Ten things we miss in Portsmouth

When I say “we” here, I’m acknowledging a widespread sense of loss voiced by friends and neighbors. Some of these places I know by reputation only, though I still see signs where they were. And others are places I valued.

When I first came to New Hampshire more than 30 years ago, Portsmouth still had a funky feel through much of its downtown. But real estate prices have been soaring, and that’s taken a toll. Ouch!

  1. The J.J. Newberry’s store. A real old-fashioned five-and-dime emporium with its classic soda fountain, knickknacks, and distinctive aroma downtown. Its closure meant many items could no longer be purchased within walking distance.
  2. Seavey’s Hardware. This was one of those family-owned hardware stores where you could find just about anything you’d need if you owned an old house. They could find old fixtures in original packaging and offer it to you for a fraction of what you’d have to pay, if you could locate it at all anywhere else. Alas, when a new generation failed to step up, the buildings were sold … for a constantly changing lineup of boutiques.
  3. Ciabatta bakery and café. Yes, real bakers rising way before dawn to create artisanal breads, pastries, and cakes. And great coffee long before Starbucks was anywhere near our corner of New England. Again, owning its own building helped. But the toll of long hours with few breaks finally led its owner to move on. Boo-hoo. I see it as an emblem of many other dearly departed eateries. Sakura, a small Japanese spot, and the inexpensive Stock Pot overlooking the harbor (great pies, by the way) are two I especially miss.
  4. A real downtown grocery. I don’t remember its name, but it was handy, especially if you were about to go out on the water or wanted an impromptu picnic in the park.
  5. The Pick’n Pay. Within walking distance of downtown, this family-run grocery built a loyal following for all of its special little touches and its personal sense of a social gathering spot. Everybody seemed to know everybody, so I’m told. Many still lament its sale in 1999 to the Hannaford chain after five decades of independence.
  6. Funky, cheap stores. The storefronts have almost all gone upscale now. How many pricy clothes do people need, anyway? How many souvenirs and gifts? How many real estate brokers?
  7. The old Prescott Park arts festival. Yes, the programs continue but they just don’t seem the same. Is it the lineups? Or just us?
  8. Community spirit. Something in the laissez-faire bohemian air I recall has turned bourgeois, even puritanical. The children’s museum had outgrown its original space but was rebuffed repeatedly before leaving town altogether for Dover a few years ago (Hallelujah!), but the pattern continues. We hear story after story of sourpusses and grumblers who are upset by the ice skating rink at Strawbery Banke (it’s pure Currier and Ives, for goodness sake) or the self-deputized posse searching brown paper bags at the Prescott Park concerts and calling police. It’s the old “we got ours, now get out” attitude that will soon make the town unwelcoming even to itself.
  9. A small-town scale. One historic neighborhood, just north of downtown, that didn’t escape urban renewal long sat as a bizarre quasi mall in the middle of a big parking lot. The houses it replaced had been, I’ve heard, elaborate Victorians whose craftsmen builders had filled with stone carvings, fantastical woodwork, and fanciful windows. What was left, admittedly, was an eyesore. Initially, nobody seemed to object when plans were announced to redevelop the site. What’s gone up, though, is a few square blocks of relentless four- or five-story rectangular structures befitting a big city but alien to the architectural character it borders. These monoliths with national chain retailers and eateries on the ground floor and residential condos above just don’t fit in. Well, considering that the city also banned buses from downtown – to get one to Boston, for instance, you have to take a “cute” trolley out to the transportation beside Interstate 95 – you just might start wondering how long it will be before someone tries to convert the whole place to a gated compound.
  10. Easy parking. Yes, the parking garage has long been a sanctuary, considering the shortage of street parking downtown, but now even that’s usually overflowing, especially in tourist season.

~*~

What do you miss in a place you’ve frequented?

~*~

Well, the vibe’s right …
… even if the shots were taken on a Sunday afternoon in Tamworth, New Hampshire.

 

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Corral for raspberry bushes

A couple of particularly nasty winter storms brought down a lot of big limbs in our yard. I really do need to get a chain saw to convert them to firewood, but in the meantime, I’ve put them to work in the garden. One place is in the row that lifts the raspberries away from the rest of the yard. Using the limbs here is much more satisfactory than the rope and wire of before – the branches keep the fence poles from pulling toward the center. How do you think it looks?

A few miles downstream

The Seacoast region of New Hampshire is dominated by a large estuary, collectively referred to as Great Bay. The waters include Little Bay and eight municipalities all pouring into the Piscataqua River with a continual strong tidal current. If you could harness that energy, you’d be a billionaire.

The bay essentially creates a peninsula with Portsmouth on the ocean side and Dover closer to the mainland. Population growth and the thriving Pease Industrial Tradeport have made the bridge linking the two sides quite congested at peak hours, especially when ski traffic or vacationers are added. One Friday afternoon in February, we got stuck in what’s too often normal these days. It took us an hour to go five miles. Look, we’re not big city. That chokes real life.

The bridge, which carries the Spaulding Turnpike and U.S. 4 before they split just beyond the northern end, is being doubled from four lanes to eight. The approaches are also being raised up to six feet as a precaution against climatic instability. Yes, storms are getting more turbulent, no matter the naysayers occupying the White House.

The bridge will make Dover more accessible to Interstate 95 in peak hours, and thus more attractive to people who hold jobs at Pease or in Portsmouth or in Massachusetts just to our south. In other words, it’s a factor in the city’s booming downtown construction to address a pressing housing demand.

Transportation, after all, is a major element in community existence.

The newly expanded bridge at Dover Point, seen at low tide from the Pisacataqua River. 
Four lanes in each direction.

 

Soft voices in the air

While working in the driveway, I hear a faint “Hello.” I look around and it’s repeated until I see that it’s coming from a second-floor neighboring window. It’s repeated again.

I look up and see two round faces pressed to the window screen. They resemble two little owls.

Not too long ago the two girls had been too shy to respond to my waves. But now?

Just listen. “Hello, hello.”

We’re making progress.

The breakthrough came the other morning when I waved and the older child waved back. I switched hands and waved. So did she. I used both hands. Ditto. We exchanged some other arm motions and finally a thumbs up.

Well, it brightened my day.

Bells of freedom ringing

Thinking of freedom, we can see it as personal expression as well as political opportunity. For some of us, that was a big dimension of the hippie movement.

The 50th anniversary of Woodstock is coming up next month. Normally, that would mark a jubilee, some even acclaiming it as a celebration of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Alas, the dark ages we thought had passed have returned from the dead, in intensified deadliness at that.

Jubilee, by the way, is drawn from the Biblical book of Leviticus, and it’s a most radical idea. Every 50 years, all the wealth in the land is to be redistributed. The scriptural passage is inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, so don’t tell me it’s not American.

~*~

One of the passages I cut before the final version of my novel What’s Left is one where she’s asking her aunt about the hippie experience:

I’ve never asked you about your own drug use.

OK? Can I say it was just enough to convince others I wasn’t a narc?

So were you really a hippie? I mean, you had such short hair!

You trying to say a hippie couldn’t have short hair? Don’t you know how radical my style was? You ever think I could conform to anything?

Well, you’ve indicated you weren’t stoned. I’m going down the list.

Have you considered the impact of the Pill? Or free love?

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

For the record, some of the truest hippies I’ve known weren’t promiscuous or do drugs. And some others never marched in a protest.

Still, as an image of the era, let me ask: What’s your impression of Woodstock? Have you ever been to a big, multiday festival? What’s your favorite music? How do you best express your free spirit?