Kittery, Maine, is a few miles downstream from where I live. It’s also across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, which is loaded with eateries – maybe as many per capita as Manhattan.
For much of its existence, Kittery has been pretty blue-collar. It’s home to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – the U.S. Navy’s oldest continuously operating yard – and now tasked with the upkeep of nuclear submarines. It’s also home to a lot of lobstermen.
When I first came to New Hampshire, the Kittery Grange Hall was the scene of a monthly contradance – both the grange and the event now ancient history.
Oh, yes, and its strip of discount outlet stores along U.S. 1 is a major tourist attraction. Seriously. As is the adjacent sprawling Kittery Trading Post.
But with Portsmouth booming and the cost of its retail space skyrocketing, Kittery has been undergoing a transformation. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Wallingford Square, which used to be a gritty cluster of bars around one of the shipyard’s two gates. Today it’s been rechristened Kittery Foreside and is the center of some enterprising fine dining and food sellers.
Here’s what you’ll find.
- Anneke Jans. Upscale trendy dining with a devoted following. It’s the culinary anchor.
- Rudders Public House. Specialty: Kittery Fried Chicken.
- Lil’ s Café. Crulers, anyone?
- AJ Wood Grill Pizza. Get the picture?
- Anju Noodle Bar. For that Asian touch.
- Wallingford Dram. Artisan cocktails in “that walk-in closet, timeless gem of a bar,” as one critic describes it.
- The Black Perch. Duck-gravy laden pontine.
- Festina Lente. Rustic Italian.
- Authentic India. As it says.
- Tributary Brewing Company.
Nearby is the Beach Pea bakery, the best baguettes around, and Loco Coco’s Tacos, with its wonderful fine Mexican cuisine.
The Port City is hemmed in by water on three sides, and it’s running out of room to grow.
While the waterfront and beaches are part of the city’s tourism and residential appeal, the demand on downtown real estate has been going up steeply. Literally.
Not all that long ago, Portsmouth was a sleepy little New Hampshire city with a hippie edge and a lot of historic Colonial houses. Unfortunately, the city fathers had jumped on the urban renewal boom in the early ’60s, nearly demolishing one old neighborhood that was instead miraculously transformed into the Strawbery Banke living history museum. Visit it, if you can.
The side opposite the downtown wasn’t so lucky. Much of it, an Italian neighborhood of large Victorian houses with impressive interiors, was razed to make room for a small mall that never took off. It instead became a forbidding asphalt graveyard for private parking surrounding some kind of small bunker.
At least that vacuous mistake and eyesore is finally gone.
I’m not so sure about the replacement, though.
In what seems like one fell swoop, a monolithic set of five-story buildings has popped up to form a forbidding wall along the north side of the downtown.
It has none of the variety and charm of Congress and State streets that run parallel to it just a few blocks away. It’s largely not pedestrian friendly, preferring instead to maximize every square inch of rentable space, and despite its visual unity has a cookie-cutter quality that bears no kinship to the rest of the district other than brick. Where are the quirky touches that abound so close at hand in the earlier eras?
There is one exception.
Downtown Dover, ten miles to the north, is undergoing growth of its own and seems to be avoiding this kind of monolithic development, even while going to five stories. Whether we can avoid something similar on the riverfront project on the other side of the Cocheco is another question.
In both cities, these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for defining the larger community. What does this say about Portsmouth?
Among the talent that shows up to work at the family restaurant in my novel What’s Left is a very, very talented baker. As they conversed with him, they could smell opportunity.
Still, these two lines were more than the scene needed:
What can you do here with what we have?
Pierre rolls out a list. We’re impressed.
Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.
Let’s just say everyone rose to the occasion. As a result, he started making real French bread to southern Indiana – and a lot more many of us take for granted nowadays.
Of course, the world doesn’t always come to you. When it comes to food or drink, where would you like to travel? Or, for that matter, return?
Since my indoor pool pass is good year-’round, I don’t spring for an extra pass to use the city’s outdoor pool each summer. Instead, I get to go there for free during the final two weeks of the season, when the indoor pool is closed for annual maintenance and upgrades.
The outdoor pool, though, can be a glorious experience. Here are ten points to consider.
- Though a Massachusetts native, Jenny Thompson calls Dover her hometown. She’s among the most decorated athletes in Olympic history, having won eight gold medals among her 12 despite numerous setbacks. On top of that, she became an anesthesiologist is Boston and now works as a pediatric anesthesiologist up the road in Portland, Maine.
- It’s the only 50-meter swimming pool for miles around. The closest neighbor is the Raco Theodore pool in Manchester, New Hampshire, an hour to our west. The only one to our east is at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, three hours up the Interstate. And to our south, it’s the Beverly, Massachusetts, YMCA on Boston’s North Shore or, further south, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge or at Hanscom in Lincoln. In other words, ain’t many of ’em around.
- It feels endless. A half-mile is eight laps, meaning round-trips up and back. I love hearing the rippling banners overhead in the distance, meaning I’m getting close to turning back in the other direction.
- It has a 10-foot-high diving board. Kids love it. Insurance companies hate anything so risky.
- It’s heated, except on the hottest days. Evaporation cools the water. Somehow, though, it seems to warm enough once I’m in it but still refreshingly brisk. Talk about a fine balance.
- Overhead, contrails of jetliners heading into Boston’s Logan airport often come a minute apart. That’s in addition to some gorgeous clouds I love to watch on my backstroke, along with the occasional bald eagles in the distance.
- As I just said, keep an eye open for bald eagles soaring in the distance.
- The Seacoast Swimming Association, which drew Thompson and her mother to Dover in the first place, is its biggest supporter – as they also do for the city’s smaller indoor pool through the rest of the year.
- Big swim meets take place here. Why not? From a distance, it always looks like a mob scene.
- The pool is 41 years old and has maintenance issues. Which leads to the next matter. Efforts are under way to replace it with a 10- to 22-lane indoor 50-meter pool. Dr. Thompson is solidly behind the effort and promises to come down often to test its waters.
Downtown Dover grew around the falls on the Cocheco River, where the mills could channel the current to produce world-famous calico and much more.
Below the falls and the dam atop them, tides from the Atlantic Ocean downstream rise and fall eight to ten feet every six hours or so. Boats from the ocean made their way the 14 miles upstream to pick up or deliver goods.
As pollution in the river has been cleaned up and the city itself become more of a center of the Seacoast Region, planners have been looking to develop an open stretch of unpaved parking lot and weeds across the water from downtown.
For years, the site was the public works yard – not the best use of potentially valuable real estate. That has since been relocated elsewhere. I’m guessing it was tannery and warehouses before that.
A proposal to build anew there fell through in the real estate collapse of the great recession at the end of the George W. Bush administration but now, a decade later, it’s emerging in new form.
Key to the design is the extension of Henry Law park along the river as a walkway with added attractions such as kayak and canoe landings. A hillside has already been carved back to allow moving an existing street away from the river to open the space for more pleasant picnicking or the strolling public.
Further on there will be room for new housing and small stores or offices. Done right, it should be quite welcoming and attractive.
Just as important, in my eyes, is the way this will open up access to an existing city park at the top of the hill. Rather than running into a dead end as it does now, Washington Street will rise up the slope to become the entrance to Maglaras Park. It will be an easy walk from downtown, rather than the convoluted route it’s replacing. Even for drivers, it’s a huge improvement.
My small city is the seventh oldest settlement in the continental United States, not that there’s a lot left from its first century, when the place was largely on the sometimes troubled frontier of English dominion.
As a working-class mill town, it developed more modestly than more prosperous harbor towns like Portsmouth to the south or Portland to the northeast or Newburyport to the southwest.
Our downtown is catching up, though. A small but significant building boom is under way.