The restored downtown was largely complete (except the continuing dispute over the waterfront) and everyone was excited. Shop owners proudly displayed their signs and the mood was in that Newburyport was going to be a heritage tourist site. We would be just like Portsmouth and Salem.
Unfortunately, three unforeseen things struck the city.
The first was its reputation. The city was considered a rough, old dilapidated mill town with questionably safe neighborhoods. Side streets were filled with rundown houses, and the general condition of the city’s infrastructure was not conducive to investment. Worst of all, the city had a reputation as being one of the most corrupt on the eastern seaboard and Bossy Gillis’ legacy didn’t help. Most people in the Boston area who had the money to travel knew of ‘Old’ Newburyport and most were not aware that it had been restored. It had been and is still true that most Bostonians consider the North Shore as ending at the Route 128 intersection with Route One. They largely had no reason to come north except to skip over us for Maine.
Second was the mood of the city. Even though the shop owners were game and the politicians had dreams of large numbers of visitors spending their money; most of the city consisted of dark siders. They had no interest in having outsiders stomping around in their neighborhoods and worst, moving in telling them how to run the city. The prevailing mood was, ‘keep the carpetbaggers* out!” Pressure was put on the city NOT to advertise and promote Newburyport as an historic seaport – this also spread into of all places the Chamber of Commerce and so no effort was made to reach out to the nation and inform them of our special place.
Third were the tourists. From May to October, the sidewalks of Newburyport would be packed so much so, you could hardly find footage to move on; and then when the tourist season ended, the city became a ghost town. Fine for the locals, but disastrous for businesses – no visitors, no buyers, no commerce – in one year alone, eleven shops were lost downtown. More often than not, each year would produce at least close to that number in businesses closing. It is very hard to do business when the street traffic is non-existent. And to seal the coffin tight, the New England winter just discouraged most visitors.
When the National Register of Historic Places approved the huge Newburyport Historic District in 1984, the first step after being granted recognition was to put up signage. The dark side vetoed any effort to have them posted for fear they would ‘lose money’ or discourage ‘buyers’. Their ignorance of how real estate worked led to years later of a whole new set of homeowners who didn’t even know they were in an historic district an the dark side weren’t about to tell them!.
In spite of all this, the allure of Newburyport began to take hold. A special group of daring, visionary homeowners and developers could see what a Boston visitor could not see; a beautiful historic seaport that would be a regional envy. Proceeding on pure faith alone (Most banks would not invest in that dirty place.) they put in long hours restoring the homes and trying to bring back a dying town.
The city had spates where it dabbled in historic touristy shops (They failed because no one bothered to explain Newburyport’s historic significance) antique stores & flea markets (to be polite, they attracted a rather flea-bitten crowd that was not very ‘monied’ ) and later, tried to use a multitude of festivals. (Most visitors would eat ice cream and food at food stands and fail to even venture into most shops because all the outsider vendors were out in the streets.)
It has been a rough road but things began to change due to something unexpected and new to Newburyport.
As for our intrepid and hardworking pioneers of the seventies, their vision has become a reality. These ‘forefathers’ (women included of course!) stand as giants in our city’s long history.
* These are newcomers who have recently moved to the City and want to participate in the community and in politics. The natives and the townies get very upset when these visitors come in without any consideration of our city culture and our history and then have the nerve to want to change things. The irony is that many have a clearer vision on what the City needs than the long time residents. This further infuriates the natives. A carpetbagger was a post-Civil War term reflecting newcomers who often had large briefcases made of heavy carpet. They would move into desolated southern communities offering to help when their real motive was to defraud the locals. (Taken from P. Preservationist’s Glossary.)