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McKnight CDC honors longtime activists for neighborhood historic district

SPRINGFIELD, MA -In a city of 17 discrete neighborhoods, residents of McKnight have had to fight over the years to protect their ownlittle patch of the city and see its careful development while making sure its unique identity was and is preserved.


Saturday, the McKnight Community Development Corporation honored three people who contributed significantly tothe neighborhood’s character and preservation of its historic record.


Originally planned in 2020, the ceremony was moved to April of this year but COVID pandemic regulations made itdifficult to properly recognize the honorees. The ceremony was rescheduled to May, which turned out to be optimistic.


Finally, during a long-delayed ceremony Saturday, board members of the CDC honored Frances Gagnon, MarjorieGuess and Wayne Phaneuf.


“Too many people worked so hard to hold our neighborhood together and protect it where others would have just letthings go,” president emeritus of the CDC Hazel L.H. Adams said of the three. “That’s why I feel it’s important torecognize these people who never seem to be mentioned anymore, who did all that work with little or nocompensation, just because they felt our community was important.”


In the 1970s city planners were looking at the McKnight neighborhood as a target for medium-densityhousing and industrial development, very different from its residential character.


While other neighborhoods were busy developing historic districts to protect themselves, city planners were callingfor the demolition of the wide swaths of McKnight. There was even a plan to build a traffic bypass through theneighborhood’s central Thompson Triangle Park.


Gagnon, who later became chairperson of Springfield’s Historic Commission, worked with the McKnight SteeringCommittee to organize residents in support of a historic district in the neighborhood to protect the character of thearea.


“The problem was absentee owners,” Gagnon said Saturday. “Many of the houses were being turned into halfwayhouses for the State Hospital in Northampton and other agencies.”


Finally, in 1976 the McKnight Historic District was formally recognized, giving historic commissioners somecontrol over how properties were used, saving many historic homes and with them community cohesion.


It was the homes of McKnight, with its heavily residential character and turn-of-the-century buildings, that gavemuch of the community its flavor. But when new housing styles being built in McKnight began to threaten thatcharacter, Guess, the president of the McKnight Neighborhood Council, stood up to what she called “Cracker Jackboxes” and insisted on architectural cohesion that reinforced the neighborhood character rather than allow developersto succumb to cheaper buildings methods and styles.


“We had neighborhood committee meetings to explain the regulations to them,” Guess said, “But some just didwhatever they wanted and tried to get away with it. But we found that more and more we were seeing people whomoved here because of the beauty of the neighborhood. Because of that we have been seeing how the neighborhoodhas changed for the better.”


Guess was all for affordable housing the McKnight. Under her guidance the McKnight Defense Fund was able tobuy a number of vacant lots to build appropriate homes. She even was able to remove a partially built home that didnot fit the character of the district and built a Victorian Shingle-style house in its place, replicating a stately homethat had stood at the spot years before.


When she was growing up in the neighborhood Gagnon remembered seeing “a kid riding his bicycle around theneighborhood.” That kid would grow up to be the executive editor of the Springfield Republican.


Phaneuf has since retired from the newspaper, but during his years as a journalist, his numerous articles and columnssharing his memories of the McKnight neighborhood “helped nurture the community’s preservation efforts,” the CDCsaid.


Phaneuf said Friday that the McKnight neighborhood shaped who he became in life and what he saw there never lefthim.


“It was a great place to grow up,” he said. “I was born on McKnight Street and grew up on Bowdoin Street. Mygrandmother lived on Clarendon Street nearby.


“Everybody knew each other,” he said. “It was a fantastic mix of ethnicities and races. A lot of Armory workerslived in McKnight. I made a lot of lifelong friends in that neighborhood.”


From his early school years at Tapley Elementary School and at Buckingham Junior High School with classmateU.S. Rep. Richard Neal, playing second base for the McKnight Aces, and finally attending Classical High School,Phaneuf said many of his memories remain pleasant.


Neal attended Saturday’s ceremony and reminded attendees that in addition to growing up in the neighborhood, hewas a mayoral aide when they were working to change the neighborhood. He said he learned a lot from them.


“Margie was a great neighborhood organizer, a terrific woman and a great personality,” he said. “Wayne used theeditorial pages of the newspaper to embrace the full impact of the historic districts and preservation. Fran waspushed hard to have her appointed to the historic commission just as soon as Bill Sullivan signed the ordinance. Idon’t think (the CDC) could have chosen three better human beings to honor.”


The neighborhood was named for the McKnight brothers who developed the neighborhood in 1870. McKnight National Register Historic District is known worldwide to urban planners as one of the first planned residentialneighborhoods in the United States.


The McKnight brothers went on to develop the Forest Park neighborhood 15 years after McKnight.