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Predicting the Future of Kittery and Portsmouth

Portending Portsmouth

A lot of ink has been spilled on this side of the river regarding the future of New Hampshire’s only seaport. Pundits prognosticate over how big the city can get before Portsmouth is no longer Portsmouth. The problem is that, like snowflakes, no two images of Portsmouth are identical. Despite its quaint sense of a city untouched by time, Portsmouth has been evolving, back-pedaling, and shape-shifting since the first European settlers stepped off the Warwick and the Pied Cow in the 1630s.

Having lived here only 40 years, I make no claim to being a local. I know the drill; just because the cat has her kittens in the oven, doesn’t make them biscuits. But you show me an unchanged part of this city, and as an historian, I’ll show you four other ways it used to look. One person’s slum is another person’s beloved childhood neighborhood and a third person’s million dollar condo.

Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth, NH

So when a local pundit tells me that the Old Port is being destroyed by an infestation of hotels, I like to point out all the buildings downtown that used to be hotels back in the day, and all the spots nearby where other hotels and taverns used to stand. And when people tell me that one more hotel or another parking garage is going to despoil Portsmouth for all future generations, I have to wonder if they know how this city got so great.

Here they come

You don’t need a crystal ball to see what’s happening to Portsmouth. Just walk downtown this weekend and meet the visitors from Germany, England, Switzerland, Japan, Finland, and across the planet. (Go check the sign-in logs at the local visitor center for proof.) Watch the way they admire what we proud residents take for granted. Listen to their questions. Ask them why they came. I have.

I met a carpenter not long ago who had come all the way from South Africa to study Portsmouth furniture. I have emails from people as far away as Australia who want to walk the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. A guy called from Anchorage, Alaska who did not want to miss touring the USS Albacore when he came to the East Coast to visit his sister. Just yesterday I was talking to a book publisher in New York City who knew all about Portsmouth. “That’s the only place Dan Brown will give a lecture,” she said admiringly. It’s not by accident that the world is beating a path to our doorway. Barack O’bama, Gladys Knight, Ben & Jerry, Chad & Jeremy, Salman Rushdie, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby are all stopping by – need I go on?

Like it or not, Portsmouth is becoming the visitor destination it has dreamed of being since we held the first cultural celebration in 1823. Some very intelligent and passionate people have dedicated their lives to preserving our history, restoring old buildings, and telling our unique stories. You can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting an historian or a musician or an artist. Most of them started out as visitors.

For what it’s worth, built Worth Lot garage

I have explained too often, in books and in articles and in lectures, that Portsmouth remains Portsmouth thanks as much to “outsiders” as to locals. It’s a bitter pill for some. But it was local citizens who wanted to turn the 1715 Warner House into a gas station, the 1758 Portsmouth Historical Society into an insurance company, and the historic North End into a parking garage. It was a city mayor who tore down the beautiful Treadwell Mansion that stood at the corner of Congress and Middle streets. Local citizens demolished scores of historic wooden homes to make way for modern expansion and operated the red light district until the Navy Yard pressured its closure.

Proposed Worth Lot Parking garage plan for Portsmouth NH

It was outsiders and summer visitors who stepped in with the finances and expertise to restore the Jackson, Aldrich, Warner, Moffatt-Ladd, John Paul Jones, Wentworth-Coolidge, Wentworth-Gardner, Tobias Lear and other historic house museums in the region. Outsiders and locals fought side-by-side to save Strawbery Banke Museum, the Music Hall, the Portsmouth Athenaeum, and more.

So we’re all in this together, the biscuits and the kittens and the day-trippers. We all have our own personal love for Portsmouth and it is going to take our shared dollars to keep this city going strong and our property values up. Portsmouth is back after a 200-year economic decline, and I assume we all want it to stay that way. If you don’t like tourists, get over it. We’ve been a tourist destination since the 1870s and it’s too late to turn back now.

Tourism is the state’s number one industry. And if you just moved here and don’t want anyone else to discover this wonderful city, shame on you. A new study shows that a year of visitors to Portsmouth cultural events added $41 million to our economy. According to a recent tally, there are now as many restaurant seats in Portsmouth as there are residents, and I can’t afford to dine out every night.

Is there a downside? Of course. There are costs to keeping this city accessible, clean, and safe. Not everyone can afford the change. But we are a community of smart compassionate people. We’ll fix the problems. We work harder than any group I know to protect the unprotected and support those in need. If we don’t “keep Portsmouth Portsmouth” then we shoot ourselves in the foot.

Which is why as a resident and historian I am wholeheartedly in favor of building the new parking garage on the Worth Lot. It’s a great spot. And I am in favor of another hotel or two nearby. We especially need a key conference center where hundreds of outsiders can convene, share our fine city, empty their wallets, and head home full of memories.

We need to treat our visitors with respect. We already have so much for them to see and do. Now we need to offer them a place to park and a place to sleep. Maybe I’m biased. I was a visitor here myself not long ago. I’m no Ben Frisbee, but I predict that if we build that parking garage, the people who park there will not destroy our beloved city. In fact, they may help us save it.


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 His latest book is Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island. He is currently seeking underwriters for a new book on Portsmouth fires.

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