Preserving a city’s history

Clio, the Greek muse of history, has put the City of Smokestacks to the test. A series of seemingly disparate events — from chucked bricks inscribed with the names of Everett Performing Arts Center donors, to an historic building on Hewitt Avenue gutted by fire — reveals a city at risk of losing its public memory.

A tragic fire on Nov. 8 in the 1800 block of Hewitt claimed the life of one tenant, and the structure itself is a total loss. It was one of 42 building in the Hewitt Avenue Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 by the National Park Service. The designation flowed from the work of city planners and Historic Everett, the grassroots organization formed in response to what is now Comcast Arena.

In 2003, the Scottish Rite Temple, the historic Stovie Building, and some of Hewitt Avenue’s original structures were razed to make way for the project. Until the “deconstruction” of the historic Collins building a couple years ago (also a National Trust property) the arena was the city’s seminal historic-preservation moment, and historic preservation lost.

Sadly there are times when local history seems to revolve around the production of “It Stood Here Once” plaques. One marks the site of the Old Central Opera House, later re-named the Orpheum and then the People’s Theater. It was there that Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs and labor and political radical Mother Jones galvanized audiences. Today residents can loiter in a bank drive-thru, shut their eyes, and conjure the voices of both radicals and performers past. Or, well, something.

Context matters, especially as property owners and city planners noodle what’s next for the 1800 block. The impulse will be to jettison the spirit of the district’s historic designation and simply erect a parking lot (the property sits across from the arena.) A pave-over would be an unfortunate coda to a tragic event. Whatever is built next should reflect the history and architectural values of downtown.

Comcast Arena has been a boon to downtown, just as the inspired City Plaza Park on Wetmore figures to be. Unfortunately, as Julie Muhlstein reported, the plaza’s construction couldn’t salvage the inscribed bricks donors had purchased in 1993 to celebrate their contribution to the community theatre. The promise of “permanent” lasted less than 20 years, in a case study of avoid-the-rabble, non-transparent communication. These names need to be reproduced and displayed in a manner that enshrines local history, just as it makes amends to vanquished donors. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Everett, we know, will do better.

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