What Happened to Portsmouth North End?
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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".



North End home before destruction in Portsmouth, NH/ SeacoastNH.com

Urban Renewal

In the mid 20th century Portsmouth teetered on shaky fiscal legs. Market Square was not yet renovated. Stores stood empty downtown. The cultural and commercial renaissance evident today was just beginning. The Worcester Sunday Telegram described Portsmouth in 1969 as an "impoverished aristocrat of a city."

The city survived, in part, on an intermittent flow of federal funds to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and to Pease Air Force Base. Federal money had recently paid for two-thirds of the urban renewal project at Puddle Dock that became Strawbery Banke Museum. HUD funds very nearly obliterated the rest of the South End , a project halted largely by the efforts of a young historian named James Garvin. More of Uncle Sam’s cash for the beleaguered North End seemed at the time like a blessing to progressives trying to kick-start the stalled economy and modernize the ancient city.

"Blighted" and "impoverished" neighborhoods, according to some, were sucking the life force out of America's cities and blocking commercial development. Low-rent districts like the North End were considered unhealthy, immoral, dangerous, and unattractive, and they brought in little tax revenue. If the buildings were declared substandard, they could be taken by eminent domain and replaced by modern structures.

A front-page Portsmouth Herald article on February 13, 1969 featured a gleaming modern artist's conception of a $2 million complex proposed for the North End site. It included a 100-room motor hotel, swimming pool, underground parking, offices and a two-story shopping mall. City officials hoped to move to the new facility, but although the urban renewal project went ahead, the planned complex was never built. By this time 66 North End families had been relocated and demolition of the historic Farragut school and Eureka fire station was imminent.

No voice for victims

Preservationists balked. One Portsmouth Herald reader argued that the buildings recently salvaged in the South End at Puddle Dock were historically less significant than the grand colonial structures slated for demolition in the North End. Portsmouth’s "aristocratic splendor" he argued was being "crushed in her face."

Although Raymond Brighton, an editor and part-owner of the Herald had championed the Strawbery Banke preservation project in 1958, he now supported the demolition of the North End neighborhood. This turnaround, local historians have noted, coincided with the relocation of the newspaper offices from Congress Street downtown to a three-acre parcel of freshly cleared land in the North End.

Distant newspapers like the Manchester Union Leader and the Worcester Sunday Telegram offered detailed feature articles on the historic architecture that would be lost if the North End project continued. Both papers lobbied for preservation in Portsmouth. But even though citizens opposed to the project outnumbered proponents two to one, the local paper favored progress over preservation. The Herald remained mute on the human aspect of displaced Italian Americans and focused its coverage on the anticipated economic boom that the new construction would engender.

In his voluminous two-volume history of Portsmouth entitled They Came to Fish, published around this time, Brighton referred to the Italian residents in a footnote simply as "wonderful people" and emphasized "the great changes urban renewal has wrought in the North End."

Portsmouth Housing Authority chief executive Walter J. Murphy vehemently insisted that all houses in the identified region were "substandard" and that "a program of total renewal" was the only sensible avenue.

The Portsmouth City Council, under Mayor Eileen Foley, whose father Charles Dondero was born on Russell Street, voted 7 to 1 to implement the urban renewal project, with the condition that historic preservation be considered where possible.



Inside resturant in LIttle Italy in Portsmouth, NH / SeacoastNH.com

Salvaging "The Hill"

With the bulldozers of progress moving in, and Italian residents moving out, preservationists tried a new tactic. Because the small city was already supporting some forty house museums, including about 30 buildings at Strawbery Banke, and other non-profit uses of historic buildings, they had to be creative. The only way to preserve more old buildings, they knew, was to keep them on the tax roles.

Robert Chase of York, Maine, then working as a consultant for the NH Council on the Arts, formed Portsmouth Preservation Inc. with a group dedicated to saving the architecture of the North End. The new organization sold stock and quickly built up capital that members could use to bid on old houses and land for preservation as the city acquired urban renewal parcels in the North End. Investors paid $500 per share. Rather than create more museums or another nonprofit agency, the company planned to restore and return the buildings to private use. It was an idea ahead of its time. In this era federal tax law still favored new construction over rehabilitation. Recycling old buildings for modern commercial use had not yet caught on.

Proposed North End modern design never built / SeacoastNH.com courtesy Richard Candee

In 1969, Portsmouth Preservation, Inc. quickly raised $200,000 and aggressively lobbied to save the North End waterfront. But Walter Murphy of the Portsmouth Housing Authority, while acknowledging the concept of preservation, had no room for historic structures in his all-consuming vision of Portsmouth’s modern future. Preservationists hoped to save up to one hundred structures. As the project dragged on, the number diminished. Eventually, in partnership with its architect and developer, Nelson Aldrich of Boston, Portsmouth Preservation Inc. was able to purchase and "moth-ball" just over a dozen buildings on "The Hill," adjacent to the Parade shopping mall.

Most of the saved structures were moved from the North End demolition area, while a few were saved on their foundations. When Aldrich and his Boston company failed, the cluster of historic buildings were sold to a local property manager at a loss and later adapted for use as office space. The Recession at the close of the Nixon era was a tough time for adapting old buildings. It wasn’t until the "Reagan Revolution" that the federal government came to favor preservation by for-profit companies and adapted tax laws accordingly. Today, that concept helps keeps historic buildings in Portsmouth standing and vital and adapted for business use.

And so the bulldozers moved in. Close to four hundred buildings were torn down and all 221 families and seventy-eight individuals in the largely Italian neighborhood were relocated to new apartment houses, or they moved away. The promised space age complex, however, never materialized. Instead Portsmouth got a large vacant lot that stood empty, as preservationists had warned. It was another decade before the arrival of the Sheraton Harborside Portsmouth hotel.

Across the street the Parade Mall, a stark, new twenty-five thousand square foot industrial building included an A&P supermarket. But that facility quickly went bankrupt, and a once-lively neighborhood next door became a weedy empty lot.


© 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of SeacoastNH.com and author of several books on local history.