For decades, the city of Haverhill emanated the beautiful melancholy that comes only from faded grandeur. The imposing brick shoe factories that spanned whole city blocks and once earned Haverhill the nickname “Queen Slipper City” sat nearly empty as the formerly prosperous downtown—once bustling with shops, trolleys, and even the predecessor to Macy’s New York department store—slipped into neglect.
Because of this downturn, Haverhill developed a bit of a “scrappy” reputation, according to the writer Andre Dubus III, who immortalized his rough-and-tumble Haverhill upbringing in his bestselling memoir Townie.
But the Haverhill of today is worlds away from the city of Dubus’s youth. He recalls a recent evening when he attended a friend’s art gallery show before walking across the street for a delicious dinner. “Downtown is unrecognizable compared to when I was growing up,” he says. “I could see myself living on that street.”
In fact, Haverhill’s rebirth has been many years in the making, and much of it is thanks to the arts. “We’re having vacant buildings transformed by the arts in the last few years,” says Ann Jones, president of the Greater Haverhill Art Association.
Those antique factories are now morphing into chic lofts, offices, shops, and restaurants, while Harbor Place, the forthcoming The Heights at Haverhill developed by Lupoli Companies, and the revamped commuter rail station have breathed new life into a downtown that’s already historical and visually striking. “Our bones—the architecture on Washington Street and Wingate Street and Essex Street—are beautiful and inspiring,” says Matthew Juros, principal owner of the Haverhill-based architecture firm Fishbrook Design Studio.
And so many of Haverhill’s big changes have been informed or influenced by art. “Haverhill is kind of, in this moment—people say this all the time, that it’s kind of in a renaissance, but there are creative vibrations going through the city,” says Erin Padilla, programs and operations director for the arts nonprofit Creative Haverhill. “We’re all in this exciting moment of planning.… We’re developing so much about Haverhill, and what Haverhill will be, and the arts is a huge part of this conversation.”
In fact, wherever you look in the city, you’ll find art. It pops up on the sidewalks in the form of oversized and vibrantly colored shoe sculptures that pay homage to its shoemaking past. It’s reverberating through Haverhill City Hall, thanks to the Pentucket Players, a community theatre group that’s been staging incredible theatrical productions for 27 years, and which is adding new programs for school-age children focused on creative play, says executive artistic director John Buzzell.
Date of Settlement
Date of Incorporation
35.6 square miles
01830, 01831, 01832, 01835
Median Household Income
Author Andre Dubus III, author John Bellairs, film producer and MGM founder Louis B. Mayer, rock musician Rob Zombie, poet John Greenleaf Whittier
Haverhill High School, Consentino, Hunking, Nettle, Tilton Upper, J.G. Whittier, Bradford, Golden Hill, Pentucket Lake, Silver Hill, Tilton, Walnut Square, Moody Pre-School, Greenleaf Academy
You’ll see more artistic spirit along the Bradford Rail Trail, where pieces of public art from artists like Susan Kneeland and Dale Rogers Jr. stand sentry over the riverside path.
You’ll hear it echoing across the Merrimack River from the live jazz nights every Sunday at The Tap Brewing Co., and see it splashed across the beautiful four-story Essex Street Gateway Mural, in which Haverhill luminaries are painted on the brick façades of one of those old factory buildings.
“I’m in that mural, and so is my father,” Dubus says. “It feels right that I’m somehow in that town. I left it, but it never left me.”
That spirit is also found in the many designers, chefs, artists, and other creatives who call downtown Haverhill home, even as the city continues to reimagine and build its future. “It’s striking to me how vibrant the life is here,” says Juros. “The street life I see on any given Tuesday afternoon is tremendous.… It’s starting to fill up with kind of a vibrant street life that’s only going to improve.”
In fact, two of Haverhill’s newest projects are also among its most exciting. One is Creative Haverhill’s recent purchase and renovation of the once-vacant Cogswell School building. When it opens (hopefully by spring of 2021), the new Cogswell ArtSpace will be home to a three-story community art space for all ages, containing juried galleries, a community gallery, arts classrooms for children and adults, affordable artist studios, multipurpose rooms, space for after-school arts clubs and vacation camps, and a large working area in the basement with a ceramics lab, printmaking equipment, and woodworking space.
Another exciting project would transform Haverhill’s downtown even more: the nonprofit Weitzman Initiative for the Arts and Industry, named for famed shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, who learned shoemaking at Seymour Shoes, his father’s Haverhill shoe factory. The eight-story building would include a museum—featuring Weitzman’s own historic shoe collection—as well as a theatre, an educational institution, a public gathering space, eateries, and makerspaces.
In its shoemaking heyday, Haverhill was a center for fashion and culture, and Ben Consoli, owner of Haverhill-based BC Media Productions and communications director for the Weitzman Initiative, believes it can be again. “At its core, the Weitzman Initiative is a group that is dedicated to the betterment of Haverhill and reclaiming Haverhill’s position on the world stage.”