One of America's last urban
The full story of how the city obliterated its own dilapidated "Little Italy" neighborhood and scores of historic buildings has yet to be fully told or understood. Despite the more recent success of the Sheraton Hotel complex, the parking garage and a few surviving buildings on "The Hill," few critics dispute that the project was at first, a major failure economically, architecturally and culturally.
But the details still lie scattered in library archives, file drawers and the all-too-vivid memories of the families who once lived in a neighborhood now called the Russell Street parking lot.
Certainly the founding motivation was practical enough. Times were tough all over. Portsmouth had survived over 300 years on an economic seesaw ride. Regarded as one of the most beautiful surviving colonial cities in America, Portsmouth in the mid-20th century still teetered on shaky fiscal legs. Market Square was not yet renovated. The current gentrification, increased tourism and cultural awakening were just about to begin. The Port City still had a rough and tumble reputation. The Worcestor Sunday Telegram described Portsmouth in 1969 as an "impoverished aristocrat of a city."
Urban renewal, a federally funded program, promised millions of dollars, practically for free, to fiscally wounded cities. If the Portsmouth Housing Authority (PHA) could target precise problem areas, the federal government would provide two dollars for every city dollar spent to eradicate the "spreading blight." Impoverished areas, the theory went, were sucking the life force out of America's cities and blocking commercial development. Studies indicated that the blight in Portsmouth was located largely in residential areas near the city center. These low-rent districts were considered "unhealthy" and unattractive, and brought in little tax revenue. If the buildings were declared substandard, they could be taken by eminent domain and removed to make way for progress.
These neighborhoods, according to urban renewal policy, could be upgraded, salvaged through a costly process of rehabilitation, or they could be removed, like a cancer, with the flick of a bulldozer blade. PHA New construction could then bring prosperity. In the blighted "Puddle Dock" area near the waterfront, urban renewal had already been tempered by preservationists who salvaged many stately homes to create a "colonial village" known as Strawbery Banke Museum.
But the North End was closer to the city center. Originally settled in colonial times, it had become an "ethnic" waterfront neighborhood. Poor Irish immigrants who occupied the area moved "up the crick" to the "Christian Shore" neighborhood nearby when a wave of Italian immigrants arrived in the early 1900s. Within two decades the Italian arrivals, bringing customs unfamiliar to Portsmouth and speaking a foreign tongue, comprised up to 95 percent of the population in the tiny replica of Boston's North End.
Life in the North End
The tightly held ethnic neighborhood became a world unto itself, with its own grocery stores, social clubs, restaurants and shops. Italian-American children attended the Farragut school in the North End, played games in their own streets and swam near the railroad bridge in the North Mill Pond. Women ran the households and raised children. Men worked in the local shoe and button factories or as casual laborers, later as masons or shipyard workers.
Former residents who grew up in "Little Italy" still speak of it in idealized terms. At a North End reunion videotaped in 1986, Delfo Cominati born in the North End in 1911 said, "We were all very poor, but we had a great life." Mary Succi Ciotti remembered vendors delivering ice and live chickens to her home, and learning to dance the jitterbug in the streets.
"Mundo" Zoffoli said "We were all happy people" but, he added, "when urban renewal came through and took our houses, they put us all in debt, because they didn't pay us enough for our houses."
Despite the easy-going nostalgia, this undercurrent of sadness and anger still runs just beneath the surface for a neighborhood vaporized by federal and local decree. In the "Russell Street Reunion" video Delmira Pirini Allan said, "We question why they took the North End -- especially when it was supposed to be for a certain purpose " Portsmouth Library Director Sherman Pridham, in a newspaper article following the 1986 reunion, added that his grandmother was relocated from her North End home to an elderly housing facility and died within a year.
Newspaper clippings on file at the Portsmouth Public Library show the media at the time emphasizing the projected tax gain, modernization and economic benefits of urban renewal. Local feature articles focused on the plight of the displaced population are not evident from the library files. In the articles collected, there appears to be no references to the site as an Italian neighborhood with nearly 70 years of history.
Loss of the historic buildings appears to have been more newsworthy. But when Portsmouth historians protested the impending loss of important colonial architecture, a November 22, 1968 Portsmouth Herald photo showed a littered back street with tarpaper houses above the caption: School Street Houses are well worth preserving say the experts." In contrast, a front page headline on February 13, 1969 featured a gleaming modern artist's conception of a proposed $2 million complex proposed for the North End site. It included a 100-room motor hotel, swimming pool, underground parking, offices and a two-story shopping mall. The planned complex was never built. By this time 66 North End families had been relocated and demolition of the historic Farragut school and Eureka fire station was imminent.
By contrast, a large feature article in the September 14, 1969 Worcestor Telegram -- a distant Massachusetts publication -- depicted details of the North End's extraordinary architecture. One photo ran over a foot high with the headline: "Can Portsmouth, NH save these historic houses and reap a profit too?" Even the Manchester Union Leader presented a commentary in favor of the preservation plan.
By this time the battle was already lost for North End residents whose houses were being purchased based on a formula calculated by the PHA. The newly formed Portsmouth Preservation Inc. turned its attention to 64 houses identified as historically significant. With Strawbery Banke Museum recently created in the South End as a result of urban renewal there, preservationists did not believe another nonprofit museum was feasible. They attempted, instead, to attract investors to a for-profit company that would relocate key buildings to a new site along Deer Street nearby. This site was directly in the path of the modern complex imagined by the Portsmouth Housing Authority.
Not one to compromise, PHA Chief Executive Walter J. Murphy insisted that all houses in the identified region were "substandard" and that "a program of total renewal" was the only sensible avenue. Murphy's plan was the architectural equivalent of clear cutting a forest. Appeals to state authorities did not help preservationists and the Historic Preservation Act had not yet been made law in New Hampshire. The Portsmouth City Council, under Mayor Eileen Foley, whose father Charles Dondero was born on Russell Street,voted 7 to 1 to implement the urban renewal project, with the condition that historic preservation be considered where possible.
When the smoke cleared, 13 buildings were "saved" or settled on the area now known as The Hill which was turned over to a private management company. The large gleaming complex, which some promised would be a smaller version of Boston's Prudential Center, did not materialize. Hotel offers were made on the new site, but none accepted until the construction of the Portsmouth Sheraton hotel in the mid 1980s.
The Parade Mall (including an A&P supermarket that later closed) and parking lot now covers the site where Daniel Webster's first home and the Farragut School stood. Other modern buildings including a modern strip along historic Congress Street, the municipal parking garage with a brick motif, office buildings, high-rise residential housing, and the single-story Portsmouth Herald building occupy the North End. No one is likely to argue that the new buildings offer much in the way of architectural significance.
Thirty years later, the neighborhood that eventually included Italian, French, German, Polish, Russian and "Anglo" residents of Portsmouth's North End are widely dispersed. A document archived in the library ticks off the new location of each family and its ethnic status. For years a vacant lot, the former Russell Street neighborhood is today an adjunct parking lot for hotel patrons. There is new talk of a conference center, talk of a market place, talk of more shops.
When 100 former North End residents and their descendants gathered last summer to dedicate a simple granite bench to the lost Italian neighborhood, there was talk of another kind. They told stories of grandparents, old customs, great food, of weddings, childhood games, of homes lost and hearts broken.
By J. Dennis Robinson
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com
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