NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

February 13, 2013

Newburyport loses its 'unsung hero'

What would Newburyport be like today if it were not for George Lawler?

We can count him among those who stood at a crossroad in the city’s history and chose the right path, not necessarily the easy path.

Lawler died yesterday, at age 85. He served as mayor from 1964 to 1968, pivotal years in Newburyport’s recent history. He is credited with making the decision that went against the grain of what was the trend of the time — he chose to emphasize restoration of the city’s historic downtown, at a time when nearly every city was tearing down the old and replacing it with the garish new.

Today, we can be eternally thankful for this humble and dedicated public servant’s wisdom.

He was a Newburyport native and grew up in the city as it struggled through hard times. At age 37, he found himself in the mayor’s office, at a time when the dilapidated state of the city’s downtown had citizens and politicians pushing hard for change. Lawler listened to one of the key voices in that debate — the city’s historical society and preservationists — and took the steps that turned the tide in their favor.

First, he refused to sign a federal document that would have put in motion plans to tear down about two blocks of historic Federalist-era buildings on State Street, as well as all of Market Square and Inn Street. The “urban renewal” plan was to replace them with a one-story strip mall and a big parking lot.

“It was on my desk,” Lawler told The Daily News in 2007. “All I had to do was sign it and it was done.”

Instead, he sent a letter to the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, asking it to emphasize restoration in its plans for redeveloping the downtown.

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