A war has been waging for almost 50 years in Newburyport – one that is largely out of sight but raging red hot in the hearts and minds of the residents. Admittedly, it can be seen occasionally when a citizen is screaming and jumping up and down in a public forum, or when an unsuspecting DPW worker is assaulted by an irate homeowner; or a farmer minding his or her affairs while riding a tractor meets flailing environmental wacko’s threatening to call the police. Sometimes, some may even get run off the road or political signs vandalized as tempers flair. The police have actually witnessed innocent park benches or wetland observation platforms viciously attacked and destroyed.
But those are the very occasional incidents. No, most of the war goes unseen.
All this emotion and intense passion centers around a simple question:
Is Newburyport a place to make a living or a place to experience quality living?
This city is a hard place to make a living. It’s expensive, and no matter how conned a person can be in late spring, summer and fall – the winter will literally take the stuffing out of any pretense of comfort. Massachusetts is not business friendly. It’s a long background story, but no matter how much money is poured into the paving of the roads, winter will destroy it all with potholes. No matter how environmental-friendly you care to be, the climate is not conducive to bicycles year round or pedestrian travel. The ground, the ocean, the seasons and the weather conspire to generate high maintenance costs. So why on earth hang around if you can get out!?!
This city has an architectural treasure that can’t be reproduced on a factory floor. Human experience, ancient history and time created it. We are surrounded by ecology that is breathtaking and hugely significant. Our seasons generate joy and pleasure. And on top of all that heritage and ecology, we have the creative minds of the community expressed in art, and music and many diverse expressions. Our economy is literally based on history and nature. Residents and visitors alike can’t sit down and give you a rational dissertation, but they feel it everywhere. It is pure romance.
So let’s define the two contestants:
There is the make-a-living group. They work long hours, work hard and live hard. Many are craftsmen who couldn’t care less about the architectural history, just rip it out, put in cheap material, sell it while it still has the patina of ‘newness’ and move on to the next property to ravish. Short-term profit is the objective. Just use up the historic stock until it’s all gone and then move on to the next place to work. Restaurants and shops continue the daily grind – produce a good product – who has time to think about why the customers are here in the first place. Those who have to commute, just push the gas pedal down and move on to the business and doing the business concerns, until the mad rush back to home.
Then there is the Quality of Life group. They love to surround themselves with beautiful architecture, enjoy the parks, ride the bike paths, walk the trails; enjoy the shops. They relish the wildlife – live life on the recreational boats, explore the history, canoe and kayak, visit the beaches and experience the downtown with live entertainment surrounded by friends. This group may also work long hours, or do long commutes but they want to make sure all that effort is compensated by being in a community that enriches their life.
And these two groups do not get along!
The former group get irritated and yes, even threatened by the second group; and the second group doesn’t help any by romanticizing everything and not understanding the economics of the former group. The first gang starts screaming when bike paths are put in where they used to dump their grass clippings; or a nature trail appears where they used to deposit their trash. Their furious when a road race has blocked off their route to work, and outraged when they can’t even do some renovations to their own homes.
The second group can’t understand why the farmer is raising livestock or clearing a pasture where young birds are fledgling; can’t understand a carpenter ripping out priceless historical architecture and putting in cheap modern materials; can’t understand why developers want to rip out forests and or business owners want to cover land with blacktop or prefab buildings. Nor create housing that doesn’t make sense or is ugly just because it ‘saves’ money.
Fortunately, the second group is winning. They have the large sums of money to buy the houses which is why the biggest boomtown economy is real estate. The QOL have the cash. And just in time, the architecture to support that QOL is coming on line. The Clipper City Rail Trail is at it’s zenith this year. (Though the Newbury span must still be built) The William Lloyd Garrison Bike/Pedestrian Trail will be opened up this year. And the Little River Trail System is now in place and will be fully available this year also. We have a new Harbormaster building to help accommodate the boating industry and the Custom House Museum and the Newburyport Preservation Trust are continuing to roar along. (Along with the Old Newbury Historical Museum) We have refurbished schools and a real-live senior center. And finally, the garage and the open waterfront are coming into their own.
Admittedly, the war continues as exploiting developers try to cash in on the second group’s willingness to beat down a path to Newburyport with some built-in gullibility. And we still have the former group hanging around doing as much damage as possible in the Chamber and City Hall.
I personally think that bottom-line economics and community self-preservation are going to win the day.
That’s the key. If we are to continue to be such a desirable place where QOL money is attracted, we have to work hard as a community to keep the first group under control lest they destroy the golden goose.