History is filled with contradictions and often it assigns fame to people who on the surface get the credit. It’s when historians dig deeper that it is discovered that someone else was actually responsible. There are many famous examples in World History but I will give you a major one. Children are taught in school that James Madison was the writer of the Bill of Rights. Textbook after textbook assigns him that credit. But in truth, he didn’t create the concept of a Bill of Rights and hated the very idea feeling that his beloved Constitution would be sufficient for giving citizens protection. It was actually Theophilus Parsons from Newburyport, who coined the phrase. He was the first to coin the title and was instrumental in putting the Massachusetts form of the Bill of Rights at the beginning of the world’s first constitution. Virginia as well as other colonies modeled their state constitutions after the Massachusetts’ model. James Madison, realizing his document would be doomed without it, took Virginia’s version and re-shaped it into the Bill of Rights as we see it. But three of the rights came directly from Theophilus but Mr. Madison gets the credit in history.
All that drama came from something unseen: Public Opinion. All these politicians and statesmen were driven by a hidden force that drove them to the Bill of Rights.
It’s the same in local history. Byron Matthews is a classic ____ _____. Mr. Oil-refinery-in-the-Common Pasture-and-Zaires-downtown, his philosophy has always been to do whatever it takes to make money for desperately poor Newburyport. He saw the tide turning as Public Opinion swayed toward historic preservation. He took the bull by the horns and outdid the historic preservation advocates! Now he gets a big plaque on Inn Street and Mr. Burke, Mr. Knapp and Mr. Walker get dusty footnotes in a dark archive!
The same goes with John Moak, another classic ____ _____. So if he is one, how is it that he had oversight on our first local historic district and was instrumental in making sure the huge Common Pasture was partially restored? In fact, one of his best speeches ever was made as he presided over the dedication of the Cooper North Conservation Area. How did Mr. Pro-industrial-park- and-40B-lover end up doing that? Public opinion was driving toward historic preservation and open space. Now he gets the credit for great accomplishments including the restoration of City Hall! This while Al Decie, Linda Miller and Mary Harbaugh are footnotes in a history book! (If they’re lucky.)
We’ve got a potential problem! The NRA is being stuffed with pro-building-on-the-central waterfront advocates. I was alarmed when I noticed that Tom Salemi, a pro-building advocate, is being confirmed for the NRA this Monday. Why is the Mayor who wants a maritime park setting herself up for trouble by appointing a James Shanley clone? It is known that the Committee for the Open Waterfront are cracking open their old file cabinets and rallying to restart their efforts. This sounds like a huge brouhaha coming!
Recently, Gary Calderwood was re-appointed as the head of the building department. Why, if the Mayor is pro-historic preservation, is she opening the door for a potential disaster? He often locks horns with the Historical Commission and is loudly hostile toward the concept of the local historic district. He put a blind eye when the ‘exploratory permit’ was abused on Pine Street. Did nothing to stop the demolition of the house on Hancock Street with blatant open windows during winter. As historic preservationists finally are heard and our economics are increasingly being shaped by heritage tourism; this could turn ugly with the building department imploding and/or causing mayhem.
Or, Public Opinion could prevail.
If the citizens of Newburyport show clearly what they wish, then the NRA will have to re-shape if they want to proceed. Some compromise would allow all parties to get what they want and the leaders of the NRA will be hailed as heroes! The Building Inspector could out preserve the historic preservationists and be a dynamic force as he understands the City’s mood is changing.
Who cares if there are two more ugly rocks on Inn Street hailing their achievements!
It is time for open space advocates to rally and the historic preservationists to come out of the closet!
Our City will benefit hugely if we don’t care who gets the credit!?!