Ancient history. During the summer of ‘73 when I was working on Nantucket, Frank Sinatra’s yacht docked in the harbor. Word got out and everyone went down to gawk.
An SDS member known to me and my roommates, slapped an “Eat the Rich” sticker on its hull. The yacht was huge. If Sinatra even saw that sticker, he probably mistook it for a seagull dropping.
A few days after his arrival on the island, “Ol’ Blue Eyes” wandered into the Nantucket Cottage Bakery. The bakery was known for its Portuguese sweetbread. Sinatra knew nothing of sweetbread, and likely knew nothing of the Portuguese fishing community of the Cape and Islands. He asked for cannolis.
Sinatra’s landing occurred at a time when Walter Beinecke was buying up the island and working toward bringing his vision to fruition. As he told Time magazine in 1968, he wanted fewer consumers of hot dogs and postcards visiting Nantucket and more high rollers who would pay for a hotel room and a few sports coats. Sinatra was one of his early catches.
According to The New York Times, Beinecke’s “elitist approach” led to spruced-up buildings that attracted higher-rent retailers. In a 1987 interview with The Times, Beinecke stated that “he was not interested in preservation for preservation’s sake; he wanted to make a profit.”
“He and his partners took advantage of tax rules on depreciation and historic preservation and used the Nantucket properties to shelter income from other businesses,” according to The Times.
Money magazine noted that Beinecke bought buildings for as low as $30,000 and sold them for $55 million. Boy did he profit! And he did so at the expense of the community. Nantucket is now a millionaires playground where the workers who keep the hotels, inns, shops and restaurants running can’t afford to live, and where independent shop owners, artists and craftspeople were forced out.
Along the way, Beinecke teamed up with Stephen Karp. Now the largest landowner on Nantucket and here in Newburyport, Karp appears to have learned well from his mentor.
Nantucketers will tell you he is all about profit, not community. In a 2007 series on Karp, this newspaper reported on how he inexplicably closed the Jared Coffin House and the Tap Room housed within. As reported, the Tap Room was the heart of Nantucket community life for year-round residents.
Sound familiar? Our beloved, iconic Fowles, depicted in paintings and photographs, and most recently operated by a native Newburyporter, has been left vacant for months.
Like the Tap Room, Fowles served as the heart of Newburyport community life. No doubt Karp’s business practice of charging not only rent, but a percentage of the profits, contributed to the demise of what was once the hub of this town.
While Karp keeps us laser focused on the waterfront, he is conquering State Street. Walk down State Street and around the bullnose in Market Square and you will notice the proliferation of chain stores alongside examples of “high-rent blight,” stores vacated by independent owners who simply can’t make a go of it here.
Friends who are business owners have shared with me their struggles of keeping afloat. I hear neighbors lament the “blanding” of Newburyport. Are we in Newburyport, Portsmouth or Portland? So many of the same shops in all three cities.
In an article titled “How Cities Can Save Small Shops,” Karen Loew, a community activist in New York, writes “the basis of any community is its sense of place — its singular look and feel, roots and aspirations. Retail is essential to expressing that sense of place. Shops are part of culture.”
Elected officials and neighbors tell me nothing can be done. You can’t prohibit chain stores or regulate business practices. Not true. Cities and towns nationwide are doing just that. San Francisco permits chain stores only on a case-by-case basis.
A proposal under consideration in New York would create a special zoning district aimed at limiting chain stores and banks. Seattle is working to support historic businesses. Municipalities have enacted disincentives to landlords who keep spaces empty. Commercial rent control used in other cities imposes limits on landlords when negotiating leases with existing businesses.
As consumers, we can halt the chain store trend by shopping local. Local businesses can help by identifying as neighbors with a stake in the community. Band together, create a logo for your shop windows. The Daily News could bring to light the challenges and rewards of being an independent business owner in the city.
Most importantly, we need to send a message to the mayor and City Council that the takeover of Newburyport is not just about the waterfront, and that we want to preserve the sense of place, look and feel that our local businesses provide.
There’s a sign in the Screening Room window that implores us to “Keep Newburyport Weird.”
I don’t know how weird we are, but let’s keep it unique.
Mary Anne Macaulay lives in Newburyport.