Unpacking the past, opening space to move on

I’ve been up in the loft of the barn, going through many of my goods that have been packed away here. These days, the temperature’s not too hot, and though the air’s chilly outside, the sun on the roof has this space comfy. The wind sends maple spinners tapping overhead, as well as falling leaves and twigs. For me, it’s autumn in more ways than one.

I’ve already gone through my spirituality/religion bookshelf in my studio in the house and pruned nearly a hundred volumes from it – mostly Yoga and Buddhism I’ll no longer be referencing in new writing. I look one last time at these field guides and backcountry maps from across the continent while hoping to find an appreciative reader to give them to. Any ideas?

Alas, I’m finding more books here in the barn, some of them adding to that pile, but also Whole Earth Catalogs, political science, poetry, marketing and agenting guides, art and history, Cascade Mountains trail books and photo albums. Each of them is a reflection of my life’s interests and pursuits, now in my past.

There are also picture frames we’ve never used, rolled-up posters, Quaker outreach materials.

At least I went ahead and burned the outdated assorted financial records a few days ago – credit cards slips, receipts, insurance mailings, and so on. Shredding them would have taken forever.

And then correspondence and photos. What to keep and what to release?

The point is that it’s time to let go and move on.

Soon to follow are the genealogical working notes and files. Four filing boxes stuffed with them. Everything I’ve gleaned is now up on my Orphan George blog. Another completed project, as far as I’m concerned. Yet when I open one of the boxes, I feel myself burdened with some constricting force, likely arising in a self-imposed obligation. No, the time has come.

Along with another filing box of poetry and fiction acceptances and correspondence. I discarded the rejections long ago. I hate to think how much I spent on postage and photocopying in that pastime or of the hours I devoted to it before I shifted my output to blogging and self-published ebooks.

More symbolic is my old backpack basket, at one time a status item reflecting my reaching first-class rank in Boy Scouts and, along with it, the right to weave the basket and attach it to the frame I made when I had earned second-class. It no longer fits and has long been battered in my moves across the continent. Besides, I won’t be backpacking again. With it, I learned to back light in my travels. Farewell, then, as I pack light anew.

Not everything up here is mine, but we are on a downsizing effort.


I have to admit feelings of failure, of seeing how often I was compelled to move away and start over just as something else was about to open. Of near-misses, too. Of broken relationships.

But there’s also the warmth of past friendships and support. Long, personal letters from busy people, for one thing, something that’s really from a different era than the one we inhabit now. Of deceased elders and mentors, especially.

I have moments of sensing this as a prelude to the aftermath of my own funeral, a kind of this-was-your-life sweep. As I do the work of clearing out things I’ve treasured that won’t mean anything to anyone among my family and friends, I spare them the task. There will be plenty enough as when I’m done, far as I can see.

It’s bittersweet, really, making room for what’s left. Nobody said it would be easy.

When it’s time to downsize

Think of your “desert island list” applied to real life.

Gee, trying to cut it to even a thousand books or recordings seems impossible, at least in my case.

Would there even be sufficient room for all the survivors at the new destination?

And that’s before the clothing and kitchenware and …

What would be hardest for you to pare down?


Watching the riverfront change

I’m waiting for the new walkways to open along the river in front of the expanding Riparia on the far shore. The developers are also hoping for a restaurant with outdoor dining. Historically, the river was lined with factories, warehouses, ice houses, and a few tanneries, all of them blocking access to the flowing water. Here’s a view from the top of the parking garage.

Upper Square in perspective

Upper Square makes for some delightful shopping. The horse trough in the median is a nod to the past.


Central Avenue, while walking from the river toward Upper Square.


A glimpse at Fourth Street, one-block long, illustrates the challenge in creating an inviting neighborhood. At the moment, there’s nothing to entice passers-by to turn down the street. The old county courthouse is vacant, and former storefronts are used for storage. At best, it’s a shortcut to the parking lot at the Amtrak station.


In contrast, as Fifth Street demonstrates, side streets can add much to a downtown’s usefulness and appeal.

Yes, it’s small potatoes in the big scheme of things, but I’m still fascinated

One wing of the new Orpheum overlooks the library, city hall, and St. Thomas Episcopal on Locust Street.

I appreciate your patience as I examine the transformation taking place in my small city. I know this construction and planning would go unnoticed in big metropolises, although these moves could play pivotal roles in anchoring vital neighborhoods and their identities within them.

Actually, that was something I watched happen in Baltimore under Mayor William Donald Schaeffer in the early ’80s, and the results I saw were exciting, especially where I lived in Bolton Hill.

What’s really at stake is quality of life. Pleasing visual variety can be part of that, but healthy urban life and community are a mix of much more, and that’s what I see happening in Dover. The fact I don’t have to get in a car for many things is a delight, though I do drive more than I’d like, mostly for time factors.

In its smaller scale, Dover is a kind of laboratory, one enhanced by a savvy economic development director and city manager. What’s happening now – and about to happen on a site on the other side of the river – is the result of many touches earlier, including the construction of a central parking garage to eliminate some of the lots around downtown. As these seas of parked cars become actual walkways with stores  and services leading to more options, the retail center becomes ever more integrated into its surrounding residential neighborhoods.

Here’s how downtown looks coming up Locust Street from the south. The Greek Orthodox church is tucked in on the left. The new parking garage is straight ahead.
And you turn around and look up at this, the Captain Moses Paul House.


Lower Square as the center of town

The old Masonic temple, new Orpheum, and old Strafford County Bank dominate Lower Square, where northbound traffic is peeled off to circle up around the old mills before rejoining Central Avenue. The photo was taken in front of the former newspaper plant, now named Foster Place, and the children’s museum.

It’s been like a downtown waiting to happen, if only the right neighbors moved in.

And now, actually, they are, thanks to the new Orpheum project and what’s happening at the old newspaper plant now dubbed Foster Place.

Historically, some dramatic fires shaped the street, too, removing an imposing city hall that included the largest auditorium in the state (“opera house,” as it was known) and a Baptist church. Mills across the street were also razed over time, making the entire scene airier.

It’s not as alone as it looks here. There’s a former firehouse now serving as a fine restaurant and a parking garage behind it. The new Orpheum diagonally across the street adds some vertical unity along Washington Street.


Along with the Cocheco Millworks, this has been the center of town.


Like the restaurant renovations I had considered in fiction

A pocket courtyard and stairwell tower now face Central Avenue in what had been unused space where an addition joined the original building. The windows, caps, and doorways are new.

I’ve been watching the renovation of the former newspaper plant downtown with special interest. Remember, I am a retired journalist.

To begin with, the existing edifice was highly problematic, beginning with the question of what to do with the former industrial pressroom and moving on to the way the structure had been expanded wily-nily over the decades. Apart from its first (modest) construction, the evolving building was never exactly what you’d call planned. Not with a long view.

Apartments, many of them overlooking riverfront Henry Law Park, are rising atop what had been the newspaper’s press.
As it was before.

Owned by one family for generations, the daily Foster’s Daily Democrat was headquartered on a prominent corner of Lower Square. In fact, the publisher and his family even lived in quarters in the flat-iron style building where traffic now curves from Central Avenue onto Washington Street and then Main as it winds around the historic mills and river.

The longest side of the plant, though, stands along Henry Law Avenue but has never interacted with it. Nope, it was just a concrete block wall with a few slits. Or fortress, meaning until recently, the street was largely a traffic siphon. But that’s changed now that the children’s museum on the other side draws thousands of families and school groups each year, as do free concerts in the small park. People actually stop and pay to park their vehicles along the street, and not because they have jobs nearby.

Facing the park.

Again, with the city planner’s goal of making downtown both pedestrian- and family-friendly, the interface has been changing.

At last, a developer has realized that to make the old newspaper office viable to new tenants, big changes were needed. And finally, that’s happening. Naturally, it’s a multi-use approach.

This is what’s emerging. The intention, I’d say, is to make the unified structure look like smaller, traditional side-by-side buildings. I do like the recessed balconies overlooking the park and its state-of-the-art destination playground.


And, at the far end, this, emphasizing the views.


In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s family members also realize they need to upgrade their restaurant, and that leads to an ambitious project to repurpose the building next door. It’s not that unlike what’s happening on Henry Law Avenue as the blank concrete block wall is opened to pedestrian traffic.

What do you think?


Filling in a modest skyline

What would otherwise be the rear, on the south, instead projects its own grandeur as it fronts on the lawns of the community center and public library. The blank brick wall on the right is the side of the old Masonic temple. 

Fitting the new Orpheum into an essentially triangular site made for an interesting design challenge. Fitting into an existing downtown look and scale of size was another. And optimizing return on investment and budget was a third.

The footprint led to an interesting solution as well as an emerging new skyline.

The developer’s results look like two parallel buildings when seen from the west, as well as a long backdrop for the existing downtown when seen from the east.

And this is before the landscaping kicks in.

From the front, facing north, varied textures suggest narrower side-by-side buildings rather than a single monolith. I find it rather busy, but maybe that was the intention.


From the bank drive-thru, two new buildings seem to be rising. The existing city hall sits to the right, and then the new district courthouse. 


Another look from the bank drive-thru.


Sitting back a block from Central Avenue, the new Orpheum adds depth to an urban view.

Let’s not get nostalgic

The quirky arch inspired the name of the new project as well as a design element retained in the new, larger structure.

I’ve been posting images and commentary on the big changes taking place in my small city’s downtown. The biggest project is the new Orpheum, replacing a storefront block and taking its name from a tiny movie house that once occupied one corner.

This is what occupied most of the site.
And this.