, Newburyport, MA

June 29, 2007

The day the 'federal bulldozer' came to town

John Macone

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Under the pavement, the traffic islands and the multitude of cars in the Green Street parking lot lingers a forgotten chapter in the city's fight against the federal bulldozers of urban renewal.

This marks a place where the bulldozers won.

Newburyport's urban renewal has been rightfully heralded as an example of how old cities can be preserved and renewed. But Newburyport wasn't spared completely from the mass demolition that leveled large tracts of cities across the nation.

Some 50 to 60 downtown buildings | shops, warehouses, abandoned buildings and an entire residential neighborhood | crumpled under bulldozer blades and the maws of big cranes.

In the scope of a few weeks in 1968, demolition flattened neighborhoods where shipbuilders practiced their trade, shopkeepers sold their wares and Irish and Greek immigrants made their homes, leaving behind piles of debris and vistas of vacant dirt.

When the dust settled and the debris was carted away, the downtown neighborhood on Unicorn Street and Bartlet Street ceased to exist. The warehouses and tenements that lined the old ways to the waterfront were gone. So were the stores and a hotel along Merrimac Street, from Inn Street to Green Street.

It dramatically changed Newburyport. Suddenly, the once-invisible waterfront could be seen from the downtown. More than 17 acres had been opened to new development.

Some saw it as an exciting new opportunity for the dilapidated seaport. Others regretted that so much of their old and cherished city was gone.

Today, much of that land is parking lots and waterfront parkland. But in some places, the same dusty, flat dirt lots created 39 years ago remain, still awaiting new life.

Old neighborhoods

If you were to stand on the corner of Unicorn and Merrimac streets a half century ago, you wouldn't know you were in the same Newburyport.

Today there's an access road leading into the Green Street parking lot, with grassy, tree-lined strips on either side. Fifty years ago, it was a cluttered neighborhood | Ruth's Diner, Chetsas Market, the Newburyport Hotel, an Esso gas station, Hyman's Shoes, 20th Century Cleaners and several other businesses lined the streets.

The city's circa 1800 bathhouse | once used as a place for public bathing and later converted into a tenement | stood prominently on Unicorn Street. There were also several old homes in a neighborhood where immigrant families had put down their roots.

Among them was John Lagoulis, 88. He lives in Florida now, but his heart remains in his native Newburyport.

When he comes back to visit, he stays in Room 202 at the Garrison Inn, where he proposed to his wife more than six decades ago.

When the 12:30 fire whistle sounds outside, he recalls Mayor Bossy Gillis' curfew bell. Decades ago the bell tolled at 9 p.m., warning kids to go home for the night.

"We'd wait at Brown Square til the police officers chased us home," he said with a chuckle.

He grew up in a tenement at 14 Unicorn St. on a deeply rutted, "oversized dirt alley" where neighbors included Fowlers, Farmers, McGlews, Curriers and Campbells.

Down the road, toward the waterfront, was a Greek immigrant neighborhood. Greek families had been drawn to Newburyport by jobs in the shoe industry, and some had branched out to become store owners and businessmen.

Lagoulis recalled there was no heat in the drafty old house. And when the Great Depression settled over the nation in the 1930s, hunger, poverty and cold became daily burdens.

But there was also a bond holding the neighborhood together.

"I call them the giants of Newburyport," Lagoulis said, listing several people who helped poor families survive, among them their landlord Mr. Chase, who charged no rent, and people who gave away food or heating fuel, like Jack Kelleher and Bossy Gillis.

Peter Chetsas operated a food market a few doors away, and let the Lagoulis family run up a bill of $300 | a fortune at the time.

"Finally he told us he was giving us credit that he could no longer afford to give. He tore up the bill and said from now on we had to pay," he said. The family was too poor to pay for their groceries, so Chetsas extended the credit further.

"Then he tore up that bill, too."

As a young man, John Lagoulis hoped to buy the house at 14 Unicorn and had saved $700 to do so, but his wife had a home of her own, so he moved there instead.

He stayed in touch with neighbors, some of whom remained in their houses through the mid 1960s. By that time, Unicorn Street's fate had been sealed.

Demolition ordered

Newburyport's leaders had decided that the historic downtown should be saved. But not everything was worth saving, said George Lawler, who was mayor at the time.

"Unicorn was a residential street; it didn't fit in with the business zone, and we needed a place for a parking lot," said Lawler.

Nearby buildings on Green and Merrimac streets, though commercial, weren't worth restoring, he said.

"There was no historic value to any of it at all, in fact some of it was falling apart ... Truthfully, it was a question that something had to be done," he said.

In 1965, the city officially unveiled its plans to revive the downtown | plans that called for knocking down roughly 40 buildings along Inn, Bartlet, Unicorn, Merrimac and Green streets. Market Square and State Street would be saved. Some 200 people attended the hearing. Most of those who spoke were in favor of the plan.

"There will be controversy, but I don't think progress comes without controversy," dowtown leader George Cashman, who died last year, testified at the hearing. "It's a healthy sign."

Several Unicorn Street residents felt differently. Frank Schappacher, who lived at 13 Unicorn, argued he couldn't afford to buy a decent home with the money the city would give him for his property | most residents were offered $8,000 to $15,000.

The City Council approved the plan, but the wheels of urban renewal turned slowly. Months of waiting for action turned into years.

Leaders in the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority tried to keep Newburyport's citizens focused on the long-term goal. Someday, the NRA's then-director James Silk told an audience in 1967, people will be able to see the waterfront from the downtown.

Delays caused by federal bureaucracy and a lack of money had slowed progress to a crawl. Numerous buildings had been bought or taken by the redevelopment authority, then promptly boarded up. There were no visible signs of change or improvement.

At his inaugural speech in January 1968, newly elected Mayor Byron Matthews opined that eight years and $1 million had been spent on "empty stores, loss of employment, boarded-up windows and, if anything, a devastated area."

Within weeks, the logjam was broken.

In February the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development allowed Newburyport to pursue its plans to save the historic downtown.

It was a reversal of the agency's previous position, and city leaders like the late Dr. Robert Wilkins heralded it as a turning point. By then, the city had found the money needed to get the next stage of urban renewal going.

In March, the NRA announced it would hire a company to demolish the Unicorn Street neighborhood, and it expanded the area where it planned to redevelop. It grew to include the motley collection of businesses, old warehouses and rundown buildings between Water Street and the Merrimack River. Buildings along three waterfront streets | Railroad Avenue, City Wharf and Ferry Wharf | were targeted for a second round of demolition slated for later in the year. The process of buying and taking the buildings began.

In mid-April, the bulldozers arrived off Unicorn Street. They found an entire block of the downtown quiet and boarded up, but that would change very quickly.

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