Newburyport in the 60's
The 'federal bulldozer' rolls
(Editors Note: This continues a review of the redevelopment of Newburyport in the last half of the 20th century. Byron J. Matthews had been elected mayor, and had begun his first of five terms in 1968 facing a situation common to redevelopment under HUD at that time.)
by Bill Plante
Although Byron Matthews had defeated George Lawler, and Lawler was serving on the Redevelopment Authority, the proposed shift in power sharing happened because the two could, and did, work together.
The downtown issues, and the need for bring the city's tax base in line with reality, weren't the only issues facing Matthews, because the private redevelopment of what had been essentially open space on Storey Avenue was also under way --- not without the kind of controversies common to all such situations. There was, after all, a "master plan."
A community's commercial needs have to be met, times change, and while planning is essential, so too come times when plans have to be reconfigured.
When the exceptions of service businesses like banks and insurance companies, the post office and those retail businesses continuing the struggle to survive while being disrupted by demolition, the open spaces of Storey Avenue were strong magnets. Making downtown buildings economically productive faced this reality. Floor space was restricted for merchandising requiring large inventories. The ideal would be to have the two commercial centers augment one another ... as they have.
The realities related to Newburyport's great fire at the beginning of the 19th century. That fire had swept through the downtown because of the construction common to the era. The city adopted regulations requiring fire walls in the downtown area. Those fire walls extend from above the roofs down through the buildings as separating partitions. The resulting floor spaces were adequate to the merchandising of the times, and are a governing influence on tenancy today.
Owners of such buildings need tenants who can produce enough by way of sales to provide satisfactory earnings and sufficient income for the owners to maintain them. That required central business district zoning changes expanding utilization. The condos existing throughout the downtown and the nature of the occupancies permitted on the other floors provide incomes essential in preventing the kind of deterioration that led to neglect and urban renewal.
In short, evolving conditions make it necessary to reconsider zoning both commercial areas, and that was pushed forward despite uncertainty as it was reflected in a Daily News editorial of Aug. 22, 1968, " ... We wish we knew the kind of businesses which would occupy that land (Storey Avenue) if it is re-zoned ..."
Dealing with the unknown was something that had become familiar territory in a city in which more than 600 citizens, desperate to end massive unemployment, had pledged $200,000, an ambitious amount for the times, to create an industrial park without any location for it. The drive was the epitome of "blue sky marketing" because it asked for pledges based on faith that NAID could, and would, follow through. Whether the drive would have been successful without the ongoing revolution related to urban renewal is problematic, but it was part of the whole, led by a surging sense of leadership out of the service clubs and the roots of what would become the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce, directly related to the growing, revolutionary spirit come alive.
Most attention continued to be focused on the downtown, especially when the first of roughly half of some 100 buildings started to come down. The most historically important and salvageable buildings had been designated for renewal, leaving those insisting on saving the whole distressed. That, and narrower considerations, would translate into political activism that set out, successfully, to protect the historic "wayes" to the waterfront, a chapter in the city's history that proved to be as educational as it was politically successful.
On April 18, 1968, heaving equipment of the Carey Steeple Jack Co. of Lowell was hired by the NRA at a cost of $41,000 and set about removing structures on Unicorn Street, itself a locus to live on only in the memories of those who can recall it.
It is difficult today to imagine what "old" Newburyport (circa 1968) looked like, but what we know as the large parking lot between Inn and Green streets housed a variety of buildings, many of them of wood, but some, like the old Newburyport Hotel, were of masonry. In an earlier time, one of the buildings had housed one of the two downtown blacksmiths shops. The Hyman's-Pennyworth shoe store of the shopping center was owned and operated by the Hyman Kirshner family for many years at the corner of Green and Merrimac streets, opposite the entrance to the waterfront park. That remained for a time while the owners sued for, and won, additional relief for the taking. That, in turn, made relocation in the new shopping center, giving credibility to what had been presented as a need for rezoning. The legal delay in the departure of Hyman's Shoe Store left it as the sole tenant of the area demolished by wrecking crews.
That first onslaught created a major reactions, sweeping as it did almost the entire block from Pleasant Street to Merrimac, leaving the Unitarian Church and everything to the westward to the retained block opposite the post office, and down Green Street to everything from the old Strand Theater building to Merrimac Street.
Also demolished were the buildings opposite, between Merrimac Street and the river --- some family-owned and operated such as Chetsas Appliance and Gurney's Radio.
Byron Matthews recalls that among the oft-displaced in the project area was "Stone and Dubois," the area's premier doughnut makers over a number of years. John Stone was a popular and able businessman who served on the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority.
"Poor Stoney," Matthews said during our interview. "He had to keep moving because the wrecking ball was behind him."
Small wonder what had been known as the "federal bulldozer" was associated largely with Byron Matthews, even though he was in the process of saving what could be saved, because it happened on his watch. He could see what had been set in motion to its near completion, a task that became even more contentious as the wrecking ball and cranes moved onto the waterfront, more about which will follow.
Bill Plante is former executive editor of Essex County Newspapers. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)