, Newburyport, MA

February 18, 2013

A matter of aesthetics

Officials debate if trash tower is right for town green

By Jennifer Solis

---- — NEWBURY — Town officials aren’t turning up their noses to public art made of trash, but it appears they’d prefer not to see that type of creative expression on historic town land.

The Board of Selectmen last week leaned toward history and aesthetics in their consideration of a proposal to erect a 12-foot trash tower on the town’s Upper Green.

Newbury visual artist Carol Baum is seeking to artistically fill her tower throughout the year with trash she collects on her daily walks around town.

When Baum first presented the idea last December, selectmen encouraged her to run the concept by the town’s Conservation Commission, Board of Health and Historical Commission.

Armed with nods from the conservation and health boards as well as the building inspector, Baum returned to selectmen last week. The Historical Commission, meanwhile, ruled her project “had merit,” but didn’t want to see it on the historic green.

That seemed to be the consensus of selectmen, too, who were quick to praise Baum for finding a creative solution that aims to challenge people into thinking twice before they litter.

Baum’s tower would be comprised of a cedar wood frame and “windows” made of clear polycarbonate sheets and occupy a 9-square-foot area of the green. An informational board created by Triton High School students would be erected nearby and delineate how long it takes different types of trash to decompose.

“Will a trash tower and a poster change people’s behavior? The hope is it will,” Baum said.

But Selectman Geoff Walker said if he had to vote last week, he’d oppose Baum’s plan on the basis of aesthetics.

“The green has a feeling for me that is different,” said Walker, who also worried about setting a precedent.

“Once you start having trash towers, what’s next?” he said. “Pretty soon, we could have a pretty eclectic (town) green.”

While Baum argued her project wouldn’t be “an eyesore,” Selectman Chuck Bear said the idea of using “trash” for art simply turns a lot of people off. Bear said some residents have suggested that the town dump might be a better spot for the tower. Others have called for a Town Meeting vote on the proposal.

Selectman Michael Bulgaris said he has heard from about 20 people who were “very critical” of the plan. The feeling was that a trash sculpture was not the right fit for the historic land.

But Baum said she also has heard from people supportive of the idea.

Selectman David Mountain said the discussion reflects an ongoing tension in town between a sentimental attachment to “an imagined past” and the push for progress. In reality, both the Upper and Lower Greens have changed considerably from when the land first welcomed the founding settlers to town, he said.

“I think we have to realize that the green is not frozen in time,” Mountain said, while at the same time acknowledging, “History is very important to the residents.”

Ultimately, the board asked Baum to consider other possible locations for her trash tower, including a spot near Old Town Hill, at the town recreation field or in front of Town Hall.

Selectmen have been wrestling lately with requests for use of town properties.

Also last week, the Triton Music Parents Organization sought approval to hang a banner on the backstop on the Upper Green advertising the group’s upcoming fundraiser, “Finnegan’s Wake.” The group’s request was put on hold.

Selectmen Chairman Joe Story reminded his colleagues that in previous years, banners hanging on the backstop have frequently become “unsightly.” The board agreed that guidelines need to be established on what types of banners may be hung and by which types of sponsoring organizations. Bulgaris suggested purchasing an electronic town message board to promote town events instead.