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What Happened to Portsmouth North End?

 

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.

CONTINUED North End

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Monday, October 23, 2017 
 
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