October 27, 2003



Newburyport in the '60s, a sleepy city starts to awaken

(Editor's note: The continuing series relating to the 20th century renaissance of Newburyport begins with part of an Aug. 31, 1968, Periscope written by the late John O'Neill, managing editor of The Daily News. O'Neill's column opened with his memory of "old" Newburyport, and turns to what was happening in 1968, the first year of Byron J. Matthews' mayoralty.)

" ... Low Street is no longer a barren place 'out back.' There are scores of homes now along what is probably the widest street in the city ...

"There is construction under way, too, as the Countryside Nursing Home and the shopping plaza begin to take shape. More construction is planned -- two new 26-unit apartment houses on the corner of Low Street and Storey Avenue, and a chronic hospital on the corner of Low and Hale streets.

"In the future, a middle school will be built between Johnson Street and Route 1.

"And just a stone's throw away on Common Pasture Road, a significant name from the past ... is the first building in the 'Lord' Timothy Dexter Industrial Green -- International Light Co.

"Another building, a speculative venture by the Newburyport Area Industrial Development Corp., will be going up soon. And construction now on that will supply water lines to the area.

"Off Low Street, on North Atkinson, where the poor farm used to be, is the city's handsome home for the elderly.

" ... Yes, the face of the city is changing. And more changes are in store when developers go to work on the urban renewal area.

"Newburyport's finally happening."

Well, it was. The changes had begun in the way spring freshets lead to floods, first with the creation of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority by Mayor Albert H. Zabriskie Jr., and then by the diplomacy and political creativity of Mayor George H. Lawler that laid the groundwork for the 10 dynamic years of Mayor Byron J. Matthews, who would, indeed, hit the ground running as he had planned before his inauguration day in January of 1968.

The laying of water lines noted in John O'Neill's column was part of the result of the bond issue initiative prepared by Matthews even as he awaited Inauguration Day.

While NAID had been concluding its fund drive for the industrial park, and purchasing the farmland at the intersection of Parker Street and Common Pasture Road, the city had not made a grant application for the infrastructure, and in doing that Matthews learned how to network those at various levels of government. His first effort was to go into Boston and begin knocking on doors. One was at the Commerce Department, where he first met William Kafarris, who was connected with the Economic Development Administration in Washington. He would, as would so many at various levels of government, become a lifelong friend of Matthews, who returned home with the bundled paper work required.

"My wife and I sat down with the application and put it together. She did all the typing," Matthews said.

"Bill (then Congressman) Bates was helpful," he said, "and John Linehan, of Haverhill was most helpful, as was Ted Kennedy's office in Washington."

Jack Bradshaw (hired by Matthews) hand-delivered the application to the EDA office in Portland, and, according to Matthews, the preparation, application, and approval " ... was fastest thing the EDA had ever seen, and when the EDA office moved to Philadelphia, they knew what we were doing. Through them, we coordinated with the Anderson Nichols (Engineering) Co. Getting the right people around you was what it was all about ... "

He had succeeded, by December of 1967, in completing all the work necessary to apply for funding to get the industrial park going, and, as noted in O'Neill's Periscope, succeeded by the spring of his first year in office.

"I wanted to hit the ground running," he said during a recent interview, and he did..

But he had a much more ambitious agenda.

Inauguration Day of Jan. 1, 1968, was one of the coldest on record. The thermometer was at zero at 10 a.m. when Matthews delivered his address from a staging in front of the steps of City Hall.

"I wanted to do it out of doors," he said, "for the city, and for myself."

He listed the following as goals.

1. Implementation of the Rupert A. Nock (then superintendent of schools) plan for a modernized school system.

2. Create a community (through urban renewal) that was "different from the rest of the country."

3. To improve the operation of the sewage treatment plant.

4. Install a sewer system in the rest of the community.

5. Expand the reservoir.

6. Create the seawall on Water Street

7. Improve the slip at Cashman Park.

Some thought the list too ambitious and said so.

"But I told them I would take them one at a time and do what I could, but I got a lot of help."

He needed it, because anyone visiting the city during most of the years of his mayoralty would have found what appeared to be a spasm of change from Federal Street where a cluster of tannery buildings would later become the elegant shopping complex of today, to the beginning of the growth of the Storey Avenue plaza complex, and the industrial revolution and housing developments in what John O'Neill's Periscope related to as the "out back."

But out of view were the financial problems, as Matthews learned from the city auditor, who told him that something had to be done to straighten out the city's finances. They said to me, "Look. There's got to be a $25 increase in the tax rate. You can't do anything about it. There are some serious problems here, and we've got to do something about it. There's no way around it."

I looked at the numbers, and said, "If I can't do anything about this, I'm going to be a one-term mayor. So, I said, 'Fine. If it's going to be in the best interest of the city, and I'm going to be sacrificial lamb, I'll do it."

The city established the rate hike, everybody in the city was upset, and there was a taxpayers' suit that demanded a revaluation.

"We had a difficult time with a group from the West End of the community," Matthews said, "and we went through it by order of the courts. We had a difficult time with this group, but after about eight years we were involved with this group from the West End, not one of them (from the 10 who filed the suit) was remaining in town."

Revaluation now is a state-mandated situation, but at that time there were very few communities that had been revalued, and those by taxpayer suits.

In April of '68, there was some action with the Redevelopment Authority. James Silk was the director, and the assistant director was Brendan Bailey. Former Mayor George Lawler had become an assistant to the NRA as well.

"I had no trouble with that," Matthews said, of Lawler's involvement.

"Reappraisal had started. We had a lot of action."

Part of that involved the courts. Among the appraisers come to town was the Roger Foster Co. that would subsequently contribute substantially in the process of change.

Compensation for property taken was on the basis of assessed valuation plus 25 percent, and given the low evaluation, the only recourse was for owners to resort to "friendly" suits. That could result in increased settlements. All of that took time, but one by one, the designated properties came under the control of the Redevelopment Authority, and those scheduled for demolition began to fall.

"Demolition began as we went along in the downtown area where the designated buildings were taken down," Matthews said. "C & D, (Chaisson & Davis Service Station), the property of Duke Leary's at the corner of Unicorn Street, Bartlett Street. The 20th Century Cleaners were the last to leave from down there."

But there were partial demolitions as well, with debris seemingly everywhere, giving rise to some public grumbling over "the Federal Bulldozer."

(A subsequent article will deal with some of the specific problems involving demolition.)


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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