, Newburyport, MA

May 6, 2014

Life in the nanny-port

As I See It
By John Burciaga

---- — Barely 10 years in this Port city, I’m no expert on its history, but I know a power struggle when I see one. Not all do: Ask many locals what’s behind the waterfront brouhaha, the ado over a historic district or other powder kegs, and their eyes glaze over.

Geographically and topographically this is a little Eden: river- and ocean-sides, beaches, a quaint downtown and High Street. It’s also a small town: 17K souls since five years before God — a stasis that bears watching because such bergs do things to people’s brains without their knowing it.

Much comes to pass here with nary a word of protest — except by folks behind the power struggles. The clueless are often Rip Van Winkles who, amazingly, don’t know what is going on; but others zip their lips because living in hicksville comes at a cost: Relations are so incestuous that a simple, honest opinion can cost you clients, customers and trading partners, not to mention friends who may not mind your honesty, but know someone who does, and would rather not offend them than you.

So I’m here to offend.

I’ve lived all over the U.S. in places large and small and rarely have seen the equal of, but nothing superior to, the NRA plan for the waterfront. Indeed, a Firehouse full of folk, like me, were awed by the original public presentation.

There was also the effort to put in place an incredibly limited and unintrusive historical preservation “district” in a miniature “city” that hardly has room for more than one.

I’ll mention also the sensible move to place a surveillance camera at a strategic location and an initiative to ban plastic shopping bags.

Each of the above, and other initiatives here unmentioned, has brought out screechers and howlers whose opposition is more than honest differences of opinion. In ancient Rome, an uneducated man seen often at academy debates was asked why he frequented them, given his ignorance of classical language. He said that while he understood not a word, he always knew who was losing: the guys who got mad first.

Not in Newburyport. People who get mad first, call names, accuse others of mis- and malfeasance, and show no signs of civility are winning all the debates because decent folks back off from their convictions like rats leaving a sinking ship — or to avoid offending anyone.

The scale of anger can’t have been just about our precious waterfront; the viciousness of the attacks came from a deep and ugly place, emitting a spate of invective upon fellow citizens who had been tasked to bring a quality solution to plans for city progress, and did so.

One cannot read the letters from NRA resigners Shanley and Dorfman without feeling shame on their critics who otherwise consider themselves a “community” of friends and neighbors. Then came the exodus from the fray of city leaders who should have put up a fight on the NRA’s behalf, but gave it, and those two civic servants, no decent, public thanks for what were months of toil on our behalf.

As for the historic district kerfuffle, too many names were the same and a trend was clear. Worse, among them were people who reside outside the Port but retain local property that at times have been blights on their neighborhoods. And certain other homeowners should just admit the wish to use developed property not only as current living space but to maximize future wealth by subdividing the lots for separate sale, or their large homes as condos — something already begun on High Street and elsewhere.

More recently, the outrage over ridding our environment of plastic bags is, again, not merely a difference of opinion; it is people going to enormous time and trouble to stifle a sensible effort, while young people leading the cause stand by palpably mystified. It is testimony to the truism that elders must all grow old and die, and thank god for that.

Throughout these and other struggles, one hears the plaintive cry of this “Down With Up” crowd: the words, “Nanny state!” — what they think the world has come to — dastardly neighbors who live and breathe to take all their “freedom” away. Next time you hear that ridiculous canard, keep in mind that such people are totally out of options, with nothing more substantive or creative to say than that silly, worn-out phrase.

But know this — it is a power struggle, and you can look for the bogeymen of the nanny-port to be on your next and future ballot cards. Elect them, if you will, but imagine what a pathetic “community” this will become.

Oh, and I know all young people don’t think alike; that’s not the issue. But what they must think of our “grown-up” behavior.


John Burciaga of Newburyport writes locally on politics and social issues.