AMESBURY — Two things are going to happen if you take a walk around downtown Amesbury with Joe Fahey, something he does most mornings now that he’s retired.
The first is that he’s going tell you his joke about what Amesbury was like when he arrived in 1979, tasked with revitalizing the barren downtown.
“There were no cars on the street. Many of the storefronts were vacant. Windows were broken. There were burnt-out buildings,” Fahey said. “Everyone’s tired of hearing me make this joke, but the only thing missing was tumbleweed.”
And the reason he’s made that joke too many times is because of the other thing that’s going to happen on a walk with Joe Fahey, which is that he gets stopped constantly by locals who say something along the lines of: Isn’t this amazing?
That’s because the downtown Fahey walks around today is unrecognizable from the one he saw when he began his three-decade career overseeing its redevelopment for the city. A dying mill town on the Merrimack River has transformed into a locals-centered, pedestrian-friendly downtown with bustling restaurants, artist studios, a record store, cafes, florists, a hardware store, salons, and four breweries.
In the three years since COVID-19 changed where families could live and work remotely, there has been an influx of young families, with heavy enrollment in the lower grades.
“We would have been in big trouble with Mom and Dad if we got caught playing downtown when I was a kid,” said Kassandra Gove, the 39-year-old mayor who is the fifth generation of her family to live in this city of 17,000 on the New Hampshire border. “Now I feel like I go to the opening of a child-care center every week.”
Like many old industrial towns, the thing that was dragging Amesbury down was the huge, mostly empty buildings that were once the source of its prosperity. So Fahey began at the source, the massive 19th-century mill yard that once made the city the carriage-building capital of the world. When Fahey was given a tour all those decades ago, its courtyard was clogged with oil tankers “and an auto repair drug-dealing place,” but he could hear a pleasing noise coming from the Powwow River a few feet away.
Where the oil tankers sat is now an amphitheater, and just next to it a bridge built over the source of that noise, a waterfall cascading over boulders where a narrow stretch of the Powwow rips through town on its way to the Merrimack. “Communities were artificially creating things like this as a draw, and we had this hidden gem just sitting here,” Fahey said.
On a recent day, the plaza was filled with young children, and parents sat just next to it at tables outside Flatbread pizza (the original of what is now a popular chain). Just behind it is the Amesbury Industrial Supply Co., a hardware store whose move into one of the mill buildings in the early 1980s provided an important anchor business for the downtown revitalization.
The city, with consistent support from Town Meeting voters, made big, sweeping changes in the revitalization. Seedy bars and social clubs were taken by eminent domain to build pedestrian plazas and parking lots. Streets were changed to one-way. Brick sidewalks were installed. And the historic buildings were restored rather than torn down, an approach they modeled after Newburyport, their wealthier neighbor across the Merrimack.
The main pedestrian plaza at the center of town was once home to Norman’s Restaurant, which served liver and onions on Tuesdays and meatloaf on Wednesdays. Today, it is home to baby strollers and puppies waiting outside the Bakehouse, a popular coffee shop with busy outdoor tables.
Fahey’s recent tour was interrupted several times by friends stopping to chat, including Roger Deschenes, a city councilor who remembered being dubious of Fahey’s big dreams back in the day, when downtown felt like a ghost town.
“My car would be the only one parked on the street,” Deschenes said. “But by the time I sold my condo, I couldn’t find a parking spot in the new lot.”
That’s when Deschenes started talking about the underside of all the gentrification. He is priced out of the city. Housing prices have exploded since the pandemic. In February 2020, just before lockdowns hit, the median sale price of a home was $425,000, according to Redfin. By August of this year, it hit a record high of $744,950.
“It’s difficult to see some of your friends decide to move away, but the revitalization didn’t change Amesbury, it revealed it,” said Sean Toomey, a local who owns Crave restaurant and is an unabashed cheerleader for the new downtown.
“People are discovering us because it’s built for locals, it’s built for community. Newburyport is built for tourists, but you walk around downtown Amesbury and it’s like you’re in a Norman Rockwell painting,” Toomey said. “And that attracts a certain sort of person, someone who makes eye contact, who pets your dog. They’re people who aren’t just looking for a place to live; they want a place to call home.”
Among the first to flock to the city were artists, who set up studios in the empty mill buildings and created a cultural anchor.
“I’ve been in this studio for 20 years, and it’s remarkable to see the city get better and better,” said Sandy Jenkins, a painter who was preparing for the annual Open Studios that took place Nov. 11-12, one of the biggest events in the city. “Amesbury has a real charm, a real history, and that feels meaningful in a way some places don’t anymore.”
There is, of course, still much of the old Amesbury to be found. Just around the corner from the central plaza is Hard Nock’s Gym, a small, no-frills weight room that has been downtown since 1960 and looks it. In the same building is an aging candlepin bowling alley and a dive bar.
But the momentum is clear, and when Fahey ran into Nicholas Cracknell, the man who now holds Fahey’s former job as director of community and economic development for the city, Cracknell said the focus is on creating “a city for millennials.”
As Fahey and Cracknell spoke in the pedestrian plaza, Fahey’s daughter appeared, and then his niece, and soon everyone was chatting in an Amesbury moment so on the nose that a reporter had to ask if it was staged.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Fahey said, taking a moment of reflection himself. “Kids used to graduate and say, ‘Get me the heck out of here.’ Now they’re coming back, and I’m standing here in what was once a derelict area talking to a reporter about how we’ve become a regional draw. Come on. You can’t make this stuff up.”