Historical Significance Had Little Heft on the Scale of Progress in Booming Malden

Monday, August 28, 2017

The First Church in Malden, Congregational, a once-cherished emblem of the history of Malden, Massachusetts, was wiped out a few weeks ago for the sake of a new downtown development.

The site of the church was contiguous to the Malden Government Center complex (city hall and police headquarters), which had been built in the mid-1970s in the middle of Pleasant Street in an attempt to create a pedestrian shopping mall from that point down to where Pleasant Street spills in to Main Street.  It turned out to be an ill-conceived and ridiculously hopeful project: no mall ever materialized. 
For years, the people of Malden yearned to correct that colossal mistake by demolishing the Government Center and reopening the entire length of Pleasant Street to the smooth flow of vehicular traffic.  Enter the Jefferson Apartment Group of Virginia in 2015.  It proposed spending $100 million to demolish the Government Center; replace it with apartments, offices and hundreds of parking spaces; and re-open Pleasant Street.  The plan hinged on combining the Government Center and church properties.  Suddenly, it made sense to deem the church edifice expendable.

Located at 184 Pleasant Street, the red-brick First Church, with its New-England-classic white steeple, was much more than a beautiful and distinctive building.  It was a direct link to the first European settlers of Mystic Side, the farming hamlet north of Boston that became the town, and later the city, of Malden.
Arriving in 1629, those settlers were Puritans, adherents of the Congregational faith.  Out of that faith ran a current of self-reliance and independent thinking that energized the Revolutionary War and helped to define the resulting institutions of democratic government in the United States.

James F. Cooper, Jr., wrote in his book Tenacious of Their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts that “Congregational thought and practice in fact served as one indigenous seedbed of several concepts that would flourish during the Revolutionary generation, including the notions that government derives its legitimacy from voluntary consent of the governed, governors should be chosen by the governed, rulers should be accountable to the ruled, and constitutional checks should limit both the governors and the people.”  
The First Church was not the original Congregational meeting house in Malden, nor did it occupy the site of the original meeting house.  It was a successor church, a “new” church constructed only 83 years ago, in 1934, when that part of Pleasant Street was the retail hub of greater Malden.  First Church members then were numerous and influential in the community – and justly proud of being able to trace their faith lineage to the Englishmen who founded the city.

Malden is booming. The population has increased by more than 3,000 over the last 15 years and now stands just below 60,000.  New apartment buildings and condos are rising, it seems, on every available site.  Restaurants old and new are busy most nights.  There is even a serious proposal to build a minor league baseball stadium on a former industrial site on the outskirts of downtown.
One can welcome progress of this magnitude.  One can cheer for the city and its leaders because their economy is so robust.  One can celebrate that these developments constitute “smart growth” -- buildings and uses that capitalize on Malden’s proximity to Boston and its connection to mass transit. (The Malden Center stop on the T’s Orange Line sits about a hundred yards from the site of the demolished First Church.)

Still, I have to mourn that something with as much character and historical significance as the First Church could disappear because its congregation had dwindled and the real estate it occupies had become so incredibly valuable.  I feel badly that Malden is like most places in the U.S. in that local citizens are inherently averse to paying more taxes for the preservation of buildings and places of historical importance.
At the tables where big decisions are made on a city’s future, a city’s past has no seat.

We’ve all witnessed circumstances like those that spelled the doom of the First Church in Malden, Congregational.  In our hearts we know that civic pride is wonderful up to the point that we the citizens are invited to uphold it with the dollars from our pockets.

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