July 21, 2003



A dreamer's goal comes closer

(Editor's Note: This is the second in what Bill Plante refers to as "a sometimes series" concerning the redevelopment of downtown Newburyport. The first, appearing in the June 9 edition of The Daily News, ended with the events leading to the involvement of Dr. Robert W. Wilkins, chairman of a committee of the Historical Society of Old Newbury, and Mayor George H. Lawler Jr. The Daily News had played a prodding role in urging action -- any kind of action -- to stop the deterioration of the downtown. This chapter deals with the responses to proposals dealing with demolition and reconstruction by the Historical Society, and the formalization of a committee to deal with it. Plante was editor and general manager of the newspaper during that period.)

At some point, a historian will undertake a major study of the occurrences in Newburyport during the last half of the century that the famed "Yankee City Series" introduced. This is not it. I am no historian, and I couldn't do it with credibility if I were, because this newspaper was heavily engaged in covering and commenting on what was taking place.

Our recurring theme, one we had repeated for years, was "tear it down, or fix it up, but don't let the cancer spread."

In his 1977 history of the role of the Historical Society of Old Newbury in the restoration, society President Benjamin J. Stone, quoted from a column appearing May 23, 1963.

"The biggest waste in Newburyport I know is its history. I never visit the Historical Society Museum but what I'm reminded of that. ... It is our firm hope that the political leaders of the city will invite representatives of the society to join with the Redevelopment Authority in devising a program which will jealously guard our historical wealth while planning vigorously to insure a prosperous future. The two goals lie at the end of the same path."

This is an account of who made that happen, and how. There are many who can rightfully share in the credit, but the heavy lifting was done by five men: the late Dr. Robert W. Wilkins, and four mayors, beginning with the late Albert H. Zabriskie Jr.

Al Zabriskie was responsible for two major contributions. The first was to establish the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority. The second was to rely heavily on the then-president of the City Council, George H. Lawler Jr., to be his on-the-scene representative during those days when he was in Boston serving as state representative. Zabriskie was Newburyport's only mayor to hold both offices simultaneously.

He was a breakthrough mayor, young, knowledgeable as to what was taking place on the national and state scenes as that related to programs like urban renewal, and politically savvy enough to disassemble the old Gillis machine and to build his own base. He had risen through the City Council, a path that would be followed by others over succeeding years, including George Lawler.

Service to his city has been a lifelong experience for Lawler, beginning with part-time police work in the 1950s, followed by election to the City Council, its presidency, and then mayor for two terms, to be followed by three years as clerk of the Redevelopment Authority, and then city clerk for 16 years. He returned to the City Council for more four years, completing 41 years of public service. Small wonder he had a reputation for knowing more about city government than anyone ever to have served in it. Add to that the lifelong connection with the Zabriskies, who lived two blocks away.

"Al and I were Ward Fivers," Lawler said recently. "I agreed with him on some things, and disagreed on others which we fought about. But we trusted one another."

It is important to digress here because the operation of the city government of 2003 is far more complex than it was in 1963 and the years immediately following.

The mayor had no staff. No assistant. No full-time secretary. His office was the space now occupied by the mayor's secretary. The present mayor's office was, until Mayor Byron J. Matthews changed it, that of the city clerk. The present office of the city clerk was the committee room of the City Council.

Lawler had the services of a typist. He wrote his own letters and documents. At different times, attorneys Hugh Doyle and the late James Connolly served as city solicitors, but, perhaps because society and its politics were less complex then, there was far less demand on legal expertise than currently.

Mayors did not work regular hours. Some worked most of their waking hours and Lawler was among them. His pay for all of that was $2,500 a year.

With Zabriskie at the Statehouse so much of the time, Lawler worked in and out of City Hall, filling in for Zabriskie outside and as a city councilor inside, a condition made possible by the realities of the time. Everyone knew everyone else. Indeed, Zabriskie and Lawler were separated by only two streets, and the latter's house could be seen by Matthews, before the latter's family moved to Maple Street.

(Just to keep the record straight, my house was just down Warren Street from the Zabriskies', and we moved up to Forrester Street just before the Matthews moved, following which my father would build the building for Matthews' Market.)

While there certainly were differences of opinion, there was no disguising personal agendas, so there were few attempts to do so. The one thing everyone could agree on was that the economy of the city was in the tank, the downtown was so far downhill that anything by way of change would be better. The talk on the street was to tear down and build anew. The talk in places like the Historical Society was to fight to restore what was there. Given the policies of a federal government that had wiped out sections in Boston and New Haven, Conn., with demolition and rebuilding under urban redevelopment, restoration seemed to be a dreamer's goal, but the dream persisted as a prod to find a way to turn on enthusiasm for restoration, and to find a way to get Washington to agree.

What Wilkins, Lawler and a cooperative City Council did was to make that possible. It didn't happen overnight, and a lot of hands were involved, but it began like this:

Wilkins began the process of amelioration between the two extremes: the one, the call for demolition under the NRA plan, the other, the pleadings of the restorationists with a letter to The Daily News, published July 20, 1964, after Lawler had become mayor, in which Wilkins had written, (ref: the Stone paper) "... there is nothing incompatible between preserving the artistic heritage of a city and having modern industry as well; ... let us try to maintain both Newburyport's heritage and her commercial progress. For unless we succeed in both of these objectives, all of us will have lost something precious, and no one will have gained anything of real value."

His use of the word "industry" is interesting, because it was at that time we began to move toward the organization of the Newburyport Area Industrial Development Corp. (NAID) as a not-for-profit corporation to build an industrial base essential to job creation. In the 1950s, that base had crumpled to about a thousand manufacturing jobs, with double-digit unemployment soaring.

But the main thrust of that letter resulted in the Historical Society's formation of a powerful committee comprised of preservations with Wilkins as chairman, but it also added to Lawler's interest in Wilkins as a means of bringing the two sides together.

Lawler and I talked about that recently, recalling the conversation we had 29 years earlier. He had mentioned that it would be great to get Wilkins to serve on the Redevelopment Authority, and I suggested he ask him. That evening, my telephone rang, and it was Bob Wilkins, who said he had returned from Boston to find Mayor Lawler parked in his driveway. Lawler had asked him whether he would accept an appointment to the NRA. Wilkins asked me whether he was being used politically, and I told him of course that was the case. Wilkins, understanding that his participation would help bridge the gap, decided to accept the task, and the second of the two steps along the path toward an acceptable compromise was taken.

That step was one leading straight to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the gate which was to be opened by words from the pen of Mayor Lawler, at work in the first instance, to provide HUD with an opening toward preservation, and, as was later to be the case, at rest, in order to prevent demolition.

(The next account in this continuing series will describe the strategies that enlarged the public's engagement, the Historical Society committee's impact, and what Lawler and the City Council did to bring the two sides to agreement.)


Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is plantejr@highstream.net.



(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

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