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Redefining Renewal

March 2024
1min read

A Massachusetts town found a way to turn urban destruction around

Newburyport, Massachusetts, which lies at the mouth of the Merrimack River 40 miles north of Boston, was the third-richest city in the state after the Revolution and today claims the nation’s largest group of Federal buildings. These reflect the town’s early-nineteenth-century role as a shipbuilding and trading center, as well as its lively commerce in rum and whiskey distilling and printing. In fact it was here in his hometown that the young William Lloyd Garrison got his start as an apprentice at the Newburyport Herald and later would stamp his words across America’s conscience.

Given that eventful past, made palpable through handsome brick mansions, winding alley and long piers poking out into the waters, it is drearily predictable to note that Newburyport eventually fell into neglect. Its industries abandoned the city long before the bounty of the hightech future began to sprout. So when the urban-renewal push of the early 1960s began to raise its hammer against the abandoned wharves and factories along the waterfront, Newburyport might easily have fallen prey to the wholesale destruction that ravaged other places at the time.

Instead, as “renewal” menaced downtown’s commercial core, citizens fought back and in the process made a new kind of history. Newburyport became the first city in the United States to use federal funds for preservation and rehabilitation rather than demolition. Inn Street, pictured below, received the inaugural infusion of money. The earlier photo shows a warren of small, frame shops that supplied the needs of the busy harbor, backed by two handsome brick buildings that rose in 1811 after a punishing fire swept downtown. They housed shops on the ground floors and offices and apartments above, and in their present incarnation they still do. In the modern version they anchor a pedestrian mall. Even though a small park has replaced the frame buildings at the right, the happy rebirth of Inn Street has received numerous awards and citations, demonstrating that Newburyport’s past is still strong enough to nourish its present and shape its future.

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