To the editor:
I have worked as an urban designer and planner in Gloucester, Salem, and Newburyport and have made my home for the past 39 years in a 1780 Colonial in West Gloucester.
At the time of the American Revolution, about the time my house was built, the five largest cities in the colonies were New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Salem, and Newburyport.
The era of the clipper ships and trade with the Far East fed great wealth into the ports of Salem and Newburyport, witnessed by the large mansions that still stand in those cities. But sea trade was eventually shipped to Boston, as railroads and industry came to the North Shore. Salem covered over its inner harbor to make way for this new railroad. Salem turned from the sea and Newburyport became a sleepy backwater.
In the 1950s and '60s, a tear-down urban renewal philosophy took hold in America. A four-lane ring highway was proposed to go through the Japanese Garden at Salem's Peabody Museum, but then Salem and Newburyport said enough and reversed these ill-conceived ideas and restored some of their heritage. Meanwhile, Gloucester was living its heritage.
I did the restoration design of East Row in Market Square in Newburyport. I'm sure my work contributed to the gentrification of Newburyport. In the early '70s when I lived there you could buy a mansion on High Street for $25,000. Now the mansions can sell for well over $2 million.
Salem, in a gesture to the sea, developed Pickering Wharf, with, by the way, a hotel. A third of the stores are now vacant. The hotel has not helped retail there.
Gloucester's working harbor still stands. Of these three cities, Gloucester is the jewel, and unique in that it has always faced the sea, worked the sea, created by the sea, exalted in the sea, and mourned the tragedies of the sea.
And Gloucester, in its collective wisdom, has sought to protect its heritage by zoning its working harbor for marine-related uses. But now we have developers at our threshold to the sea seeking to lift that community decision and, in the process, perhaps, turn the city away from the sea as did Salem and Newburyport and, I will add, Nantucket.
Walter Beinecke Jr. was an heir to the S&H Green Stamp fortune and saw the upscaling of Nantucket Island as good business. The following is from his New York Times obituary,
"His frankly elitist approach was to attract fewer people who would buy six postcards and two hot dogs and more people who would rent a hotel room and buy a couple of sports coats. His Nantucket improvements were not always appreciated. Slogans like 'No Man Is an Island' and 'Ban the B' were heard."
Nantucket is now a summer playground for the wealthy. According to Bloomberg News, Nantucket Island, in terms of total building value, has become the fourth richest community in Massachusetts at $20.3 billion. Many year-round residents survive by renting out their homes in the summer and moving off island to live with family.
I think we may be faced here in Gloucester with two divergent visions for our historic harbor. One vision is contained in our harbor zoned district, which preserves our working harbor, and in the draft Maritime Summit Report, which envisions a working fishing port, research and development of new uses of the sea, and value-added jobs.
All this has been publicly presented and debated.
The other vision, if there is one, is a private vision and perhaps unknowable to us except piece by piece. Each vision, if carried out incorrectly, could lead to the gentrification of our community. And one, the hotel in the Fort, could lead to driving out productive harbor-related businesses and the people of the Fort.
This proposed hotel, and its implications for the future of our harbor, can become urban renewal revisited, this time with enormous sums of private money that can become, like the sea at times, beyond our control.
Our mayor should not be standing against established marine-related businesses and a neighborhood of people. She should be, and we as a community should be, working to combine public and private interests into what is good for Gloucester and its future.