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Former workers of Lynn’s Western-Walnut program still believe in their revitalizing neighborhood formula

Eleanor Whyte, left, and Ann Marie Leonard look through the 60-plus articles the Item wrote about the Western-walnut program they worked on during the 1970s. (Owen O'Rourke)

LYNN — Surviving members of a small band of city workers who worked to better the city, one house at a time, almost half a century ago, remain true to their memories and convictions.

Even by today’s standards, the Western-Walnut Concentrated Code Program was ambitious when former Mayor Irving Kane announced in 1969 that the city would spend $1 million in federal money sprucing up a 167-block area roughly bound by Farrell Road, North Common, Boston, and Washington streets and bisected by Western Avenue and Walnut Street.

The campaign called for conducting code inspections in a 1,400-house area and combining loans and grants to help residents fix up their properties. The job of carrying it all out got dropped into the lap of Edward T. Calnan who at the time was working for the Lynn Redevelopment Authority.

By 1969, federal urban renewal programs intended to improve communities were viewed as demolition projects that forced residents out of neighborhoods like the Brickyard where families had put down deep roots. Calnan’s job was to guide Western-Walnut in a different direction.

“It was about the viability of rehabbing rather than wholesale demolition. We saw what happened with taking people’s homes and evictions,” he said.

Calnan, who was 30, assembled a staff of young Lynn residents, including Ann Marie Leonard, who continues to work for the Community Development department; the late Robert Furlong, who went on to become city clerk; Eleanor Whyte, John Napierski and Harry Coppola, who was later elected Ward 7 City Councilor, to run Western-Walnut.

The code program’s crew crammed into one of City Hall’s smallest offices and started carrying out Kane’s and Calnan’s mandate to make Western-Walnut a program that worked for people.

“In the first week I asked my staff to have five applications for loans on my desk by the end of the week,” Calnan said.

Eleanor Whyte, Edward T. Calnan, and Ann Marie Leonard look at the 60-plus item newspaper articles written about the Western-Walnut program that they worked on in the 1970s. (Owen O’Rourke)

Although Western-Walnut’s name labeled it as a code enforcement program, Calnan and his crew, which grew to include Robert Lee, Thomas Goff, Ted Smith, Joseph LeBlanc, Eugene Michaud, and Louise Dineen, focused on selling the program to residents in the target area by stressing its loan and outright grant features.

Western-Walnut offered grants ranging from $1,500 to $3,500 – sufficient, Calnan said, to pay for kitchen renovations and a new roof 45 years ago. The 3 percent interest loans totaled as much as $7,000 with a payment sum of $5.55 a month on $1,000 loan value.

“People who qualified got outright grants to fix up their houses. It made an impact,” Leonard said.

The “Western-Walnut Twelve,” as they dubbed themselves, fanned out across the city and started getting results: By May, 1970, they had received 120 loan requests and $30,000 in loans had been approved. Within a year of the program’s unveiling, 20 homes had been renovated.

“Our motto was ‘a better home in a better neighborhood without moving,'” said Calnan.

But the program faced critics. Calnan recalled presenting Western-Walnut to skeptical Pine Hill residents who equated federal dollars with home demolitions. Calnan and his staff showed the residents before and after photographs of renovated homes to win them over.

Even as they processed loan requests at the rate of 10 a week, the Western-Walnut Twelve found time for levity. They moved out of City Hall into an office at 191 North Common St. and Whyte and Leonard recalled struggling to master a data processing machine and converting cynical residents into enthusiastic loan applicants.

As the program expanded, so did its staff with Joseph Legere and James Connolly joining the Twelve.

“We liked what we did and we liked the people we worked with,” Leonard said.

Sworn in as Lynn’s new mayor on Jan. 4, 1972, Pasquale Caggiano took sharp aim at urban renewal in his inaugural speech and, three days later, painted a bull’s eye on the Western-Walnut Concentrated Code Program by firing Coppola followed by three other program employees.

The firings quickly landed in court where lawyers argued support for Caggiano’s election opponent, J. Warren Cassidy, spurred the firings. Caggiano only served 102 days in office before death claimed him but the writing was on the wall for Western-Walnut.

In May, 1972, news reports quoted Acting Mayor Walter F. Meserve’s claim that Western-Walnut faced federal scrutiny and criticism. Calnan defended the program by pointing to the numbers: 1,250 homes inspected and $1.2 million in loans and grants provided for home rehabilitations.

“HUD (federal Housing and Urban Development department) cited us as the biggest producer for our type of loan in New England,” Calnan said.

By 1973, Western-Walnut was being phased out to be replaced by the federal block grant program administered by the new city Community Development department with Calnan as its first director.

Leonard said Western-Walnut achieved its basic purpose of fixing up neighborhoods to make them better places to live in. Southern Essex Register of Deed John L. O’Brien Jr., who served as Ward 6 City Councilor during the program’s heyday, said Western-Walnut continues to provide a blueprint for making Lynn a place where people want to live.

“It was a great program. It helped neighborhoods,” he said.

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