend to be a shy bunch.      Complicating this discovery are massive cisterns around the city, primitive drainage systems and underground storage vaults – all feverously proclaimed as ‘tunnels’ too.

This is how legends grow, and so this article that appeared in the Daily News‘ long-defunct North Shore magazine in 1978; really sums up the whole story line.    Considering all the conspiracy theories bouncing around on the Internet; this one frankly beats the whole lot of them with just enough anecdotal testimony* and facts to make it almost believable: (it could be)       Enjoy!!!

The Mystery of Underground Newburyport

By Barbara Buoymaster with Paul Guyton [Highlights by P.P.]

July 29, 1978

Some call it legend, some call it rumor, some romantic exaggeration.    Call it what you will, there has long been talk of a series of tunnels connecting the cellars of Newburyport’s older homes with each other and with the harbor.

Many of these cellars show arched outlines of brick in their foundation walls where believers point to what they claim was a tunnel  entrance.    A few cellars show more – passages leading 20 or 30 feet down and away.    When the careful reminiscences of the town’s antique, yet astute residents are considered, even hard-line skeptics are tempted.

Folklore has it that tunnels were built to smuggle goods from vessels moored at Newburyport wharfs.    According to the predominant oral history, wealthy merchants built tunnels with their homes because pre-revolutionary trade restrictions and later War of 1812 embargoes threatened a then-burgeoning seaport economy.     Decades later runaway slaves were hidden by townspeople who knew about the tunnels and had abolitionist sympathies.

Mrs. Robert Driver has collected Newburyport’s oral and written history during her long life and published a number of articles on the town’s past.   She recounted the tunnel’s history as her father and grandfather told it.    “They were built during the Embargo Act.    Of course during the War of 1812 ships were not supposed to sail so they were tied up at the wharves.    It was a terrible time for Newburyport and all New England.    They called it Mr. Jefferson’s War and Mr. Jefferson’s Embargo.     And there was quite a bit of smuggling going on.”

Leaning forward, her aged blue eyes sparkling, Mrs. Driver told the legend of Captain John Marquand whose North End house reputedly has a tunnel entrance.    “It seems he saw one of his ships illicitly sailing into the harbor with flag flying – a signal that all was well – and a full cargo of smuggled goods.   He supposedly said, “Dear Lord, see this one ship to safety and I’ll’ not ask for anything more.”   And they said that’s the last one of his ships that returned safely.    The rest were sunk at sea.”

“Some of the merchants and ship owners found embargo times quite lucrative and some,” she paused, “were bankrupt by them.   Many of those that were active in smuggling had tunnels and maintained their wealth through the embargo.” [William Bartlett, the wealthiest man in Newburyport mysteriously thrived after the Great Fire of 1811 while so many others failed or fled]

Written histories of Newburyport lend some support to Mrs. Driver’s interpretation.    For one, they record an extreme prosperity that would provide the means to construct an elaborate tunnel system.    John Quincy Adams’ Life in a New England Town; “1805 marked the height of Newburyport’s prosperity when customs receipts were the third largest of any port in New England….imports for one month probably totaling $800,000.” [their money not adjusted to today’s value!]

Yet even if merchants had the means, did they have the motivation?     The close of the first decade of the 1800’s brought hard times as local historian Albert Hale described in a 1913 speech: “The greatest period of prosperity in Newburyport was in the very last of the 17th century along until 1805…Immediately after this period came hard times…79 vessels stood idle in our wharves.”

So perhaps these times caused merchants to smuggle on a grand scale and tunnels were the best way to hide such quantities of goods.    None of the written histories mention tunnels.    They have chapters on smuggling, they discuss the disastrous effect of the embargo but even chatty, seemingly all-inclusive memoirs never hint of tunnels.

Mrs. Driver isn’t fazed by this oversight of written history.   “The tunnels were kept secret because,” she said, “they were not exactly legal things to have in your cellar.”     Besides, Mrs. Driver has a tunnel in her cellar.     We saw it.    It runs out from the front of her foundation about 30 feet, under and perpendicular to High Street, where it’s been bricked up.    She’s been told by some that it was a wine cellar or cold storage.    But her cellar had countless rooms of cold storage and none resembles this arched passage, she counters such suggestions, and why would a wine cellar be dug out away from and not under the foundation?

Mrs. Driver is one of many believers.    And most of them point to a correlation between merchants who are known to have prospered despite the embargo and cellars with tunnels.     William Bartlett is a favorite example.   His brick Federalist is now the St. Louis DeGonzague Rectory on Federal Street.   John J. Currier’s History of Newburyport, Massachusetts 1764-1909 describes Mr. Bartlett as “the owner of a large fleet of vessels employed constantly in trade with the East and West Indies…In 1787 he purchased land to build a wharf upon at the lower end of Chandler’s Lane (now Federal Street) and subsequently…(bought land) on which he erected warehouses for the storage of sugar, molasses, coffee and hemp…In 1798, Mr. Bartlett purchased additional land and erected a three-story house on Federal Street which he owned and occupied at the time of his death, 1841.

Does that Federal Street house have a tunnel?   Not any more.    But it does show a brick outline which may have been an entrance.   Father Maurice Savard, now at St. Jean the Baptist in Lowell – formerly a 25-year resident of the Federal Street rectory – claims the outline is indeed an entrance.     “The smugglers came up the street from the river.   Bartlett was a rich man and owned a warehouse on the river.    There was a tunnel from that warehouse to what is now the rectory,” he stated unequivocally.   “There used to be a hidden staircase coming up from the cellar although when I was there they had taken away the stairs and walled in the tunnel  entrance.    But many older members of the congregation  told me they had been in the tunnel themselves or their fathers had.”

Some supporting oral history was given by Dorice (Noyes) Sunman.    She recounted the descriptions that her father, George Noyes (the photographer), gave of tunnel use during the abolitionist period: “The slave tunnel ran right up  Federal Street,  Dad said.    The ships used to come in at the foot of Federal Street.    They’d go up in the tower of the French priest’s house (the Bartlett house) and when they saw three lights they’d get a warm coat for the captain, go down and get the slaves and bring them right up the Federal Street tunnel to High Street and that was Mrs. McClintock’s house – the house Mrs. Driver has now.    There was a fireplace with a room in back of it so they could get warm and eat.    Then the slaves would be led to the cemetery where the tunnel ended and they’d hide in the woods until the carriage-maker had a carriage to deliver.     The carriage-maker was against slavery.    They’d be dressed like women with bonnets and he had a carriage ready, they’d be taken out of town to the underground railroad or sometimes to a ship headed for Prince Edward’s Island.”

Newburyport was polarized by the slavery issue and anyone aiding runaway slaves did so with guarded secrecy.    Mrs. Sunman explained.    Those who were found out by their neighbors were reported and punished to the full extent of the law, her father told her.

And George Noyes spoke of three tunnels leading from the river to High Street – under Federal, State and Green Street buildings.    These three tunnels became one under High Street and that passage led to the cemetery, he used to say.

A number of people recalled stories of the Green Street tunnel having an entrance in the brick house on the upper corner of Harris at Green.    William Bartlett built that house too, according to Currier and Hale, for one of his sons.

“There was a tunnel there,” claims Charles Rowe, governor of the Moose in the early 1950’s when that group made the house its headquarters, “but we never explored it.”    It looked “as if it was goin’ from Harris to Merrimac Street” he added, and for years the Moose filled the tunnels with ashes from the coal fires they burned.    Today, the entrance gives access to a passage that runs five feet and stops, bricked up.”

Note: This article was accompanied by actual photographs of Mrs. Driver’s tunnel that runs under High Street.      The actual copy of the magazine needs to be located!      The North Shore Magazine was the forerunner of the Newburyport Magazine and probably included anything from Salem , where the sister paper was located, to Newburyport and included  all of Essex County.

Many of the points made in the story do seem to come together rather surprisingly into a cohesive and possible explanation, except the slaves using them.  That would be like having slaves travelling down a passage made by the KKK.       Newburyport merchants hated the Abolitionists and would have been outraged that slaves were being smuggled through them.     On the other hand, Mr. Bartlett was rumored to be smuggling slaves from his docks which has been supported by former slave testimonies though none of them mentioned tunnels.

Mrs. Robert Driver and Mrs. McClintock were obviously tenants as the Register of Deeds show no such persons owning the house in question either past or in the 70’s. (78 High Street)

-P. Preservationist

 * I heard it from my uncle who passed it to his Sister and then was relayed to my Mother.


Posted in Archeology, Architecture, History, Infrastructure | Leave a comment

Green Heads (and how to stop them!) & Private Beaches

Now’d you think, what it being full-blown summer, that it’s just a little too late for that.        You’ve already armed yourself with bug spray, suntan lotion, grabbed your beach chair and dipped into your savings account to help pay for a single visit to someplace like Salisbury Reservation or worse, Crane Beach.

Well, this is a classic case where not knowing can not only hurt you, it can be downright painful – and I’m not just talking your wallet.

If you are resident of this area, you know what I’m talking about.

The greenheads!

These inhabitants of the salt marshes are powerful flyers and are not polite enough to stay by the marsh – that’s because once they have laid a batch of eggs, they’re making plans to do it again.     But now they need your blood to do it.       The Greenhead, Tabanus Americanus Forester is about 7/8 to 1-1/8″ (22-28 mm) long but once you’ve been victimized, you could swear they’re the size of the large model on display at the Parker River Wildlife Center.       The mouthparts are for tearing and lapping, not piercing.  The Tearing Edge     The personal experience is a cross between a buzz saw tearing into you and a twisting jagged knife.

But that is not the worst part!

These buggers are immune to the normal bug spray.      Due to their large size, they will just sweat off a good blast of DEET.       There is only one known product out there that will prevent their blood lust and guarantee a pleasant summer for you and your family.       But here’s the clincher!      Unless you pay a fortune at a Plum Island or Newburyport retail store, it is not available anywhere else.       This means that if you don’t plan ahead, you will be making a whole lot of Plum Islander’s very happy.      They’ve got the stuff…and you don’t.     To prevent physical pain you will have to suffer great financial pain.

Unless you plan ahead.

Skin so softThe product is Avon’s Skin-so-Soft.      This used to be only available in a lotion but now can be purchased in spray form.      I personally don’t want to know why the greenheads hate this product.    They just do.      It costs about $10.00 a bottle on average and can be purchased in either form on    They also have a bug spray line for all the other pests too!

And since you have saved some money and pain – I can help you even more.      Everyone on this side of the river (as well as the smart ones on the north side) know that Plum Island is the best place to beach.     It often has far less of an onslaught from the visitors from the big cities to the west and the views are just spectacular.         But this plus is offset by the exorbitant parking fees in the Newbury-Newburyport side; and the wildlife preserve fees can mount up after repeated visits.

Well, the Federal Duck Stamp is just now available at the Wildlife Center or at the Post Office.      This stamp runs from July 1 to Jun 30th and is released by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.     That means worry-free parking year round at the first parking lot in the preserve and  the many other parking areas once the plovers have stopped nesting.   It is also easy access to the bottom where Sandy Point State Park is located.        It is $25.00 and quite a bargain if you are going repeatedly to the beach or hiking trails or even bird watching.     Not only that, it gives you access to the other National wildlife centers and if you have a boat, or pay a charter out of Rockport, to Thacher Island where the twin lighthouses are located.

So, with a quick trip to the post office or the Wildlife Center and a little online shopping, you are just about guaranteed to have a very pleasant rest of the summer.

As for pain, just don’t pet the seals!

-P. Preservationists


Posted in Preservation | 2 Comments

Things are changing in Newburyport

In the opening dialogue of the movie, Fellowship of the Ring, Galadriel states,

The world is changed.
I feel it in the water
I feel it in the earth
I smell it in the air.
Much that once was is lost,
for none now live who remember it.

One of the saddest things about Newburyport is the historical memory of the City is being forgotten.    A new ‘peoples’ have moved into the port, who have no personal experience of the local past and know no one who even experienced even the recent past.      Even as we have setup our ‘Cultural District’, we are losing the unique culture of the place.     The newcomers have different ideas as to what is important and have brought into the community a different set of priorities.

These are ‘strangers’ with no historical anchors and have no idea of what the community actually is.     A good example was one Facebook poster who complained about all these ‘street trees’ on the sidewalks.     Who in their right mind, was installing these!   Another complained, “And what is it with these ‘brick’ sidewalks!?!       Get rid of them!”    Yet another, “why do we have to put up with all these ‘old’ buildings which are often way too small, with too little land and especially, no parking available!?!”

Why indeed!?

The problem is that the values of the residents of the 18th and early 19th century is totally different from the values of the residents of the late 19th century and 20th century and now, again, are the values of the present changing population of the 21st century.

And each of these time periods are shaping the economy, infrastructure and social strata of the community.

Is there a problem with that?     Yeah, there is a problem!      A big problem.     And it is not the “I wish we had the good old days” (which is highly subjective when it comes to the term “good”); it has to do with our economy.

Ecology and History is our economic wealth!

Everything done in our city which stabs at the heart of these two pillars will make us weak and will impoverish us.     Everything that enhances these foundations of affluence will make us richer.

The problem is that we have a host of people, natives and newcomers, who may possess different ideas of what makes us a better community.      Some think ‘business’ whether retail or light industrial will make us wealthier.     Others think, Art in its many forms will make us a better place.     Others think leisure and ease will cement a good place.   Others that provide plenty for the many social levels of society will do it; and yet, others that encourage solid families will make it so.

So many of these pursuits may intersect but they in themselves don’t make us a wealthier, highly-desirable place.     Tons of other communities will pursue these same things with success; but not Newburyport.       Ecology and History are our bread and butter.      Kill them and you kill our city.    Protect them and you will enrich our city.

It is that simple.

This is why a large portion of our population need to join, support and embrace our two great history promoting institutions: the Custom House Maritime Museum and the Museum of Old Newbury.       Included in that mix is the practical side: the Newburyport Preservation Society,  because the buildings and the infrastructure have to be preserved to reflect our history.     As for ecology, the Audubon Society, Essex County Greenbelt, Merrimack River Watershed Association, Storm Surge and Parker River Clean Water Association need to be supported.        Volunteers are needed in these environmental organizations and to participate in local town and city boards and commissions.

Our biggest challenge is to stop the city becoming a mediocre, worn-out community filled with strangers to each other, filled with meaningless attitudes and depressed states of hopelessness.       And yes, abandoning our two great strengths will bring about what has caused so many other communities to suffer.

Here’s what needs to be done by every citizen!       Learn Newburyport’s history and learn the ecology.       This knowledge will then easily shape the conduct, the economy and goals of the citizens!

Posted in Art & Culture, Conservation, Eco-tourism, Ecology, Economics, Education, Environment, Health and wellness, Heritage Tourism, History, Infrastructure, Preservation, Quality of Life | Leave a comment


For years, the Upper Little River Watershed was, of all things, zoned Industrial! Yes, picture factories, large parking lots and buildings, LOTS of buildings, LOTS of parking lots. And yet, this area shaped like a bowl which has a clay base (in other words no water table below to take in the rain). Heavy rains race off the high area around Storey Avenue, and rush down ready to do property damage and all kinds of havoc.   But the area is also home to wetlands and forests which soak up this rain and prevent erosion and downriver misery! The Bowl

In addition, the forest literally acts as a sound barrier to the roar of Route 95 making Newburyport one of the quietest urban areas in the state. The expanse of meadows and trees are absolutely beautiful.     And now, the Little River Trail System offers five trails to experience this natural wonder.


Well the Planning Board and the City Council are planning on solving this contradiction and potential disaster by rezoning the area an Agricultural/Conservation District. The legal notice in the paper doesn’t have a map attached so the description is gobbly goop to the average citizen. So here is the map!

Citizens for years have known how important it is to leave this area open. It was the main reason that CPA was passed by Newburyport voters. The first act of the Community Preservation Committee was to purchase the Cooper North Pasture Lot! If you are a resident of Newburyport, you have legal standing to write to your city councilor and to the Mayor and put your full support behind this resolution.

Some may dispute around the edges but the main thrust can not be disputed. Do this and protect the communities’ quality of life.

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Posted in Preservation | 3 Comments

That “Vision Thing” can be pricy!

It has come to my attention that a renewed effort is being made, with the Mayor’s blessing; to get Hale Street renovated.       The dream is to see a wide road with ample berms with a cement sidewalk on the north side that runs from the Quail Run neighborhood all the way to the residential areas that surround Turkey Hill Road on the West End.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a definite need.     The road is low, subject to flooding, which in turn weakens and chews up the blacktop creating suspension-shattering potholes.     And the worse part is the lack of safety.     Pedestrians and bicyclists take their lives into their hands on a busy thoroughfare – with no room to let pass automobiles and heavy trucks; and if ducking into the security of the underbrush must be done – it is filled with marsh water, sink holes and poison ivy all the way up to the roadbed.

Back in 2002, the now-defunct N.A.I.D. (Newburyport Area Industrial Development) also had a “vision thing”.     They wanted to expand the industrial park so it stretched all the way up close to Storey Avenue; and even persuaded the city to make that area zoned industrial in anticipation of their goals.     The idea was to expand and reinforce the road to be able to handle heavy trucks.     Included was a lovely 5-foot wide sidewalk on the North Side and even the possibility of an off-ramp onto Route 95.     The abandoned roadbed instead of a bike trail today would be a wide access road that fed directly into Storey Avenue.     It’s presence would have opened up whole forests for residential housing along its edges.

And they couldn’t do it!

They had the political will, they had the financing avenues and they had the economic muscle.     And they failed.       The reason was the cost, but it wasn’t the only thing.     There were also too many legal and regulatory barriers they would have to hurdle over to finish it.      And there was the land.     You see, the Upper Little River Watershed that stretches from Hale Street to Storey Avenue and along Low Street sits on a clay base.     Instead of water soaking into the ground and settling into a water table; it stays near the surface – and when heavy rains come – it has to go somewhere.     Fortunately, nature has established wetlands to prevent utter flooding devastation by soaking up some of the water and preventing erosion.

N.A.I.D. approached the Secretary of Environmental affairs which thoroughly examined this area.    That office generated EOEA Certificate 12684 which outlined what is required to be done to make the “vision-thing” occur.      Basically, lands on either side that had easements on them would have to be changed in court – there were agricultural easements to the south and if done today, there would be the conservation easement on the Cooper North Pasture Preserve and they would have to take some land from UFP.       This is not an easy thing – and the attempt could take years of litigation.     But there is more, the entire Hale Street has to be elevated to include larger culverts.      When, during extreme flooding events, all that water running off the clay base encounters Hale Street, regardless of the wetlands; the water will run over and weaken the roadbed.      Larger culverts will allow the water to more easily pass under and into the Common Pasture beyond.

Regrettably, time has passed and now we have Mount Lavender.     All the water running off the landfill has increased the volume of water passing downstream.      And FEMA with their desire to re-write flood zone maps because of sea level rise is now demanding the height to be even more elevated.

This was why, when the city received PWED money in 2002 to actually do the improvements to Hale Street, then rank-and-file Tony Furnari in charge of the project, despairing the incredible cost of elevating the road, and purchasing easement properties; just paved the existing roadway with a thin new coat.     The city actually took the rest of the money and went and paved most of High Street.

I hate to barrage citizens who want to improve the quality of life in Newburyport by giving us a safe and wide Hale Street.  But I’m forced to throw ‘cold water’ on your plans by giving you all the facts.     Can it be accomplished?    Sure can!    But the finished product may not be realized for as long as parking lots have been on the waterfront.    And they are still there!      

Have your meeting about Hale Street.     It’ll be great to see your neighbors, meet new people and hear from the Mayor; but if you’re not into big groups; just stay home, curl up with the EOEA Certificate 12684 and read it.

Besides, no one likes to be seen crying in public.

-P. Preservationist



Posted in Agriculture & Farms, Businesses, Conservation, Easements, Economics, Flooding, Landfill, Preservation, Quality of Life, sidewalks, Watershed, Zoning | Leave a comment

Affordable Housing & Newburyport, Part II

For many years, Newburyport was considered the “perfect” community by other towns and cities in Essex County and along the Merrimack River Valley.      Talking to so many in the region, you could pick up the tone of envy.       But sadly, you don’t hear that anymore.      In fact, we are rapidly being looked-down upon as an “exclusive”, elite place, highly unaffordable and increasingly getting worse.      And yet, if you look about Newburyport; infrastructure is getting better and becoming more refined.

This un-named discomfort is felt at every level – no one can actually put their finger on it; but they know there’s a problem.

Yes, previously we were a shabby-chic, often run down, failing infrastucture – and yet a perfect community?

It was because we have been and are an historic seaport with old houses.

This was beyond business and personal economics; it was all about our history.      If you look at the Newburyport Historic District, we have massive Georgian and Federal mansions peppered all over the city – but it was what lay in between these large box structures that made us a perfect community.     Tiny houses, and occasionally worn-down First-period Houses with ceilings inches above the average person’s height.      Little rooms and tight narrow lots, and poor parking options in the South End.    The many boxy structures largely did not house the wealthy  but had been sectioned off into apartments.     Even houses were cut right down the middle into separately-deeded half houses with tiny yards.

We had our wealthy, and we had the upper-middle class but their poorer neighbor was right next door in a tiny structure.    First-time homebuyers had lots of options in town and regardless of their “class” everyone came together as a community, joined together in festivals, met together in civic concerns.       The “diversity” and “balanced” community that Progressives have searched for, and those seeking “Nirvana” on earth; it was here and it was special.    Definitely not perfect as heaven but about as close to a healthy earth-bound place that you could find.

And then word began to spread, “Newburyport?   Everybody loves Newburyport!”    And in that tone of voice contained the unspoken thought, “Boy, I’d love to live in that well-balanced healthy community”.

Just as people fleeing the high-taxes of Massachusetts moving into New Hampshire; the first instinct is to convert the Live-Free-or-Die state into the place they just fled from; so goes Newburyport.

Real estate began to go up as more and more people sought to flood into the city.    But what do you do with all those “old” houses?     Why we live in the 21st century, we’ve got to upgrade those tiny spaces!     At first, warning signs began to appear as developers tried to renovate structures and property assessments began to inch upward.

It was starting to get worse, and worse; and citizens began to speak with more and more concern; and then a new administration came along.     “This” new administration had a plan to fund the revitalization of Newburyport.      The first step by Mayor Donna Holaday was to pass “The Green Community Act” which imposed extremely strict building codes upon the houses in historic Newburyport.    Now, according to the Act, historical homes were exempt; but this was where Gary Calderwood, the Building Inspector came into the act.     He informed the Planning Office, and the Historical Commission; that he was not going to inform contractors, developers and homeowners that their historical house was in fact exempt.     He also made it clear to the building craftsmen and the home improvement industry that they could not expect a occupancy permit unless the house fulfilled the now very strict building codes.       As a whole, most did not know they could be exempted, nor would they get any such guidance from the Building Department.

Since over 70% of the homes in the major parts of the city were in fact exempt, you can see the dynamic duo were well-underway to redoing the city.      Instead of small renovations, entire guttings were encouraged; and brand new expensive materials were hauled in; often doubling the re-sell price of an historic home.       Structures that would have brought in $550,000 were now approaching a million dollars or more.      This in turn brought in more tax revenue, plus the added value of off-budget fees that enriched the city’s bond rating.

Tiny homes were no long rented out to first-time homebuyers on middle-class incomes.    They were refitted into palaces fit for the 21st century and fit for a more affluent demographic.     Many half-houses are now being converted into full homes with all the latest conveniences.      If anyone objects, the real estate agents scream that is what buyers are expecting.      No mention of historical homes, no mention of affordability.

The Mayor has used this situation to redo the infrastructure of the city.        And the Building Department has proudly continued Calderwood’s practices.

That is the problem politically with Progressives.        They create the mess, and then to fix the mess, they create a bigger mess.

Now the Mayor and her allies want to fix the affordable housing situation by “creating” affordable housing units either loosely owned by the city; or by exascerbating it with a monster skyscraper chocked full of Affordables* around the train station.     Families and individuals with no connection to the community and isolated from what constitutes a Newburyporter.

Unless things change; and the Mayor’s re-election shows this being very unlikely; we will soon be a very pricy, exclusive city; with some miserable “high crime areas” on its perimeter.

This is reality, and we are going to see that reality increasingly going forward.      The only sad thing about it is the loss of the interiors of so many historic homes unless the Building Department/Mayor can be stopped.   And I don’t see that happening.     We are also beginning to see the exteriors destroyed also as anyone has noticed lately in the ZBA notices in the paper.

We have a majority of newcomers voting to continue this path.

For the minority I have a question.      So when are YOU packing your bags?

-P. Preservationist

*  According to the rules of 40R, affordable units created within a District meeting the standards set out in 760 CMR 45.03 shall count as low- or moderate income units on the Subsidized Housing Inventory in accordance with the Department’s rules for the Inventory.”     Expect many of the rental units by the train station to be this status.



Posted in Affordable Housing, Craftsmen, Demolitions, Developers, Economics, Health and wellness, History, News & Politics, Preservation, Quality of Life, Real Estate, Renovation | Leave a comment

Affordable Housing & Newburyport? Part I

Last week’s Brown School meeting revealed some confusion as to what the definition of “affordable” actually is when it comes to housing.     H.L. Menchen famously said, “Define, Define, Define”.    If the person you are talking to has another definition for the same word; only confusion can result in the discussion!

Worse, our society is filled with words to create impressions totally opposite of their true meaning.     It is very effective in politics to “label” things so the wrong conclusion is made.      A classic example is the Federal Clean Water Act.        The public thinks the entire legislation is about producing clean water for us to drink and live by.     Wrong, all the regulations are about “controlling” levels of pollution.     But the title sells well.

Same with the term “Affordable Housing”.    Sounds good but unfortunately, a vast majority of uninformed citizens think it really describes affordable.    Another sector considered it in a negative context as low-income housing or subsidized housing.


Others think that providing said resident units will solve the housing crunch!      It won’t. Nor is it designed to do so.     

Affordable is defined not by the building but by the occupants qualified to inhabit the structure.     And it is a pricing based on the communities’ median income.      Affordable is a pricing of 80% of the median income.

In a crazy boomtown such as Newburyport, we have attracted a large minority of high-income residents.      Thus the median income has jumped up.     Thus, 80% of that artificially jacked up number will cause a high number of average-income citizens disqualified to even afford “affordable housing” in Newburyport.

According to the rules, 25% of the units that are to be designated affordable  are supposed to be “subsidized” by the developer and reflected in the pricing in the other units.     Developers are also limited in their profit margins which is why only a handful in the Commonwealth know how to leverage their projects to maximize benefit.     Now, a lot of non-profits can using grants and special loans increase or make all the units affordable but rarely do you find these organizations having enough money to do it by the strict building codes required by the state.

Politics and a very complicated regulation concerning “affordable” have generated a whole range of issues.     An absurd Top Ten Myths of 40B, produced by Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association in Boston tries to say that all the myths of 40B are untrue.     The sad fact is their myths are reality by just looking at the negative affects in individual communities.    Merrimac couldn’t stop 40B’s even though they didn’t have enough water to provide for the projects.      Amesbury, chocked full of 40B’s is being dragged down financially on a yearly basis.

It’s all founded on a faulty concept that if you create “affordable housing” by cramming a set demographic into a set place; that the entire community will be diverse, and thus ‘healthy’.     Put the poor in a ‘project’, put low-income in ‘their’ neighborhood; and the upper class can be setup nicely in their “gated” community.       And of course, by putting in the pretty words, “Smart Growth”, we can cram a whole host of “controlled” populace in a very tight area around a noisy train station by upping the 40B to a 40R.     Ugh!

The present statewide crisis is all wrong, and will only get worse.     The affordable housing solution will only be a Band-Aid which will only slip off continually as the housing crisis becomes insufferable.      This is why so many are leaving the Commonwealth for other parts.      This is increasingly becoming God’s beautiful country because only God can afford to live here. (Except for the privileged few, and the poor crammed into tight little holes)

In my second blog post, I’ll explain why Newburyport as recent as the late 1990’s was considered the “perfect” community and why we are rapidly losing that condition.

-P. Preservationist


Posted in Affordable Housing, Developers, Economics, Health and wellness, News & Politics, Preservation, Quality of Life, Real Estate | Leave a comment

Affordable Housing & The Brown School

Just as the Aztec cold coin hit the ocean in the movie, Pirates of the Carribean, and caused a powerful ripple alerting the pirates of its presence; so the Brown School has had the same affect on our land pirates.      Word spread like wildfire a full two-years before the buildings were going to close.     Word also reached the Corner-office in City Hall.

The South End is the most exclusive area of our city.   This is ironic since it once was the worst area of the community years ago!     Regardless, regional ‘pirates’ began to salivate at the prospect of luxury condo’s in the last large development for that neighborhood.     Only problem was, there was a playground in the back local families used; plus what do you do with the gym area already occupied by Newburyport Youth Services?

This started a strange sequence of events.

So to everyone’s surprise, as word spread of the school closing, one day the playground was gone.     Who was responsible?    Well, it turned out that an elected individual had done it and done it swiftly, overnight.      What that person failed to realize was an astute politician from years back had attained for the area behind the school to be designated by Beacon Hill as a park.      It also helped that South Ender’s rose up as one and passionately protested demanding the playground be returned.     In the end, the park was restored and the city had to recognize that an official park existed behind the Brown School.

So to get feedback from the neighbors, a series of options were presented in several forums.      The main objection from the locals was the presence of a noticeable 24-hour, round the clock parking situation.      In the end, the sentiment was to go for affordable/art community condo’s with a reduced resident presence.      And so feelers were put out to the ‘pirates’.     Well, no self-respecting marauder is going to put that kind of money into refitting the school building with out a commensurate compensation that is worth the effort.    There were no takers!

So, City Hall has cooked up the affordable housing angle.      We’ll have the majority as luxury condominiums for a ‘percentage’ of affordable units.      When you get into the affordable housing topic, you are opening up yourself to the Commonwealth-wide 40B law.     Each community is basically open to buccaneer-style deprivation of its zoning and quality of life; unless it can achieve 10% of affordable housing.      Of course, the definition is constantly changed by regulators so it is extremely difficult to ever attain that level.

But Newburyport has an out!

We avoided the damaging effects by passing a 40R in our city, which we have done so around the railroad station and traffic circle.        And now, mysteriously, we are told we are again in danger because we aren’t even close to the 10%?

We are now introduced with another scam.     One that the Affordable Housing Trust is well aware of because they were the victim of one!

Many years ago, the old DPW shacks on Merrimac Street were to be torn down and a developer was going to build new housing with as much as a quarter as affordable housing.     Using a goodly amount of taxpayer money through the CPA; this development became a reality.       But low, due to some loopholes in the 40B law; our money went to naught.      We ended up losing out on getting those units available.     The citizens were scammed!      And this by the way, has been happening all over the Commonwealth.     To help avoid this, towns and cities have actually built their own fully-owned affordable units.     You can see this clearly in Groveland and in West Newbury along Route 113 and there are many other examples that can be seen in our area.     Even Newburyport learned its lesson and has heavily used CPA money to build completely-owned affordable housing units.

Let’s get back to the Brown School.

Putting in affordable housing provisions into a corsair’s plans is only going to result in an unpleasant, deeply-felt disappointment as a ‘surprise’ result will be luxury apartments and a lot of cramped parking. (Since the park can not be used)   The cost of underground parking will demand high-priced units.     If we decide to make them all affordable, the city will have to pony up the money completely.   This can be achievable by leveraging the CPA money stored up for affordable housing.    But do we want to take on the debt?      Can we accommodate another bond?

All these things need to be considered before attending tonight’s meeting.

I am using historical knowledge and a thing called ‘reality’, not what is hoped-for, or what is presented however so rosy.    Newburyport is a crazy real estate boomtown.     And that attracts a whole range of opportunists, some good, some bad.   And in a boomtown, the South End is the epicenter.        Hold onto your wallets, hug your precious quality of life and take care of what you hear!

I know the pirates don’t want you to consider all these aspects but being a South Ender myself, I feel I owe it to my neighbors.

-P. Preservationist



Posted in Affordable Housing, Developers, Economics, Health and wellness, History, News & Politics, Preservation, Quality of Life, Real Estate | 1 Comment

2018 – The Year of the QOL

A war has been waging for almost 50 years in Newburyport – one that is largely out of sight but raging red hot in the hearts and minds of the residents.      Admittedly, it can be seen occasionally when a citizen is screaming and jumping up and down in a public forum, or when an unsuspecting DPW worker is assaulted by an irate homeowner; or a farmer minding his or her affairs while riding a tractor meets flailing environmental wacko’s threatening to call the police.     Sometimes, some may even get run off the road or political signs vandalized as tempers flair.    The police have actually witnessed innocent park benches or wetland observation platforms viciously attacked and destroyed.

But those are the very occasional incidents.       No, most of the war goes unseen.

All this emotion and intense passion centers around a simple question:

Is Newburyport a place to make a living or a place to experience quality living?

This city is a hard place to make a living.    It’s expensive, and no matter how conned a person can be in late spring, summer and fall – the winter will literally take the stuffing out of any pretense of comfort.      Massachusetts is not business friendly.     It’s a long background story, but no matter how much money is poured into the paving of the roads, winter will destroy it all with potholes.    No matter how environmental-friendly you care to be, the climate is not conducive to bicycles year round or pedestrian travel.     The ground, the ocean, the seasons and the weather conspire to generate high maintenance costs.       So why on earth hang around if you can get out!?!

This city has an architectural treasure that can’t be reproduced on a factory floor.    Human experience, ancient history and time created it.    We are surrounded by ecology that is breathtaking and hugely significant.     Our seasons generate joy and pleasure.     And on top of all that heritage and ecology, we have the creative minds of the community expressed in art, and music and many diverse expressions.       Our economy is literally based on history and nature.      Residents and visitors alike can’t sit down and give you a rational dissertation, but they feel it everywhere.       It is pure romance.

So let’s define the two contestants:

There is the make-a-living group.    They work long hours, work hard and live hard.    Many are craftsmen who couldn’t care less about the architectural history, just rip it out, put in cheap material, sell it while it still has the patina of ‘newness’ and move on to the next property to ravish.     Short-term profit is the objective.     Just use up the historic stock until it’s all gone and then move on to the next place to work.     Restaurants and shops continue the daily grind – produce a good product – who has time to think about why the customers are here in the first place.     Those who have to commute, just push the gas pedal down and move on to the business and doing the business concerns, until the mad rush back to home.

Then there is the Quality of Life group.      They love to surround themselves with beautiful architecture, enjoy the parks, ride the bike paths, walk the trails; enjoy the shops.   They relish the wildlife – live life on the recreational boats, explore the history, canoe and kayak, visit the beaches and experience the downtown with live entertainment surrounded by friends.     This group may also work long hours, or do long commutes but they want to make sure all that effort is compensated by being in a community that enriches their life.

And these two groups do not get along!

The former group get irritated and yes, even threatened by the second group; and the second group doesn’t help any by romanticizing everything and not understanding the economics of the former group.     The first gang starts screaming when bike paths are put in where they used to dump their grass clippings; or a nature trail appears where they used to deposit their trash.     Their furious when a road race has blocked off their route to work, and outraged when they can’t even do some renovations to their own homes.

The second group can’t understand why the farmer is raising livestock or clearing a pasture where young birds are fledgling; can’t understand a carpenter ripping out priceless historical architecture and putting in cheap modern materials; can’t understand why developers want to rip out forests and or business owners want to cover land with blacktop or prefab buildings.      Nor create housing that doesn’t make sense or is ugly just because it ‘saves’ money.

Fortunately, the second group is winning.       They have the large sums of money to buy the houses which is why the biggest boomtown economy is real estate.      The QOL have the cash.     And just in time, the architecture to support that QOL is coming on line.    The Clipper City Rail Trail is at it’s zenith this year. (Though the Newbury span must still be built)   The William Lloyd Garrison Bike/Pedestrian Trail will be opened up this year.    And the Little River Trail System is now in place and will be fully available this year also.     We have a new Harbormaster building to help accommodate the boating industry and the Custom House Museum and the Newburyport Preservation Trust are continuing to roar along. (Along with the Old Newbury Historical Museum)   We have refurbished schools and a real-live senior center.   And finally, the garage and the open waterfront are coming into their own.

Admittedly, the war continues as exploiting developers try to cash in on the second group’s willingness to beat down a path to Newburyport with some built-in gullibility.    And we still have the former group hanging around doing as much damage as possible in the Chamber and City Hall.

I personally think that bottom-line economics and community self-preservation are going to win the day.

That’s the key.      If we are to continue to be such a desirable place where QOL money is attracted, we have to work hard as a community to keep the first group under control lest they destroy the golden goose.

-P. Preservationist


Posted in Agriculture & Farms, Architecture, Art & Culture, Businesses, Conservation, Craftsmen, Demolitions, Developers, Downtown, Eco-tourism, Ecology, Economics, Environment, finances, Health and wellness, Heritage Tourism, History, Infrastructure, Maintenance, Planning, Preservation, Quality of Life, Real Estate, Recreation, Renovation, trails | Leave a comment

A Glaring Contradiction!

I actually don’t think the Newburyport Daily News is aware of the laughable contrast that was presented today in the paper.       Mr. Lodge has devoted himself to a whole series on the environmental threat posed to the communities that have some portion in the Great Marsh.        He’s basing his articles on the contents of a recent report on all the threats to the eco-system.         As President of Parker River Clean Water Association, a group that is involved in preserving and protecting the watershed; I am extremely gratified at the fine job that he is doing.

But in today’s (12/26) paper, is also the following article, Ending the Housing Crunch.     Read it, but basically the bottom line is, housing is extremely expensive in Massachusetts so the solution is to cram more housing in even if it violates local zoning laws.     In order to do it, the state will put extreme pressure on home rule communities to increase density so more buildings can be constructed.      It pooh-pooh’s the negative consequence of such a move.      It calls “Myth’s” that the explosion of increased city services will have a negative effect on the community with high taxes.       It demonizes restrictive zoning as the culprit.

Well, that “myth” is exactly why it is increasingly difficult to obtain affordable housing.   It is not restrictive zoning that is the cause.     It is the very law that is supposed to increase affordable housing that is causing everything to be so expensive.     Already the 40B law paves the way for big-time developers of which there is only a handful to disregard a local communities zoning (and in many ways, disregard building codes also!) and to put pressure on their water/sewer systems and their infrastructure and public services.   These communities are already suffering trying to achieve extremely high standards mandated by the State without providing the funding to achieve compliance.

And then, the State House seals the coffin by the Prevailing Wage Law.     To force them to avoid the cost-saving way of private subcontractors, towns and cities must pay the same high union wages with all the same benefit packages and bonding requirements of Boston unions.    This is why highway projects and other public construction is often double the cost that it would be in New Hampshire.

This is the irony of the two articles.     The Great Marsh is threatened by impervious surfaces and over-building and poor infrastructure planning that the Governor wants to promote!      Somehow cramming people into tighter places will somehow improve our Commonwealth and make it more desirable.       Nonsense!

In politics, you need to follow the money if you want to find the real motive.      The Governor needs lots of funding for re-election and he is counting on the goodwill of a virtual community that surrounds large developers to spread their lobbying influence.        If he succeeds, the losers will, as has already been seen for decades with the 40B law; are local communities and a legion of middle-class facing un-affordable housing.

It is also why large numbers of people are leaving the state, and I might add, continuing to leave the state.     That means less and less of us having to bear a larger load of the taxes of the Commonwealth.     Couple that with the collapse of Obamacare and we stick out like a red-herring with the lone tax mandate compared to surrounding states that don’t have it.     The anti-business atmosphere and high taxes are just some more nails to seal the coffin even tighter.

Regrettably, the working poor, and the middle class are going to be struggling.     But the solution is NOT building huge massive housing projects the likes that we are seeing in Amesbury and in Salisbury.      The residents that will fill these structures will not collectively compensate the community and taxes will begin to rise.

But let’s not leave 2017 in a down note.     Newburyport is actually a fine example of a city that handles affordable housing correctly.      A Healthy community is a mixture of different economic levels mingling together.     A wealthy person living next to a lower middle class and yes, even the working poor – all contributing together for the overall well-being of citizens.       It is the great success found in Newburyport that is causing us to be un-affordable.     Everyone wants to live in such a nice well-balanced town and so the cost is stratospheric.      But the solution is not to build a skyscraper crammed with renters out in the Great Marsh, or build endless tracts of housing covering the Common Pasture with parking lots and chemical lawns!

The key is to shy away from the typical State House solution and to find some creative alternatives to the high cost of living.

-P. Preservationist


Posted in Affordable Housing, Developers, Economics, Environment, finances, Flooding, Health and wellness, Infrastructure, News & Politics, Preservation, Quality of Life, Sewage, Taxes, Watershed, Zoning | Leave a comment