The Fascinating Story of the LHD High Street Attempt in 1971

Newburyport is certainly a unique place and no where is that evident than in our politics.    Some issues linger on for decades without resolution.  Can anyone say parking garage or central waterfront?

Simple logic would tell you that if the ecological and historical assets of Newburyport are the source of much economic revitalization; you would conclude that every attempt at protecting those assets would be made.         Not so in Newburyport.        The presence of ____ _____ and ____ _____ were represented back then.     We even had some rather colorful extremists.

So has the situation changed from those days?     The answer is a strong yes.

The difference has been three-fold.       First, we have far fewer Townies present today and they represent a minority in our political scene.     Second, our demographics have changed.   We have a large percentage of people who have moved here precisely because of the historic neighborhoods.       Third and most importantly, the class structure that so bedeviled Bossy Gillis and John Marquand no longer exists.     

Back in 1971, there was the ‘working class’ – factory workers, fishermen and businessmen.      Then came the ‘gentry class’.     These people were living mostly along High Street and were not just wealthy but were the upper class.     These were the hoity-toity that John Lagoulis mentioned recently.      The same elitist class that gave ‘charity’ in such a self-righteous manner.     They went to their exclusive clubs and to their particular churches and did not mix with the rest of the working class.      It was this group that drove Bossy nuts.

At the same time the NRA had received enough funding to start the urban renewal, an attempt at preserving High Street was begun.       The support of the High Street property owners was very high and that included businesses on the street plus those who rented or worked but lived elsewhere in the city.       The local historic district was to include 220 properties of which 24 were businesses, offices, organizations or vacant.     Of those 114 owners signed their names in support.    An additional 104 other High Street residents and businesses signed and 6 adjacent residents included their names.       According to the Newburyport Daily News in 1971, “The supporters far outnumbered the opponents.”       

C. Bruce Brown, city councilor, drafted and submitted the ordinance to city council for approval; carefully vetting it through the city solicitor, Jonathan G. Wells III.

The overwhelming support revealed itself in the public hearing, of which 50 spoke for it and less than 12 spoke against it in an overflowing crowd of 150 people!

Stanley Mattson, of 48 High Street, spoke on behalf of the supporters saying, “Those before [High Street residents in favor] have been willing to alienate their civil liberties for the greater good.”    As another support, Mrs. Russell T. Burton, who lived adjacent to High Street said on behalf of a group of supporters, “We feel it would not infringe on the rights of homeowners.    No one likes to be free and unfettered better than I, but in these rapidly changing times limited controls are not only advisable but necessary.”     Frank Morrill of 209 High Street indicated, “As will be noted by the [petition] names from the street, more than half were willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole.”

There were few but very vocal opponents to the ordinance.    Charles C. Stockman II who lived at 153 High Street, a Townie, predicted that if it would pass, it would end up the same way the downtown urban renewal was heading, “Newburyport would be not only moribund but dead as an Egyptian mummy.”    He also predicted that the downtown revitalization would end up being a “multiple stillbirth.”    But he went further, claiming that the local historic district ordinance was part of a larger socialist movement originating in Europe and spreading to America.    He stated, “Step-by-step, the person and his property have been [placed] in the hands of bureaus, committees and government ministries”.

Of course, the demagoguery from a few became so bad that a High Street resident, Elizabeth L. Whiting complained, “Surely informative ideas of the many, gently and rationally expressed, deserve as much attention than the ideas of the latter [opponents] which are presented in deliberately caustic and irrelevant oratory.”

Even the Newburyport Daily News, with chief editor, John J. O’Neil; endorsed the High Street Local Historic District.

So, why did it not pass?

There were prominent men on the city council, including the President; that were ____ _____.      These men believed with all their heart that, with all the loss of manufacturing in the city, that it was the destiny of Newburyport aided by their political will to do everything possible to get it back.      They strongly believed that it was the way to a brighter future.     

In exasperation, Peter Latham, of 201 High Street exclaimed, “[Referring to the effort to bring back industry to the city’] I think they’ve been overlooking the real industry they have, which is these historic homes.”

There was also not wide-support from the working class of Newburyport who were desperately seeking steady jobs and certainly didn’t want to see High Street become even more high browed.

In the end, the city council split right down the middle and failed to obtain the 2/3rds majority.   

We have the benefit of looking back and seeing that these men who were opposed to the local historic district, chose the wrong path.     Our industry and even our businesses contribute but a small fraction to our economic well-being while our historic buildings truly are “the real industry”.     The Downtown, rather than a tomb, became the epicenter of rebirth for the City spreading its influence into the rejuvenation of all of Newburyport.

So the question is to be made, “Do we listen again to these naysayers in 2012 or do we finish the task that so many endeavored to achieve in 1971?”

-P. Preservationist

This entry was posted in History, Local Historic Districts (LHD), News and politics, Organizations. Bookmark the permalink.

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