Then Came Urban Renewal

Early in my childhood, my parents rented a four room apartment on the second story of a three apartment house. That area of Portsmouth was called the North End. A large part of the North End was known as the Italian section of the city-Little Italy, but there were many other cultures living in and around the area.

bridge-st-house*…there was also a fascinating cultural mix of Chinese, French, Irish, African-Americans, Russians, Jewish, Polish, Canadians, Greeks, Indians and others — it was a true melting pot of which we should be mighty proud.

Fact is, this was the first neighborhood people getting off the trains from Boston would run into, so the housing filled quickly during our country’s immigration years.

We lived a few door down from the train tracks and as kids, we used to go there and play on the trains and follow the tracks thinking that we were miles away from home. My parents didn’t want us playing there. Still, off we went headed for the train tracks. One day, we happened upon some barrels there. We took the lids off one and looked inside to what appeared to look and smell like molasses. Of course, I tasted it and it did taste like molasses. I told my mother about finding a big barrel of molasses and what I had done and she told me that I should have known better than that because I could have been poisoned! Then she asked me where this barrel was.

Uh Oh!  Now, I am really in trouble.  

As children, we were told to…

*…stay out because the train yard was full of coal dust year-round, broken watermelons in the summer, rail riders making campfires at night, and some other things not so nice. But when you’re a kid, everything is new and interesting to explore.

I’m guessing if I knew better than to eat that molasses, I would not have eaten it and would not have been playing around the tracks. However, I was so sure that it was molasses because sometimes I ate toast with molasses poured on top for breakfast or sometimes in between meals.

Another snack eaten as a child were soda crackers, plain or with peanut butter. There weren’t such things as snacks during those days. You usually had to wait for the next meal to eat.   

However, when I was lucky enough to have a dime, I would buy a 5 cent bag of ‘Wise’ potato chips and a 5 cent ‘Reese’s’ peanut butter cup.  Or, a whole bag of penny candy from the neighborhood store.

We lived next door to an appliance store surrounded by other old houses and many corner bars.

appliance-storeThe landlords lived on the first floor. The rent at that time was $7.00 a week and eventually it was raised to $7.50 a week. Every Friday, after my father was paid, I was entrusted to go down to the landlords and pay the rent, wait for the receipt and run back upstairs to do my next errand.

Some of my fondest memories on those Friday’s during the summer was when my parents sent me across the street, after the rent was paid, to the neighborhood store to buy Genoa salami, provolone cheese, a loaf of bread, a bag of Wise potato chips and bottles of Pepsi for our lunch. My father walked home from work on those days for lunch. I used to love those lunches.

After lunch, my mother would walk my sister and I to town. First stop,  J. J. Newberry’s to pay bills and do a little shopping (only for needful things) at either Newberry or W.T. Grants.

While we were at Newberry’s we always pleaded with mom to take us to the toy department to look at the toys promising that we wouldn’t ask for anything which we invariably did, but rarely every received. W. T. Grants didn’t have a big selection of toys like those at Newberry’s.

I never did like shopping at W. T. Grants.  My memories of W. T. Grants are of sewing thread and underwear.

My father walked to and from work every day. At times, my sister and I would sit on the front stairs of that apartment building waiting for him to come home.

carol-and-meMy sister and me.

My mother drank a lot of coffee and in the summertime-iced coffee.  She always had coffee sitting in front of her.  She didn’t like ‘tonic’ (soda).  Growing up, in New England, we called all soft drinks-‘tonic’.  Us kids drank a lot of kool-aid.

Coffee, for my mother, was ‘wicked’ good!  Tonic-‘wicked’ bad!   

wicked – very; or occasionally cool. Used indiscriminately, can modify anything (e.g.: especially “Wicked pissah.” ; also”Wicked good.” “Wicked bad.” “Wicked boring.”, etc.). Almost always used as an adverb, rather than an adjective

Wicked‘ was another colloquial New England expression used when I was a child.

Memories.  Ah, memories!

They are happy memories, sad and bad memories, memories of indifference…so many types of memories.

Happiness, while growing up, came in short spurts for me.  In a flash, that happiness was gone!

To this day, if I am feeling happy, in a flash, I’ll push that happiness aside for fear that something bad will happen…

Then came ‘urban renewal’ and hundreds of family were displaced.  Just like that, it seemed, the old apartment building was gone.

**”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.

*By the mid-1960s some people claimed the area was rundown and ripe for commercial developers. Some who saw money to be made called it a “slum” While the real North End was far from that, an urban renewal plan was proposed.

Of course, at that time, I had no idea that we lived in an impoverished or blighted neighborhood. My mother was meticulous when it came to the house. Our home was always spotless and never cluttered. Times were lean and I knew that some of the neighborhood children didn’t have much, but there were those that managed to have a little more than some and they let you know it.

Now, all that is left are memories of a bittersweet childhood.

I believe that our childhood and upbringing determines who we are today as adults. Some overcome the struggle of sadness, loneliness and fear and continue to still struggle to understand why life is still holding them down.

They silently cry out, “What could I have done differently!”

To that I say, “Nothing!”  You could have done nothing because just like eating molasses from an abandoned barrel, you didn’t know any better!”

Quotes taken from articles-
*”The Portsmouth Herald (The Seacoast on Line)”  by Jim Splaine-January 22, 2012 2:00 AM
 **”What Happened to Portsmouth North End?” by by J. Dennis Robinson