, Newburyport, MA

July 30, 2007

Homecoming, city's revival share roots

Katie Farrell

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NEWBURYPORT -- In the midst of change, some things remained the same.

Torn-up streets, missing sidewalks and buildings in mid-construction were a common sight a generation ago, as Newburyport's downtown underwent a massive transformation brought on by urban renewal.

But one thing remained steady. The city still paused each summer for the weeklong Yankee Homecoming celebration.

Yankee Homecoming and the downtown's rebirth share parallels that are not coincidental.

The city's first Homecoming was held in 1958. It was the brainchild of New England artist Jack Frost, who advocated "Yankee Homecoming" festivals that would serve as a "national pilgrimage back east where it all began." Frost hoped to restore pride and interest in old cities like Newburyport that were reeling from a new phenomenon -- the explosive growth of the suburbs. New homes in subdivisions and new shopping centers were springing up across the landscape. Old downtowns were losing people and commerce at a fast pace.

Newburyport was one of 30 cities that held a Yankee Homecoming in 1958; today it's the only one that is still doing it.

Yankee Homecoming was but two years old when then-mayor Al Zabriskie took on the next logical step in Frost's concept. He established the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority and charged it with coming up with a plan that would revive downtown Newburyport.

Former Yankee Homecoming chairman George Lawler, who oversaw the celebration in 1960 and 1965, agreed that Yankee Homecoming and the city's ongoing urban renewal came to share a joint purpose. The two shared a theme -- to bring people back to the city and to promote and celebrate Newburyport, he said.

In short, the two events helped each other.

"(First chairman) George Cashman always said, and we all agreed when we heard it, that urban renewal and Yankee Homecoming kind of went hand-in-hand to make each other," he recalled.

"We were doing it to promote the city," Lawler said.

It seemed to work.

As the city was rebuilt and the downtown transformed in the early 1970s, former residents and tourists flocked to Newburyport during Yankee Homecoming to witness the changes firsthand. "Even though the conditions were bad, people still came to see what was going on," Lawler said.

Some were curious after hearing about the urban renewal project. Others remembered Newburyport as it had been. Some hoped to duplicate the massive changes in their own communities.

"I said we should look at it in an advantageous way," former Mayor Byron Matthews recalled recently. "A lot of people were very, very, interested in seeing what was happening. I think we took full advantage of that situation. People came to see what we were doing."

During the initial years of Yankee Homecoming the backdrop for the festival's traditional events were vastly different than today's picturesque setting. The NRA struggled to get urban renewal off the ground. Abandoned buildings and dilapidated storefronts lined the streets, particularly in the late 1960s when the NRA took dozens of properties and boarded them up.

It was the spring of 1967 when a group of merchants, bankers and politicians first organized a meeting to discuss a new promotional campaign they wanted to call "Newburyport's Happening."

The group traded suggestions on how to move beyond the image of the downtown and how to attract tourists to Newburyport for the summer.

Those suggestions included placing signs in the empty storefronts announcing the changes that were coming to the city, the plan for those empty stores, and explaining different happenings going on around Newburyport.

It was a year later, July, 1968, that the campaign fully launched and the city was dressed up for Yankee Homecoming. Displays were placed in the empty storefronts on lower State Street for the weeklong celebration with the purpose of illustrating Newburyport's groups and organizations and promoting the city. Boarded-up windows were covered with pictures, paintings and displays.

The decorations stretched from Threadneedle Alley to Market Square. In addition to the storefronts, the streets downtown were decorated with United Nations flags, American flags and Yankee Homecoming flags, that lined State and Pleasant streets. Red, white and blue bunting decorated the buildings.

In August, 1968, as Yankee Homecoming week continued, the displays received "favorable comments" from visitors to the city, according to Daily News reports.

The changes were massive, Lawler said. When tourists came during the summers of 1968 and 1969, they saw boarded-up buildings and demolition. When they returned a few years later for the Yankee celebration, they saw restoration and storefronts under development.

"People would come in and be impressed with the changes they saw," Lawler said. People came to see the urban renewal. "We kept plugging away, at the same time, to promote the city," the former mayor said.

Matthews put it simply when asked the reaction of tourists and former Newburyporters home for the festival: "Wow," he said.

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