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Shifting Street Names is Portsmouth Tradition


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.

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