Haverhill made all the terrible mistakes during the 60’s and the 70’s when it comes to urban planning. The citizens and their leaders chose the commonly-held belief that building new buildings solved most community problems.
Don’t get me wrong about Haverhill. There are thousands of good people there and at one time in my life, I lived there. (I lived there at the same time as Andre Dubus III which he sets as the background in his book, Townie.) And I might add, they did not have a fanatical anti-historic preservation faction to obstruct the fixing of their errors but learned from the experience and are trying hard to correct it. They have suffered horribly and should be heartily commended for their efforts today. But sadly their ‘corrections’ are more like band aides slapped on a heavily wounded soldier.
I decided to take a trip back through memory lane on my bike starting at Haverhill High School and proceeding down past Building 19 into Groveland and onward to Newburyport.
I rode past historic cemeteries that are abandoned and weed-choked and in disrepair. It made me so glad to live in a city in which we have commissions and committees and non-profits that not only care for our memorials but are busy restoring them. I then rode down into the heart of Haverhill and saw their parking garage and bus station in terrible states of neglect. I looked at the total abandonment of their waterfront – instead a huge ugly cement barrier as they had turned their back on the water. I continued down to the bridge that goes over to Bradford and saw the horror of a strip mall and large parking lot that had replaced the historic buildings eastward of their central. They put up a little boardwalk and a touristy restaurant (Cap-n-Chris’) but it was a failure. No one went to the water’s edge unless they wanted to be accosted.
The problem with Haverhill, the tearing down of their central downtown ripped the community heart out of the City. No one hangs in Washington Square and no one builds up a community spirit in front of a shopping mall. The rest of the spaces were filled with elderly housing – basically gated places with no interaction with the rest of the citizens.
My wife and I went there to see if we could find a good restaurant back in the late eighties. Not only did we find a dead center of the city, the police offered to escort us out of town! They looked at us like we were crazy, “No one,” they said, “goes downtown Haverhill at night!”
But I was pleased as I rode my bike to see that Haverhill has learned from their mistakes. Shortly after our ‘experience’, the City instituted a local historic district from the post office to the train station. It has caused a resurrection of restaurants and shops and an improvement in housing and the general feel of the city. Derelict buildings are being restored and a feeling of hope has re-emerged downtown. I noticed they installed bike paths to mirror what we have done on High Street and are trying to do ‘Complete Streets’. They put a bike and pedestrian path in the east part of the city – though I noticed it was not being maintained and was in disrepair.
Since the institution of the local historic district, the rest of the city has been improving with many young families moving into the suburbs and with it, a steadily improving level of property value and pride in their city.
It’s not great and sadly the City will never ever recover completely from the mistake of demolition. Recently, though, there has been a cry for a waterfront ‘just like Newburyport’. At least they are trying.
Never after pedaling through memory lane was I more thankful to see the ‘Welcome to Newburyport’ sign on Route 113 and pass into a city that was saved through historic preservation.
Before we give in to these blind fanatics who want to ‘save’ Newburyport; I invite every citizen to visit Haverhill. I wouldn’t advise it but you might want to park your car in their garage and walk around and soak up all that ‘community spirit’.
But do it in the daytime, please!