1764 was the birth of the town of Newbury-port formerly called The Waterside when it was part of Greater Newbury. Since then, if anyone analysis the history of Newburyport, it doesn’t take long to see that the march of history has been broken up into three distinct time periods: 1764 to 1864, The Romantic Era, 1864 to 1964, The Industrial Era and 1964 to the Future, The Promotional Era.
I want to talk about the crucial year of 1964 and how we dodged the terrible fate of cities like Haverhill and many other municipalities around Boston. Having an urban renewal plan was nothing unique to most cities and in particular, Newburyport. The intention had always been to tear down the old buildings and build ‘new’ elegant structures that imbued all the modern concepts of urban planning.
The trouble was, the basic philosophy and those ‘modern’ concepts were all based on faulty misconceptions. History has shown that many evils are often championed by “science falsely so called”(I Timothy 6:20). Leave it to humans to find a way to mix bias, prejudices and populist sentiment and call it ‘fact’. Most of the urban renewal plans so enthusiastically embraced across the country from California to Massachusetts were miserable failures. But it took one city to go against the tide and many urban renewal projects across America since then can attribute their success because they followed its lead and embraced historic preservation.
Newburyport late in the year 1964.
It was then, Mayor George Lawler encouraged a declaration be made by the NRA (unanimously adopted) that changed the intent of the downtown urban renewal plan to include historic preservation in its planning in stark contrast to demolition (Which was almost a given nationwide). This was due to the strong encouragement by Dr. Robert Wilkins, on behalf of the Historical Society of Old Newbury* which strongly fulfilled its mission by encouraging historic preservation.
It said the following and ushered in a new era:
“Whereas: The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority attempts to undertake such urban renewal activities as will result in the greatest benefit to the Community and
“Whereas: the Authority in this attempt is ever anxious to learn of the various ideas which may result in urban renewal projects for the greatest benefit to the community and
“Whereas: the Historical Society of Old Newbury[*] has conducted independent studies in the Central Business District and has presented a plan involving a combination of preservation and redevelopment and
“Whereas: the uses proposed by the aforesaid plan are not incompatible with those proposed under the present urban renewal plan
“NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that, should an otherwise qualified redeveloper, who indicates a sincere desire to purchase land from the Authority, express a desire to redevelop the area in a manner expressive of the plans of the Historical Society[*], which plans will be made known to them, this Authority will attempt to make any necessary changes in its present plans, consistent with sound municipal planning and economic feasibility and will further present such changes to the proper public bodies for the necessary reviews and approvals.”
The result has been transforming a worn-out industrial mill town into a beautiful eco and heritage tourism Mecca; of which since then the economic renaissance has been well documented.
We owe a lot to Mr. Wilkins (since deceased!); the Historical Society and to George Lawler (Still here). If you happen to meet Mr. Lawler, make a point to shake his hand and say, “Thank you!”
As for the Historical Society, just shake your head in sadness and ask, “Is there any of the old members left?”
As for Robert Wilkins – He does not deserve to be a tiny footnote in the history books, that is how important his contribution has been!
* Yes, the very same organization that has turned a blind eye to historic preservation in the last several decades, forcing the creation of the Newburyport Preservation Trust and not lifting a finger to promote the saving of the Newburyport Historic District!
Alas, if we could have the Historical Society before the developers infiltrated it and corrupted its purpose!