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Shifting Street Names is Portsmouth Tradition

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.

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Thursday, December 14, 2017 
 
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