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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
Nearly all traffic to Maine passes through Portsmouth, a smaller but more affluent city to our south – and much of the traffic stops off for a meal or shopping break. It’s a picturesque place bordering the ocean, which makes it both a vacation destination on its own or chic place to retire. For years, it was the heart of New Hampshire’s seacoast region, although that’s shifting more and more to Dover as Portsmouth loses its blue-collar base and state university students at nearby Durham are priced out of its rental market.
Still, we heart it. Here are some reasons:
The Music Hall. Within its unpretentious exterior, this restored 1878 auditorium is jewel of 895 seats and a horseshoe shaped balcony that’s become the principal venue for live music, classic and art films, lectures, and more in the seacoast region of New Hampshire. Simply stepped into the hall feels like stepping back in history.
A vibrant theater scene. Despite its modest population, the Port City is home to an unexpected number of live stage companies. Our favorite is the Pontine Theater, founded by a duo in 1977. They do just about everything from writing the scripts to designing and building the sets and costumes to performing most of the shows each season.
The harbor. Situated at the mouth of the Piscataqua River (with its treacherous currents), Portsmouth and Newington just upstream form the principal port of New Hampshire. The historic downtown wraps around Portsmouth Harbor, and overlooks its clutch of tugboats, commercial fishermen, ocean-going freighters, sailboats, motorboats, even yachts, plus cruises down the river and out to the Isles of Shoals or upstream to Dover (the latter limited to September and October). It’s a gorgeous view from many angles.
Historic houses and neighborhoods. Like many other New England ports, Portsmouth was home to wealthy merchants and traders, and they built homes to match. A living history museum, Strawbery Banke, offers tours and programs featuring a selection of homes and small businesses from the mid-1600s to the beginning of the 1900s. The site, once scheduled for urban renewal demolition, is itself a miracle. It’s not alone, though. Spread throughout town are other historic houses open for public inspection, including the 1664 Jackson House, governor’s mansions, signers of the Declaration of Independence, the John Paul Jones House, and others. Strolling some of the side streets can feel just as impressive.
Prescott Park. Set along the river adjacent to Strawbery Banke, this park is scene to a summer music and theater series, an All-America selection floral display, a lush public garden, sculpture, and dramatic views of vessels as well as the U.S. Navy shipyard and its nuclear submarines on the opposite shore. Next to the park is a small Colonial-era burial ground well worth examining.
Tons of restaurants and nightlife. Downtown probably has as many eateries per capita as Manhattan, many of them veering toward upscale. It’s a constantly changing list.
The new Memorial Bridge and new Sarah Long Bridge. The two drawbridges between New Hampshire and Maine have been recently rebuilt to handle more vehicular traffic and to better accommodate the oceanic freighters and barges. The new structures are pretty impressive.
Third of July fireworks. With its annual pyrotechnics show the night before Independence Day, this city offers a great example of an artistic, well-planned visual production. Maybe it helps to have a central site like the park along the South Mill Pond, but this crew knows how to use the entire sky as a canvas.
The Water Monkey. About the last surviving funky retail outlet downtown, which was once filled with hippie action. Lots of fun in a small space.
The Brattle Organ. Said to be the oldest playable set of pipes in the country, this circa 1665 instrument was imported before 1708 for King’s Chapel in Boston. It now sits in a corner of the balcony at St. John Episcopal on a knoll downtown and is played on rare occasions. It’s a small instrument, fewer than 200 pipes. It must have been thought quite exotic at one time.
Think of a place near your home that you like to visit. Tell us one of things you find appealing.
For nine days each June, the sound of Harley’s is heard everywhere across the Granite State. The annual Laconia Bike Week schedule ends on Father’s Day, just before the traditional summer vacation season begins.
It’s the oldest rally in the country. It originated in 1916 when hundreds of motorcyclists convened on Weirs Beach in the city of Laconia. It was officially organized in 1923 as an annual event.
A 1965 riot between motorcycle gangs and police cast a pall over the rally. Attendance plummeted.
Civic boosters revived the event’s popularity in the 1990s to enhance tourism revenue.
New Hampshire does not require motorcyclists to wear helmets. The freedom to feel the wind in your hair – or these days, for many, bald head, is a huge attraction as they tool along scenic, winding highways in the state’s mountainous Lakes Region.
Deaths often accompany the rally. There were at least two fatal crashes in 2018.
Weirs Beach on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee is Ground Zero. It’s filled with vendors and jammed with parked bikes during the rally.
It has the third- or fourth-highest attendance (400,000). Sturgis, North Dakota, is first (500,000 to 700,000 in August); Daytona, Florida, is second (450,000 to 550,000 in March); and the Bikes, Blues, and BBQ in Fayetteville, Arkansas, comes in about the same (400,000 in September).
The event brings an estimated $100 million into the state.
The Mount Washington Ride to the Sky is a bikes-only event to the top of the tallest summit in the Northeast. Snow is sometimes part of the attraction.
The crowd is graying – but still mostly male and white.
Travel’s been largely on hold for me – just too much to do at home, for instance, especially when it comes to writing. But what if that were to change?
San Francisco, Seattle, and Yakima. I haven’t been back to my beloved Pacific Northwest since leaving in 1990. This would provide a basis for an memorable sweep.
The East African Quakers have much to teach the rest of us, and I can’t think of a better introduction to this mysterious continent.
Cumbria, England, and Lurgan, Northern Ireland. These two places, a short hop apart on the Irish Sea, are central to my Hodson ancestry. I’d love to see where we’re from.
Apart from the museums, classical music, and theater attractions, I’d want access to some early Quaker minute books – especially those pages marked “too faint to microfilm” in Lurgan’s surviving records.
Alsace, France/Germany, and Switzerland upstream. On my Grandma Hodson’s side, these are my places of origin.
Kyoto, especially. Did I mention my long fascination with Zen Buddhism or Japanese cuisine?
The Himalayas. Or my interest in Tibetan Buddhism along with the world’s tallest mountains? (Yes, I know it will make it more difficult to appreciate the summits back home, but that’s got to be well worth the encounter.)
Canadian Maritime Provinces. These are just up the coast from us but have remained a world away. Think I can fix that in the upcoming future?
Anasazi ruins and Albuquerque. The American Southwest is a huge blank in my explorations. This sweep would end with a visit to some very special friends in their new locale.
Australia and New Zealand. From here, they seem incredibly unimaginable. Only one way to fix that.
Those highway signs can often take on whimsical readings.
One poetry journal, for instance, took its name from an exit marker of the Interstate crossing from Pennsylvania into Maryland: Northwest Rising Sun. It was for two different towns. Everybody knows the sun rises in the east, not the west. Still, a great name. It pays to be alert.
Likewise, orchestral conductor David Zinman was recording with humorist P.D.Q. Bach (in real life, Peter Schickele) but found his contract with another label prohibited him from using his own name on this project. What could he use instead? Inspiration struck when he was driving on Route 128 outside Boston. That exit sign read Newton Wayland.
More recently, while updating and seriously revising my previously published novels, I set about renaming many of the characters for a better fit.
I’ve passed this sign hundreds of times and often thought it sounded great as a possible character, if only I had the right situation. And then, as I reworked the volume that now stands as Daffodil Uprising, I had the perfect guy to go by the name: LEE MADBURY.