, Newburyport, MA

July 10, 2007

Sidewalk superintendents watched and worried as the buildings came down

John Macone

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There's a phrase that was once common in Newburyport, but over the years it's all but disappeared.

It's "sidewalk superintendents," the name given to the gawkers who came to watch and critique the dramatic changes happening in the old Yankee city as urban renewal transformed the downtown.

And 1968 was their banner year.

That was the year that dozens of downtown Newburyport buildings came crashing down. News accounts from the day estimated that 71 buildings -- from historic brick warehouses to dilapidated garages and sheds -- were demolished to make way for the new Newburyport.

The Newburyport Redevelopment Authority hoped that if it cleared enough land, it would entice a major developer to restore the city's historic Market Square core, create ample parking nearby, and give the long-neglected waterfront a new and exciting face.

Things didn't work out that way.

It would take a few years before the city would start restoring its old buildings, and it happened on a smaller, more methodical scale than was originally envisioned. Today, some 39 years later, the waterfront plan has yet to be realized.

The demolitions of 1968 drastically changed the physical appearance of the city. Some say it created new vistas and opportunities that renewed and refreshed people's perception of the struggling downtown. Others say it changed the city for the worse, some saying they are saddened by its legacy.

"Old town is dying"

In mid-April of 1968, bulldozers and "clamshell shovels" arrived at the corner of Merrimac and Unicorn streets, where they began the demolition. Some 44 buildings were targeted, including almost every building on Unicorn and Bartlet streets. Also targeted were buildings on Inn, Green and Merrimac streets, and Elbow Lane -- the latter a now-defunct alley that ran between Liberty and Water streets, through the parking lot of The Daily News.

The proverbial wrecking ball wasn't present. The demolition company chose not to use one, because the buildings were too close together and too close to public roads. They were ripped down with the "clamshell shovel," and the debris was brought to the Crow Lane landfill, where it was burned.

First to go was Ruth's Diner, on the corner of Merrimac and Unicorn.

Within a month, the rest were down.

The sidewalk superintendents were out in force, many of them clicking photo after photo as the buildings crumbled, according to news reports at the time.

"It's like the old town is dying. I don't think it's right," an unidentified "old timer" told a Daily News reporter.

"The people of Newburyport are now getting the full, bitter and dusty taste of urban renewal. A quaint and interesting street now looks as if some terrible catastrophe hit it," Truman Nelson penned in a letter to The Daily News.

Police and the NRA encountered a new problem -- looting, both in buildings slated to be demolished, and those that were to be saved. Two weeks into the demolition, police Marshal Robert Jones said officers were spread too thin, and it was impossible for them to monitor the demolition on Elbow Lane. The NRA issued a "scavenger warning," saying anyone caught would be charged.

George Lawler, who at the time worked for the NRA, recalled a strange scene during the waterfront demolition -- a black Cadillac pulled up, a well-dressed woman wearing gloves stepped out, and she proceeded to fill the trunk of her car with old battered bricks.

"I just stood there and watched; I couldn't believe it," he said.

The demolition cleared its widest path from Pleasant Street to the Merrimack River. Suddenly, two new vistas were exposed -- sections of the waterfront became visible from the downtown, and the impressive facade of the Unitarian Church on Pleasant Street, regarded by many historical architects as the finest example of Federal period church architecture in New England, towered like never before.

Lawler credited the water view with spurring the creation of a new group, the Friends of the Waterfront. The Friends would help shape the direction of the waterfront's development over the next decades.

The newly exposed church caught many eyes, news reports from 1968 note, among them this observation -- '"It's beautiful," one hears on the downtown streets. "Why wasn't that thought of before?"'

Criticism mounts

There had been some resistance to the demolition that occurred in April and May, but it was nothing compared to the furor that arose over the planned demolition of 27 buildings near the waterfront in December 1968.

Among the buildings targeted were old brick warehouses from Newburyport's days as a busy seafaring port. One of them served as part of Knight Grain Co., which used it as a grain storehouse. It still had an old ship cargo hoist to pull supplies to upper levels. The hoist was eventually donated to Sturbridge Village.

Buildings that housed businesses were methodically bought or taken by the NRA.

The businesses themselves scattered or dissolved. After 125 years in the grain business, the Knight family decided it was time to call it quits. Other businesses, like Newburyport Press, moved out of town.

Meanwhile, the fate of the historic buildings stirred residents and historians. Letters poured into The Daily News and the NRA.

"The tragedy of the current situation is the destruction seems to be gratuitous," penned Dr. Jules Prown, a Newbury native who at the time was working for Yale University. "When the remnants of Newburyport's maritime history are gone, they are gone forever."

"It's poor planning to destroy, or partially destroy, this historically and architecturally important site," wrote James Biffle, president of the Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation.

To some locals, the end goal of urban renewal seemed aimless. Instead of revitalizing the downtown, it seemed to be destroying its core and hurting the city's economy.

"We have spent lavishly (for Newburyport) on salaries and projects and positions created. We have seen longtime businesses close their doors forever and many more move their businesses out of town," opined Albert Fowler in a letter.

Lawler, who served as mayor before being named to the NRA in the late 1960s, has said recently that the decision to go forward with demolition was tough.

"There were people who didn't like it, and I can understand why," he said. "Some had been there a long time. But progress has to be made and unfortunately that meant uprooting some people."

On Nov. 26, demolition began. Unlike the prior demolition, this time the city allowed debris to be burned near the site. Smoke billowed along the waterfront from the controlled fires, drawing several complaints.

It took about three weeks for the buildings to come down. It would take three years before anything of substance would go back up. Instead of a massive renewal of the whole downtown, a row of connected brick buildings on part of Inn Street became the city's small, yet successful, foray into urban renewal.

Newburyporters who were around before the demolition express a variety of emotions over what happened.

"I think Newburyport is a better place today," said Lawler. "I'm pleased with what came out of it."

John Lagoulis, who grew up on Unicorn Street, said most of the buildings on his street weren't in good shape, so he can see why they were demolished. Newburyport has become a more beautiful city, he said, but he regrets that urban renewal also changed the connection that Newburyporters once felt toward one another.

"Newburyport had a stronger bond than today, maybe due to necessity," he said. "We had very difficult years for a long time. Now we have a more beautiful city, but I feel that people are cold to the bond."

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