hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

June 20, 2012

Editorial: Mural is an instant new landmark for downtown

Some familiar old faces are back in town to remind us of Haverhill's role in the history of just about every aspect of American life, from the abolition movement to modern pop culture.

They are the faces on the Essex Street Gateway Community Mural. Unveiled last week, the mural was a labor of love that pays tribute not only to historic figures and celebrities with ties to Haverhill but also to the spirit of the city itself.

The idea for the mural was born in 2010, when the volunteer civic group Team Haverhill, fresh from its sponsorship of the "Soles of Haverhill Shoe-la-bration" decided to tackle another public art project.

This time the group would turn a blank four-story brick wall at 25 Essex St. into an oversized portrait of the city and its people.

The building is not far from the old Orpheum, the first movie theater opened (in 1907) by future Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer. The theater provided the inspiration for the mural's artistic framing device: A cutaway depiction of an early 20th century movie theater packed with more than 50 people from the city's present and past. Some are well-known historical or cultural figures.

There's Passaconaway, the great sachem or chief of the Pennacook nation, who at first resisted English settlement of the region but then opened the way as the colonists moved up the Merrimack River to Haverhill.

Economist Stuart Chase, who coined the phrase "New Deal" as an adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Author Andre Dubus III and baseball slugger Carlos Pena. Popular entertainers Rob Zombie and Tom Bergeron.

Rowland Macy, founder of the department store chain that bears his name, who got his start in the retail business with a shop on Merrimack Street.

Many of those depicted on the mural may not be well known far beyond Haverhill but symbolize what makes the character of the city.

Like Barney Gallagher, the longtime Haverhill Gazette editor and champion of Haverhill's cultural history. Or beloved teacher Frances Cole Lee.

The mural also contains some whimsical touches and subtle references to the city's history that will reward close study of the artwork. There's a shortnose sturgeon, the prehistoric fish that travels up the Merrimack to spawn in Haverhill waters each year. A deck of cards spilled on the floor of the theater with the 5's of each suit turned up represents the card game 45's, a peculiar passion of the Merrimack Valley.

The mural is an instant landmark for downtown Haverhill. "Something the entire community should be proud of," said Tim Jordan, co-chairman of the mural project.

The volunteers who made it happen, at virtually no public expense, deserve credit and thanks.