There is a great battle of philosophy being waged every day in Newburyport. It is a constant function of our lives so we don’t see it in the view of great conflicts and emotional war of words, yet it goes on night and day. One side is the People of the Now. There is no history but only what is. Experience is what is sensed every day. The buildings in Newburyport are just buildings, the organizations and businesses, some quite ancient, are only organizations. Such every day things as cars and democracy and basic liberty are here because they are. The Now only sees Newburyport as it is, a pretty little city by the bay. Day to day decisions are based on what is experienced. If the weather is bleak, they are sad; if a bright sunny day, they are happy. Their entire life is based on what they experience. It is this clever function that makes any smart politician realize how easy it is to manipulate the People of the Now. Just provide the right stimuli and they will do whatever you wish them to do.* The People of the Now believe the same as Henry Ford, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”
On the other hand, we have another group, The Historic Preservationists, who know the struggles that have come through our City. They understand the significance of every building, of every house and know the parade of great personages that have marched from and through our city borders. They know the principles by which they accomplished great things. This group understands that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” (George Santayana) and understand that “History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought” (Etienne Gilson). It is their view that history is not some dry exercise in reminiscing but it is a “…lamp of experience”. “They know no way of judging of the future but by the past.”(Edward Gibbon).
Historic Preservationists do care deeply about the past as a way of anchoring themselves as a means to move forward confidently into the future. They certainly don’t want the City to remain stagnant in some kind of “history laboratory” nor to cause all creativity and culture and development to cease. What they want is to take the richness of our past, the beauty of our architecture and use it as springboards to revitalize neighborhoods, spur abundant economic revitalization and to create a community with a high quality of life. Newburyport should become a delivery room for the birth of ideas — a place where history comes to life.
It is this group, the People of the Now that have done great damage to Newburyport by continually making mistakes that could have been avoided by learning from others in the past. As Gustave Flaubert said, “Ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times.” The People of the Now want the same things as the Historic Preservationists and have plenty of ideas popping in their heads how to do it. Ideas like demolishing old buildings for the new (They almost succeeded in Newburyport), pouring black top and concrete sidewalks in our historic districts (ongoing), putting up a strip mall (Almost succeeded in downtown Newburyport) creating isolated elderly housing (Sullivan Building), building strictly utilitarian buildings (Daily News and the laundry mat on Water Street), building in the historic Common Pasture (love those floods!) or have a for-profit company cap the landfill for free!(What a nice concept!). These people just bubble up with great ideas and then when the damage is done, they fade into the background and shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, we tried”.
The problem is that there is an abundance of examples elsewhere in Massachusetts alone that shows that these great ideas won’t work. They failed elsewhere but somehow they’ll work here? That is because they never bothered to look! Putting large wind turbines near residential areas seemed like a great idea. The People of the Now couldn’t do a quick Internet search and find out the suffering that Revere is going through when this was done? How about the demolishing and destruction of priceless historic buildings? Are not hundreds of communities that sought the “new” lessons enough? Is Salem so far away that we don’t learn the mistake of putting a large hotel on our waterfront? If only the People of the Now would at least learn from recent history!
Historic Preservationists know that the best green buildings are historic buildings, that local historic districts are an economic, cultural boon and that a central waterfront park is a key to the success of our entire downtown. Why? Because we have historical lessons from nearby and regional communities. Those who want an idyllic community where the rich and the poor, the elderly and the young intermingle need only come to Newburyport which has taken the mistakes of Haverhill and Salem and Peabody and taken them to heart.
My only hope is that Historic Preservationists in Newburyport can win out over the People of the Now. If they can, future tragedies can be avoided by simply taking the lessons of history and applying it to our future.
* If you don’t provide the right stimuli, they will crucify you at the drop of a hat. The People of the Now are not known for patience!