There was a time when there were two parties: One party believed in preserving historic architecture, the other Party believed that new modern architecture was the key to economic growth. The former cared about preserving our nation’s heritage and restoring examples of classic architecture. The latter saw old buildings as depressing nuisances and saw gleaming new designs as the key to community success.
A fine example of this attitude can be seen in nearby Haverhill. The eastern section of the city was torn down and wide boulevards and modern buildings were erected. Where brownstones stood, a gleaming shopping center with ample parking. High hopes were centered on beautiful senior and affordable housing and tourist hopes rested on a lovely seaside restaurant. Meanwhile, the historic part of the city was left dilapidated and ended up being the home of bars and shoddy storefronts. The historic preservationists focused their efforts on the historical society and a few older buildings here and there.
The whole experiment was a total failure. And this failure repeated itself across the country which ended up with soul-less locations. The sense of community was absent, the housing isolated and cold, and tourist locations closed. The general attitude of this urban development has left a general feeling of malaise.
Communities such as Haverhill today, Lawrence, Lowell and Manchester (NH) have found that historic preservation as employed in their community development plans have spurred economic development by attracting visitors, residents and investors to older neighborhoods and commercial districts.
Haverhill has gloriously redeemed itself by turning what was left of their older buildings and creating a local historic district. Better quality restaurants, shops and general pedestrian traffic has increased and improved those parts of the city in stark contrast to the east section.
But as a community improves, there is a process that begins to work. Historic preservation leads to social and economic consequences. First, as the buildings improve and the town begins to be attractive, it causes the eventual displacement of poor residents. The second consequence is called the Process of Gentrification. As property values rise, it becomes increasingly difficult for those with low incomes such as starting out young couples or fixed incomes such as seniors to live in the city. The second process is the general attractiveness of the community will draw in those with higher, discretionary incomes.
Therefore, historic preservation in community development must include a section on how to make the city bearable for lower-income residences. Why is it important? Because healthy preservation of our neighborhoods includes a wonderful mix of economic social brackets all intermingling and enriching the community. If you want all poor, go to Roxbury; if you want all rich go to Beverly Hills. Newburyport will lose its soul if we drive out the lower end of the economic spectrum.
I commend heartily the city’s aggressive efforts through the Council on Aging, the Affordable Housing Trust and many other churches, organizations and departments that are working hard to prevent total gentrification. These aren’t welfare groups handing out help. Most are designed to help living here be enriching and not a desperate situation of mere survival. The CPA has also been a powerful force as it makes money available for affordable housing.
Historic presevation has become a powerful force in Newburyport. It will be even more powerful if we can pour our efforts into affordable housing and assistance groups!
Our historic neighborhoods depend on it.