Is Progress Threatening Portsmouth?

No matter where my heart and mind may be on Wednesday as I start to put my weekly article together, events occur that require me to shift my focus. My computer is littered with the “articles that could have been,” waiting for their moment to emerge. Each article is like a child, screaming for attention, but ignored by its parent. However, this week I decided to disregard my impulse, and focus on what is really on my mind, and stay true to the story I wanted to write about, which is Portsmouth.

Portsmouth is my hometown, and although I have moved up the road a bit, Portsmouth will always be near and dear to my heart. Portsmouth was the place that my West Virginia father and Massachusetts mother chose to raise their family. As fate would have it my mother arrived in Portsmouth as an independent career woman in the early 1950s, where my father was already stationed at Pease Air Force Base as a young airman. This story is not unique. It is this story that is part of the character of Portsmouth; a character that is being lost to a rush to progress.

The Portsmouth of today is foreign to many of us who were raised here, and although some of those changes have been positive, some of the “improvements” have drastically altered the true charm that was once Portsmouth. There is no going back, but Portsmouth’s future must not come at the cost of its incredible history.

Contrary to what many believe, progress is not a word whose meaning is indicative of positive achievement. Progress is a necessary cycle, but not one that is exclusive to a positive outcome. I would never suggest that a community should stifle the need to improve its quality of life. A community should strive to develop its civic destiny, to nurture its communal identity, but commerce should not always be the driving force that defines a community. Like an out of control avalanche, commerce can smother the beautiful nature of what first attracted many people to Portsmouth.

There was a time when a person could see the reassuring sight of the North Church steeple while sitting at the Old North Cemetery. Not just the tip, but the complete beacon our forefathers intended. The Old North Cemetery, the final resting place of New Hampshire heroes John Langdon, signer of the U.S. Constitution, and William Whipple, signer of the Declaration of Independence, now sits ignored by the very town they defended. Once these incredible men not only cast a giant shadow over the history of Portsmouth, but our country as well. Now they sit in the shadow of a nouveau grocery store built more to serve an elite clientele than the blue collar citizens that help to build and support Portsmouth in good times and bad. Many of these citizens have been priced out of the city they loved, causalities of progress that has forgotten the investment of past generations. Investment of not only money, but in blood, sweat and tears in hopes that one day they could fully enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Gone are the days when you could sit at St. John’s Church and actually see and smell the Piscataqua River. We know the river is there because the tourist maps tell us so. Now, this once amazing view is blocked by brick and mortar, buildings constructed to satisfy the commerce of a view for one person, while obstructing the view for an entire community. As years have passed, we watched as architects have outdone themselves to give “their client” the best possible view, while at the same time denying an entire community the same simple pleasure.

As people marvel at the tugboats, they also mutter under their breath about the “unsightliness” of a working pier, a suggestion that maybe it is time abandon what they believe to be an outdated commerce model, for an office building, restaurant, hotel or likely more condominiums. Forget about those who earn their living from the commerce that the pier has provided, or the vital services supported by the working pier. How much longer do you think it will be before someone sets their eyes on that “nasty looking” Navy yard? Surely there must be a better use for that area, forgetting the men and women whose labor supported the endeavors of Portsmouth when it was just a small blue collar town.
Progress is inevitable and comes at a price. Without balance, progress can become a curse, the means to a death. Portsmouth’s heart and soul will always be a beautiful, blue collar town. These people of simple means, but rich in purpose, deserve a community beyond brick and mortar, and one that can be cherished by multiple generations.

If Portsmouth is not careful, it may find itself singing the verses of Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” –“They paved paradise. And put up a parking lot.”

Gone forever the true uniqueness that made Portsmouth a special place.

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2 Replies to “Is Progress Threatening Portsmouth?”

  1. Wonderful Column. Thanks for writing it. It matters to so many people who are heartbroken at the losses you describe. Keem em coming!