If you’ve ever traveled outside New England, you begin to notice that most of the rest of the country looks a lot alike. Rapid development on a budget lends itself to a landscape of boxy stores in strip malls and cookie cutter homes. Some of these cookie cutter homes are “McMansions,” and very nice to live in, but even so their exteriors are unmemorable, duplicated a million times over.
New England—Swampscott—looks different. Neighborhoods have personalities. The roads curve in unpredictable ways. Houses don’t all look alike. I happen to like the intricate purple paint on a certain home on Paradise Road, but we all have our favorites.
Swampscott’s difference is an aesthetic difference, meaning that the difference is in the way buildings and the landscape look, as well as in the feelings they evoke in people—a difference often hard to measure, hard to calculate.
Yet there is true value in this difference. Part of the reason that Massachusetts has attracted so many movies is because of our location—place matters. Grown-Ups 2 is here because Swampscott looks like a typical New England town, and New England is a good brand, a marketable brand.
And crucial to the New England brand is a community’s willingness to embrace its historic past, to pay attention to its older buildings, and to, in short, care about the way something looks. A quick drive through the Olmstead District will remind all of us how lucky we are that the Mudges had the foresight to hire someone so talented to lay it out, that the town pays to upkeep the greens, and that the homeowners in the area now take such pride in their property.
But Swampscott has other, more hidden historic gems, and there is a growing movement to recognize the treasures we have, and perhaps to protect them.
Toward that end, this past spring the Selectmen appointed the Local Historic District Study Committee, comprising of five members, as well as the town planner, Pete Kane. In a conversation with member Jer Jurma, he explained the Committee’s goal.
Their task is to “document and inventory” possible neighborhoods in Swampscott that have historical and aesthetic value. If such an area is found, they would recommend to the Town Meeting that the area be designated a Local Historic District. Town Meeting would then have to approve the designation by a two-thirds vote.
The Massachusetts Historic Commission sets up guidelines for towns in proceeding from that point onward. After a designation, Town Meeting can then decide whether to and how to regulate the district. The goal is not to create another kind of cookie cutter neighborhood in which all homes have to be painted white and plant red roses; the goal is to preserve the district’s character. Perhaps a house could not be torn down without review, perhaps an addition would adhere to certain standards. It would up to the town to decide.
Jurma explains that such a designation, “establishes a sense of place … we live not just in the present moment. We (are) living in an historic arc of the town (and) this is an issue of stewardship of the past.”
Such a designation would be “a community action. A lot of people identify with living in an historic district,” and such homeowners are often “attuned to its historic ambience.”
In response to worries about the resale value of historic homes, Jurma says that research has found that the historic designation “tends to stabilize home prices, and they rise, not fall.”
Another component of Commission’s mission is education. Did you know that there are colonial buildings on Humphrey Street? Or that Rockland boasts a cluster of Victorian era homes? Jurma hopes that a booth at the Farmer’s Market, and small house parties will help to inform residents what the Commission has found.
And, when we understand what it is we have, then it will be time to begin a town-wide discussion of how best to care for it.