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What Happened to Portsmouth North End?

urban00Few if any tears were shed over the recently flattened Portsmouth Parade Mall. The NH Business Review recently called it "an eyesore remnant from the urban renewal craze of the 1970s." The new Portwalk project is under construction in its place. But locals cried a river over the demolition of the Italian North End neighborhood that preceded these two massive structures.

Portsmouth newcomers may scratch their heads over the tight cluster of historic wooden houses on "The Hill" nearby. Tucked behind the modern Hilton Garden Inn, they seem strangely out of place, like the last standing bits of a once-large wedding cake. In fact, these restored homes, now converted to office space, are memorials to a lost ethnic heritage.

The end of "Little Italy"

Here in the early 1970s progress struck "Little Italy" like an H-bomb. Nearly 200 homes, 400 buildings in all, were bulldozed out of sight -- but not out of mind. The full story has yet to be told. The wounds are still tender and the politics still murky.

Russell Street Reunion

Originally settled in colonial times, Portsmouth’s North End – from the Parade Mall on Hanover Street to the Portsmouth Sheraton Harborside parking area -- evolved into an ethnic waterfront neighborhood. Poor Irish immigrants who occupied the area in the 19th century moved "up the crick" to the "Christian Shore" neighborhood nearby when a wave of Italian immigrants appeared in the early 1900s. They brought their own customs and language, unfamiliar to Portsmouth Yankees. Within two decades, Italians comprised 95 percent of the population in the few blocks centering around Russell Street, creating a tiny replica of Boston's North End.

The tightly held ethnic neighborhood became a world unto itself, with its own grocery stores, social clubs, restaurants and shops. Italian-American children attended the Farragut school in the North End, played games in their own streets and swam near the railroad bridge in the North Mill Pond. Women ran the households and raised children. Men worked in the local shoe and button factories or as casual laborers, later as masons or shipyard workers.

In 1986 residents of the close-knit Italian community gathered at Yoken’s Restaurant to swap memories. They recalled idyllic times. This reporter was there.

Delfo Cominati, born in the North End in 1911, told friends, "We had a great life." Mary Succi Ciotti shared stories of vendors delivering ice and live chickens to her tenement home, and learning to dance the jitterbug in the hot streets in summer. Despite the easy-going nostalgia, an undercurrent of sadness and anger ran just beneath the surface for a neighborhood vaporized by federal and local decree.

"We were all happy people," Mundo Zoffoli said. Then pausing, he added, "When urban renewal came through and took our houses, they put us all in debt, because they didn't pay us enough".


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Thursday, February 22, 2018 
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