Shifting Street Names is Portsmouth Tradition
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

City councilors recently nixed a name change to Chesnut Stret. Was that decision an act of hsitoric preservation, or merely an exercise in nostalgia? History Matters explores the way we name (and rename and remane) or streets and talks to "Road Warrior" Nancy Grossman. (read full article below)

Preserving history is not just about keeping old things old. In fact, that is rarely the case. When we save an historic house or create a museum exhibit or build a monument or restore a bridge, we are actually making old things new. We are retooling the past to fit our modern needs. As those needs shift, so does our interpretation, and it is fair to say – so does history.

Music Hall of Portsmouth, NH / Courtesy photoThe Portsmouth City Council’s decision to reject the renaming of a portion of Chestnut Street last week offers a fresh excuse to consider what we mean by historic preservation. The Music Hall proposed renaming the one-block long street Music Hall Way. As representatives of the Music Hall pointed out, Chestnut used to be called Elm Street. Before that it was Prison Lane because, as one might guess, the old city prison stood where the restored 1878 Music Hall stands today. Chestnut used to run from Congress Street to Court Street until it was split into two pieces by a parking lot. Both non-contiguous pieces are now called Chestnut Street.

Having two Chestnut Streets one block apart, the Music Hall argued is confusing to theater patrons. Undeniably, it is. The whole point of naming and numbering streets is so we can find our way from one location to the next. I briefly drove a taxicab in Manchester and was almost fired when I sat around waiting for a fare on Brown Street only to discover that an angry customer was waiting for me on Brown Avenue at the other end of town.

Nix Chestnut Change to Music Hall Way

According to a news report in the Portsmouth Herald, "history won" when city councilors shot down the proposed change by a vote of 6-to-2. I’m not so sure we historians won. Even a quick glance at Portsmouth history shows that changing the names of streets is a grand tradition here. Congress Street, for example, was once part of Creek Street, then King Street until the American Revolution tossed out all things royal. The original New Street became Queen Street, then Buck Street, then Broad Street, and is now State Street. Portions of Court Street have been called New Highway, Low Street, Jaffrey Street and Pitt Street. To make matters worse, Court Street has shifted locations.


Chestnut Street and Portsmouth Music Hall

Nostalgia or history?  

So the claim that changing the name of a Portsmouth street somehow peels away the past is difficult to support. One could argue that replacing a name actually adds to history by allowing us to see changes in public opinion through the layers of time. The narrow Great Street along the riverfront in the South End, for instance, grew less and less great as the city expanded. It was changed to Partridge Street most likely to honor an early Lieutenant Governor named William Partridge. But Portsmouth forgot all about him and renamed the narrow road Water Street. But that name took on a nasty stain from the bordellos and waterfront murders, so it was changed in the 20th century to Marcy Street. We no longer know whether it was a tribute to Captain Daniel Marcy or former mayor George Marcy. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s footnote.

Street names can be rich with local history. The Atlantic Heights neighborhood, for instance, was created in 1919 as affordable housing for shipyard workers. Its streets – Kearsage, Concord, Porpoise, Crescent, Raleigh, Ranger, Falkland, etc. – are all named for Portsmouth-built ships. But just as often, names come from uninspired lists found in towns across the nation, carved out alphabetically for trees – Ash, Beech, Chestnut – or for presidents, flowers, or birds.

Sometimes the history they contain is simply wrong. In Hampton, for example, local legend claimed that Thorwald the Viking carved inscriptions on a stone when he visited there long before Columbus didn’t really discover America. The stone has long been proven to be a hoax, possibly perpetuated by a clever real estate agent, but Thorwald Ave still survives.

Road Warrior  

No one knows more about the topic than Nancy Grossman, author of Placenames of Portsmouth. She spent three years digging into the origins of 466 local street names. Her handy reference book, published in 2005 by her own company Back Channel Press is now in its ninth digital printing. Her book is rich with stories about the people and events of Portsmouth past. So I asked her -- would early Portsmouth town officials have voted to change Chestnut Street? "They wouldn’t have thought twice," Grossman says.

Grossman’s research indicates that, while some street names were carefully considered, many simply evolved. Some were politically or commercially motivated, she says, while others seem to have been randomly picked by developers "pulling names out of their own personal hat". Names may represent people who were popular or powerful or owned the biggest parcel of land. Sometimes they memorialize historical sites or natural features that were destroyed by new development, or by the streets themselves. Perhaps, Grossman jokes, we could install signs that show all the names we have given to each street.

So why such reluctance to change Chestnut Street to Music Hall Way? Certainly no local nonprofit agency has done more to preserve local history than the Music Hall that recently restored its original painted ceiling and gold-gilt proscenium arch at great expense. By bringing in big name performers, the Music Hall has put Portsmouth on the national culture map, increasing tourism and pumping up the local economy by as much as $5 million annually, even in tough times.

"People get terribly attached to what was there when THEY were there," Grossman says. Street names conjure nostalgic images. As the city changes, as all cities do, longtime residents cling to memories associated with their own personal history, whether it is accurate or not. For older residents who have seen neighborhoods broken and destroyed by urban renewal and farms turned into malls, change can be frightening. These citizens often serve as a warning system when we begin to destroy our collective heritage. I’ve lived on Union, Middle and Pleasant streets – all banal names that I would hate to see changed.

Unfortunately, people often get attached only to their private nostalgic history and nothing beyond it. As I noted in a recent article here, the greatest part of our highly preserved city has been saved by wealthy "outsiders", not locals. And even today, the many historic house museums in town are supported by a very small proportion of residents. The ravages of urban renewal were approved and often solicited by Portsmouth city officials. The city came close to turning the Warner House (1714) into a gas station, the John Paul Jones House (1758) into an insurance agency, and the Music Hall into condos. The list of near-disasters goes on and on.



Picking your battles

As Portsmouth preservationists have learned, you win some, and you lose some. Historians have to pick their battles carefully. So far we seem to be winning the effort to turn the old library into a badly needed visitor center renamed Discover Portsmouth. But this all-volunteer effort to boost the downtown economy driven by the Portsmouth Historical Society needs a million dollars to stay alive. Otherwise the two 1810 brick structures will be reclaimed by the city and likely turned to private use.

So far, despite considerable media coverage, I’ve not seen a single citizen step up to preserve the archeological artifacts that may be buried in the North End, now being developed into hotel properties like Portwalk. Historians, contrary to popular belief, do not fear progress. Many of us are eager to see this city become a major conference center, bringing more visitors to enjoy and support our historic sites. We just want to salvage what we can of history using scientific methods before the construction begins.

Because people naturally tend to protect their own personal piece of the past, underground treasures from the 19th, 18th, and 17th centuries are out of sight and out of mind. Portsmouth often seems to care more about the shape of windows, street names, and the color of bricks in its "historic district" than it does about real artifacts that might provide real data about our shared past. So we leave the oversight of archeology to state and federal officials who, wrapped up in bureaucratic red tape, stand by while real history is destroyed. Once these artifacts are gone, unlike street names, they are gone forever.

Saving artifacts is job one, but collecting ancient stuff is not the endgame. Staying old for the sake of old is not true preservation. We hang onto the past because it tells us where we’ve been. It comforts us and makes us feel part of something larger. It helps us survive the present and plan for the future. Historic Portsmouth is a work in progress, not a return to an ideal time when life was less frightening and made more sense. That time never existed, except perhaps, in our childhood imaginations.

So what does street historian Nancy Grossman think about changing Chestnut to Music Hall Way?

"It doesn’t excite me," she says of the suggested alternative. "It was worse in my view. It belongs in Beverly Hills."

Grossman isn’t opposed to change. Portsmouth streets often take their names from important city structures. Her book, for example, looks at Market Street, Bridge Street, Court Street, Campus Drive, Chapel Street, Bankers Row, Ferry Landing, Hospital Hill, Church Street, Brewery Lane and Prison Lane. Grossman prefers the term "lane" for this particular old street, rather than the word "way" that has a modern and commercial connotation.

So let’s compromise. Why don’t we call it Theater Lane?

Not bad, Grossman says, and I agree. Or should we employ the more artsy spelling of "Theatre Lane"? We could argue about that tiny detail for decades. Or we could spend our precious time saving Memorial Bridge, keeping the Discover Center alive and passing city ordinances that truly protect our irreplaceable archeological heritage. 

Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the history web site His comments on history appear every other Monday on the Portsmouth Herald front page.