Amherst History Month by Month
I’ve been writing this column about historic preservation in Amherst for over a year now. I’ve taken a bit of a pause recently to wonder how it’s all going and decided to ask some questions, not because I personally have all the answers but to see if they might guide our discussions going forward.
1.Are we as a town managing to preserve Amherst’s unique identity and neighborhood character? Are there historic buildings or structures that are at risk? “Character” is a tricky word to use but hopefully there is a shared sense that it refers to historic integrity.
2.Has investing in historic preservation principles helped Amherst embrace a variety of housing choices for people wanting to move here? Are we making sure that any new structure is compatible with our existing built environment, and that development has some degree of environmental sensitivity? Is it consistent with Amherst’s claims as a place that fights for climate justice?
3. Are we thinking enough about the economic benefits of preservation? Are we thinking enough about creating pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use village centers, along with a viable downtown?
My two cents is that we are doing well on #3 but less well on #1 and #2. Amherst’s Historical Commission can regulate concerns about preserving historic structures via our Demolition Delay Bylaw. But I’m finding this a rather distressing process despite the recently-adopted revisions to the bylaw which now requires that a property be at least 75 years old to be considered for a delay and that it must be determined to be historically significant. Under the revisions, that determination will be made by Building Commissioner Rob Morra with the Historical Commission having an option to appeal his assessment.
Another way to support historic preservation in town is by creating an inventory of historic properties and structures, and whether they are threatened. In Amherst, volunteers are needed to amend and update existing Form B forms (registration of historic buildings with that Massachusetts Historical Commission) so that they are compatible with online resources for planning and preservation such as the Massachusetts Cultural Information System (MACRIS).
The Amherst Historical Commission works with our Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC) to recommend preservation projects and can additionally advise the Conservation Commission, Design Review Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Local Historic Districts. We can support heritage tourism initiatives and the protection of town records that document Amherst’s history. We can advise about our historic cemeteries, archaeological sites, and landscapes, and protect our agricultural history, including barns and outbuildings.
We can update and review our town’s Preservation Plan and partner with the town’s Business Improvement District as well as other organizations and institutions, such as local businesses, libraries, colleges, religious or faith groups, schools, and civic organizations to further our goal of preserving Amherst for future generations. But sometimes it does not feel like there are enough checks and balances.
There is one specific way in which we could do better and that relates to the work of uncovering parts of Amherst’s history that have been hidden or suppressed, such as the legacy of enslavement as revealed in the recently published reparations report. Do people in town or our many visitors know that Boltwood Avenue is named for the descendant of an enslaver? Indeed, over its long history Amherst College has benefitted from the wealth produced by enslaved people. College Trustee Israel Trask held more than 250 enslaved people in his lifetime. (see also here).
The reparations report researched Amherst history in addition to current racial disparities. For example, wrote Amilcar Shabazz, one of the writers of the report, “There’s not a single street in this town named for anybody of African descent. Correspondingly, a lot of the street names are those of colonizers.” He continued, “There’s a serious discrepancy there. Current racial disparities in the town prevail in income, housing…andonly 1.8 percent of owner-occupied housing in Amherst is occupied by Black residents, who make up 9 percent of the town’s population.”
I have been wondering about how this report might resonate more for us. The popular outrage in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown, and the notorious acquittal of the man who shot Trayvon Martin led to a new hashtag and movement that quickly became the most significant push for racial justice in our country since the 1960s — #BlackLivesMatter. Our demands for accountability and better policing might jive better with the sense of a more inclusive history in terms of architecture, historic preservation, and community heritage. Our watchwords could foster awareness of things like authentic streetscapes. Maybe the town itself could adopt a less freighted name than “Amherst”.
The way Amherst’s architecture and built environment support our way of life need to preserve an integral sense of place. Perhaps we should have a town-sponsored plaque program? It can’t all be saved, , but I think we need to carry forward what seems important to preserve from each era, place-holding in ways that will strengthen us into the future.