, Newburyport, MA

July 20, 2007

Three mayors, one goal

Angeljean Chiaramida

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Al Zabriskie, George Lawler and Byron Matthews were the three mayors who led Newburyport during its two-decade urban renewal era.

They were three very different men with three very different styles, but they would weave their views, strengths and characters into the fabric that makes Newburyport the vibrant city -- and statewide model of renewal -- that it is today.

One thing all three had in common was their love of Newburyport and their belief the city could rise again, no matter how far its once-thriving economy had fallen since its heyday.

They also bore other similarities -- all three have been city councilors representing Ward 5; they were all friends and were born into homes within a stone's throw of each other.

Each mayor played a pivotal role in Newburyport's revival: The first began it, the next changed the redevelopment's direction from demolition to restoration and the last pushed and prodded to get Newburyport whatever it needed to resurrect its historic profile and give it new economic success.

Albert H. "Al" Zabriskie Jr.

Mayor, 1960-1963

As President Woodrow Wilson had "Fourteen Points" for establishing lasting peace in Europe after World War I, Zabriskie took the mayor's office in 1960 with a nine-point program to build "a better Newburyport for the people."

Zabriskie promised residents and businesses "action and progress, rather than words and stagnation." Included in his nine-point plan were open government, better schools, more off-street parking, increased harbor facilities, a search for new industries, a master plan for city development and the magic words of the time: urban renewal.

By 1959, when Zabriskie ran for mayor against former Mayor Andrew J. "Bossy" Gillis, the Clipper City's economic crisis was no secret. Unemployment was about 17 percent, according to Daily News reports. Most buildings on lower State Street were boarded up and many shops and factories were closed, said George Lawler, who was City Council president while Zabriskie was mayor. Some businessmen were so discouraged, Lawler said, they simply locked their doors one night and never returned.

But by February 1960, Zabriskie, with Lawler's support, persuaded city councilors to adopt the state law that spawned the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, the vehicle that shepherded the revival of the city for the next two decades.

"Al was a really nice guy and very personable. People liked Al, " said Lawler, who would take over the mayor's office after Zabriskie vacated it in 1964. "He was a very active man. For example, he was involved with getting the union started at Towle Silversmiths, when he worked there, and he served as union president for a long time.

"Without Al, the redevelopment process wouldn't have started," Lawler said.

According to Daily News reports, Zabriskie didn't waste any time pushing his agenda. In a speech to the School Committee on May 25, 1960, Zabriskie explained that his plan was to take down dilapidated buildings in all six wards. Two months later, City Councilor James Croteau, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, put a number to the concept. He said as many as 40 unsafe buildings should be torn down.

Former Daily News editor Bill Plante said Zabriskie had a unique role in the city's leadership. During his tenure as mayor, Zabriskie also served in the state House of Representatives. He was able to lobby for federal urban renewal money for the state and city and as mayor, he set the city's agenda for the massive urban renewal project.

"I used to go up to Boston with him a lot while he was mayor and he got along very well with the legislators," Lawler said. "That helped us."

While Zabriskie was on Beacon Hill fighting for his district, Lawler was in City Hall, working to carry out his nine-point program.

"I think we had the best one-two team as mayor and City Council president the city ever had," Lawler said.

According to Plante, the partnership worked.

"He was a breakthrough mayor," Plante wrote in an article about Zabriskie, "knowledgeable as to what was taking place on the national and state scenes as that related to programs like urban renewal, and politically savvy enough to disassemble the old (Bossy) Gillis machine and build his own base."

The only mayor to serve simultaneously as a state legislator, Zabriskie's career in politics extended over four decades from 1949, when he won a three-way race for Ward 5 city councilor, to the early 1980s. He served for 18 years as a high-ranking administrator in several state agencies.

Zabriskie died at 75 in February 1993. He considered himself a Polish-American Democrat in a city known for its Yankee traditions and Republican politics.

"I had the wrong name, wrong party and very little money," Zabriskie was reported to have said, but he remained a familiar face at City Hall, serving as water commissioner until he died.

Asked once how he wanted to be remembered, the Daily News reported Zabriskie said, "I tried -- just that simple."

"He was a class act," said Byron Matthews when Zabriskie died. "Al was the person who had a vision for a better Newburyport. He was the person who really steered the redevelopment of the city."

George Lawler Jr.

Mayor, 1964-1968

If Zabriskie was the mayor who got Newburyport's redevelopment ball rolling, Lawler was the mayor who deflected its route, heading it in the right direction -- away from demolition of the city center and toward restoration of the city's unique, historic architectural style.

When the city was one signature away -- his as mayor -- from the plan that would have brought the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's well-known bulldozers to mow everything down, it was Lawler who stalled their engines. Instead of signing the plan, he urged Newburyport Redevelopment Authority members to take a breath and listen to the logic of those from the Historical Society lobbying for restoring downtown.

"I've always thought that George Lawler is the unsung hero of Newburyport's urban renewal story," said Mary Wilkins Haslinger, daughter of Dr. Robert Wilkins, who spearheaded the citizens restoration movement at the time. "If George hadn't written that resolution that asked the NRA to consider preserving the old buildings instead of tearing them all down, everything could be gone now."

Lawler was responsible for getting Wilkins to take a seat on the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority board, a decision many feel was pivotal to the success of the restoration movement.

"After that, with Dr. Wilkins on the NRA, little by little things changed," said Byron Matthews, a city councilor at the time.

The lack of visible action converting empty and boarded-up buildings along State Street took its toll over the next few years.

Nothing works more slowly than government, Lawler said, especially federal agencies like HUD, which needed to be convinced that restoration could work.

"There was a lot of itchiness among the people," Lawler remembers. "They wanted to see something done."

Like all mayors, Lawler was busy with more than just NRA business. There was the Newburyport Area Industrial Development Corp., which was working on developing an industrial park off Graf Road to attract industry and jobs.

Born in 1927, the son of a Newburyport police officer, Lawler served as a special police officer for four years before he won his first term on the City Council in 1953. He remained on the City Council -- working on the first Yankee Homecoming committee -- until he ran for mayor. Lawler prides himself on being the last one to run against and defeat "Bossy" Gillis, the same candidate his good friend Zabriskie defeated.

"Bossy ran every two years for mayor regardless," Lawler said.

Leaving the mayor's desk didn't end Lawler's involvement with Newburyport's rebirth. He took a job with the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, serving there until 1971. From 1971 until 1987, he was city clerk, after which he ran for and served again on the City Council until 1991.

At 79, after serving the public in Newburyport in one form or another for more than 40 years, Lawler is still as interested in the city's well-being as he was when he first took a seat on the City Council at 27.

Byron Matthews

Mayor, 1968-1978

On Dec. 30, 1967, just before Byron Matthews' mayoral inauguration, the Daily News reported an interesting observation about his birthday.

"Byron Matthews was born on the same day as Ted Williams, Aug. 30," the paper reported, "and like the Red Sox star, Matthews is a slugger."

During his 10 years as mayor, there were many things Matthews knocked right out of the ballpark, just as Williams often sent balls sailing over Fenway Park's Green Monster.

Whether it was getting Newburyport money from state and federal agencies, talking the utility companies into burying their lines under the city center, pushing the Redevelopment Authority to aggressively move forward, asking his friends Rupert Nock and Ed Burke to work on redeveloping the dilapidated Custom House with him or ripping out parking meters to encourage tourism, Matthews kept swinging.

"When we drove to Washington (D.C.) to see someone, Byron wouldn't leave until we got the meeting," said Jack Bradshaw, Redevelopment Authority director during most of Matthews' tenure. "If the person wasn't in, we'd wait until he was, even if it meant staying overnight. And we never had any money; I think I slept in a car one night.

"When we got the meeting, Byron never took 'no' for an answer," Bradshaw said. "We didn't leave until he got what he needed for this city. And we got it."

Matthews said his attitude should be general operating procedure for all politicians.

"You can never take 'no' for an answer if you want to get anything done," he said. "My city came first and that's what politics should be about."

"I think what was unique about Byron was his persistence and tenaciousness," said Michael Harrington, Newburyport's congressman during Matthews' tenure. "I used to say Newburyport was my favorite city in my district because of what it did for itself. Their singular success is they did (redevelopment) better than most communities and that gained them credibility."

That Matthews would take over in 1968 and pursue the city's urban renewal program with such energetic fervor was surprising to many. During his earlier years on the City Council, Matthews voiced concerns about urban renewal. However, for Matthews it wasn't the concept of redevelopment he was against, it was its original method.

"I wasn't against urban renewal," Matthews said. "I was against tearing everything down. I was in favor of the restoration plan we finally adopted. But I felt strongly that those we moved out of their businesses (during urban renewal) should have first preference to move back after everything was done. I knew how I'd feel if my father's business was moved out."

Matthews understood what merchants' businesses meant to them. He'd watched his father work hard running the family's Maple Street grocery store to support their family. He worked beside his father for years -- even after graduating from college. The market was a gathering place for residents and other business owners during both the city's heyday and its lean years.

It took a few years' worth of appointments to get Matthews people on the Redevelopment Authority, Bradshaw said. Once that happened, Matthews never looked back. The authority drove forward aggressively, improving the infrastructure, finding developers and tearing down some structures too far gone to restore.

According to Matthews, it wasn't necessarily his business acumen that brought Newburyport a successful redevelopment.

"It's not what you know, it's who you know," Matthews said. "It's all about people, not about how brilliant you are."

To prove his theory, Matthews explained it was a sometime golf buddy, the chairman of the board and president of Massachusetts Electric, who eventually got on board with the concept of burying all the downtown utility wiring, something relatively avant-garde for the time.

The first mention of burying wires got Matthews a very firm "no," he said, but he kept at it. Over the months, no became a "let me think about it," then "well maybe" and finally, "yes."

After 10 years of hard driving, Matthews decided to leave city politics, but his record of success in Newburport's economic redevelopment made him sought after elsewhere. He was appointed by Gov. Edward King to take a Cabinet position, serving as secretary of the Executive Office of Communities and Development. Instead of working for the economic well-being of one city, for four years he looked after the development of all of the state's cities and towns.

Born in 1928 to Greek immigrant parents, Matthews took their work ethic and expertise he learned serving Newburyport to the national level, while always keeping in touch with the city he helped shape into one other communities still try to emulate to this day.

Archival Sources: Daily News archives; biographical information from "The Mayors of Newburyport, 1851 to the Present," edited and compiled by Jerie Larson and Todd C. Woodworth.

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