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Atlantic Heights WWI Shipbuilder Neighborhood Story Told in Book

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Gentrified but much the same

Today Atlantic Heights is still a working-class neighborhood, wedged among an electric power plant, a gypsum factory, the perpetually singing Interstate and a fuel storage depot. In an emergency, there is only one road out. The control towers of massive tankers glide along the water off Crescent Way like houses moving in the background.  Even with converted attics and cellars, “The Heights” seems most attractive to singles, childless couples, very small families and “empty nesters”.  For them, it is the affordable way to settle down within view of the historic and artistic Port City nearby where real estate prices and property taxes are out of reach for many.

“It’s a real house that’s apartment sized,” Candee says.

Marion Fritz, 88, recalls that Atlantic Heights had the same effect on young home-buyers in the post-War “Baby Boom” generation.  She raised three children here and is forever loyal to the little brick village.

“After the War we paid $26.50 rent a month which was what my husband was making at the shipyard in 1945. I don’t know how we got by, but we did,” Fritz says.  “It was an ideal spot to raise children. We weren’t professionals. None of us were rich up here, but everybody kept their house nice. I never felt that I was a second-class citizen.”

Back then, Fritz says, all the children attended the Atlantic Heights school, now converted to elderly housing.  There were three little corner stores built into people’s homes. There was a barbershop, a yarn shop, a saw-sharpening barn and a pharmacy and a church. Everybody fished down by the river where locals kept a small wharf and a little beach for swimming in between the dangerous fast-flowing tides.

Most longtime residents agree that Atlantic Heights hit its nadir in the 1970s and 80s when a new cluster of absentee landlords let their low- cost apartments run down. Abandoned cars piled up in a tight streetscape never designed to accommodate automobiles. “The Heights” gained a reputation as a hangout for drug sellers, but it was only “a few bad apples” neighbors say. Then as property became scarce and Portsmouth’s popularity revived, Atlantic Heights became one of the last affordable neighborhoods in town.  Today “The Heights” is still 60 percent rentals, but the number of owner-occupied units is increasing.

Clearly the neighborhood is gentrified.  New and longtime members of the community still enjoy trading tales of changing prices. The 1925 sales poster shows that units were then renting for as low as $6 per month. Today that figure hovers over $1,000. Don Hersey remembers when a local developer bought four run-down Atlantic Heights duplexes for a total of $8,800 in the 1980s.  A decade ago Atlantic Heights properties were selling for under $100,000. Today that figure has doubled and sometimes tripled, bringing fear of overwhelming property taxes to elderly and low-income residents.

Don Hersey, who lived in four Atlantic Heights homes before retiring to Florida, says he knew, even when kids poked fun, that he came from one of Portsmouth’s coolest neighborhoods. Having seen his investment grow four thousand percent, he reminds us that -- he who laughs last, laughs best.

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Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER: He lives in Atlantic Heights with his wife Maryellen Burke.

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