Newburyport was broke.
That simple statement has so many ramifications. One, that when you are poor, you are desperate to survive. I heard John Lagoulis on cable talking about the hunger of real poverty. While today’s ‘poor’ wail when their EMT card runs short, John remembers the day there simply was no food. Someone spoke from the audience about how they survived on Jell-O during the Great Depression and Mr. Lagoulis said, “You were lucky!”
Now that’s desperation. Unfortunately, though poverty is not an excuse, it often leads to criminal acts.
We had two significant crimes that occurred. It is blurry as to the person or persons who were responsible; people in town at that time know who but choose to forget the ‘details’. For example, I know who was responsible for the landfill mess getting out of hand – but when the subject comes up; the person(s) who were responsible are never mentioned. The great hubris that resulted has ‘buried’ the originators.
So too the two great crimes that were committed in the 20th century against the citizens of Newburyport.
The First. As an ancient seaport, many over the years have created trusts that were committed to the City for a particular purpose. It could be beautification, or to benefit the library or to finance the care of a park. Some were dedicated to educating the students with scholarships. They were supposed to be taken care of, allowed to accrue with interest to enrich the City’s care and they were to follow the wishes of the original benefactor. This last intent is written into Massachusetts General Law.
But instead of being taken care of, most of the money was not re-invested, and worse, the original wishes (quite illegally) were not honored. For example, John Bromfield gave $10,000 to the City to take care of the street trees and sidewalks. He also gave to many other charitable organizations in the State. He gave $25,000 to the Boston Athenaeum at the same time and with proper care it is now $7,000,000 plus. What about the money given to the City? It is a miserable $100,000. Worst, much of the Trusts’ interests were dumped into the general fund. Many organizations and city departments are cut off from access. For example the Moseley Woods Commission has no access to the Moseley Woods Trust Fund! Some 47 trust funds, many languishing and abused sat for years neglected.
Gertrude O’Brien, Treasurer in the 1990’s took action to begin an interest-bearing program with these funds but the whole arrangement was still in violation of the M.G.L. It hasn’t been until Mayor Holaday in this century has finally ‘fixed’ the problem. But there is still no finalized resolution and there is no ordinance on the book preventing future abuses. But thankfully this crime born from poverty is being dealt with today. The horrible crime: the lost financial opportunities.
The Second. As an ancient city, and with the new awareness of the historic value of these priceless homes that constitute the Newburyport Historic District; so many people know that their homes need to be protected – not just because of the architecture but because of long, rich family histories and significant events that occurred in many of the homes. Vast sums of money have been spent to keep the homes intact and to do historic renovations. So, after all that work, how do you protect your home after you are gone? What do you do in a City without a local historic district? (which will only protect the exterior anyhow.) You put a preservation restriction on the house so it will stay the way you wanted it. If so inclined, you can even protect certain features of the interior so that, regardless of the owner, the house will remain the same. This is called a preservation easement. Caring homeowners have been taking the time over the years to put in place these easements until quite a few were collected in City Hall.
Someone or someone(s) ‘lost’ the easements. They did it because then developers and future homeowners would be unrestricted in doing ‘something’ in Newburyport which at the time was hardly a place to invest your hard-earned money. The City was broke and banks refused to loan money for home improvements – picture a bank pouring money into a house in the middle of a high-crime inner city. So the crime was to lose the easements and restrictions. Today, the Register has the records of a home up online and an easy click of the mouse shows you the history back to the late 70’s – they’re goal is to have it all online but they simply lack the manpower and money to do it all. It will take years. And if anyone knows who’s tried it, searching manually in Salem is a long and drawn out process – the work of lawyers and their interns. And sometimes, due to Probate, the records of easements and deeds end up in a different part of Salem requiring more drudgery. This is why this act is such a terrible crime. The wishes of previous owners cast aside so their homes can be despoiled and exploited.
Linda Smiley and her commission members have been working hard to restore the list. But it will take years. But there is a political blow-back from many banks, developers and homeowners. THEY DON’T WANT THESE EASEMENTS FOUND. Therefore, it is important that an easement list be maintained off City Government property (and that includes the Library Archives which have had many historical records ‘missing’ that affects the status of historical homes*). The Preservation Trust or the Historical Society of Old Newbury should maintain this easement list concurrently with the City. Since developers have infiltrated the Historical Society, it leaves the Trust to do it.
The 21st Century is looking bright as the harmful affects of these two horrible crimes are now being mitigated.
But it will take due diligence for years to come to fix the damage.
* They try it now and meek Jessica Gils will probably rip their hearts out!