Letter from Historian Bruce Laurie on Lyman Terrace
Reprinted with permission:
6 March 2012
I write to associate myself with those who are seeking to preserve the Lyman Terrace Housing Project in Holyoke. I will restrict my remarks here to its preservation, leaving the question of further action for another day.
It is troubling, to say the least, that the otherwise conscientious Massachusetts Historical Commission relied upon incomplete and biased information to reach its decision against preservation. Its critics and Ms. VanPelt in particular have drawn attention to the flawed procedure and I see no need to rehearse their claims here. It is enough to observe that the project itself reflects an important moment in policy formation dating to New Deal social programming in the name of easing the plight of the working poor. The project embodied the most advanced thinking on public housing policy in the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. It was an ingenious partnership between Federal and state government and its stands as a monument worthy of preservation. That we would opt for a different policy today is no argument for wiping out such an important emblem of our common past. By that reasoning, we would not preserve Mt. Vernon or Monticello or any other historic house.
Of course, no one of the stature of our first or third president lived at Lyman. Instead, it housed ordinary people whose labor made Holyoke a leading site of the First Industrial Revolution. In recent years, historic preservationists at the National Park Service have sought to rectify the obvious imbalance in preservation by seeking to preserve the living quarters of working people. Lowell is the best example of its enlightened policies. By preserving Lyman, the city of Holyoke would align itself with the such a sensible policy. It would also allow this generation to repay our debt to the sons and daughters of hard toil.
We historians have long sought what we call a useable past, a past that tells us who we were at a certain point in the historical continuum and what we might to do to guide us through the current day, one way or another. Lyman is a fine example of such a past. It marked a policy at once more humane and salutary than the high-rise, high-density public housing projects that succeed Lyman and that have since succumbed to the bulldozer. Lyman showed a better way. It makes no sense to erase from memory such an important structure.
Bruce Laurie, Professor of History Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Amherst