Ah, springtime, the season of rebirth. What better time to visit Manchester, New Hampshire, a city riding a wave of revitalization?
Like seasons, there are magical places, defined as much by time as by location. The Manchester of my childhood is such a place. Though a native of New Jersey, I call the Queen City home. It is where my family arrived in the midst of the 1970s, during my more formative years, and where I finished high school. My mother grew up on Lafayette Street, in the city's French Canadian quarter, the West Side. And my maternal grandparents continued living there after mom married her knight in shining armor and moved away. Grandpere eventually built a house in the North End, on Pickering Street, which became my home away from home. Today's Manchester crackles with life and energy, yet it's quite a different place from the city of my memories.
The Manchester of my youth was filled with bus rides with Grandmere and walks along Elm Street, the tree-lined main thoroughfare. Downtown Manchester's' precise, perpendicular grid was the ideal blueprint for our adventures. We'd visit all-in-one department stores such as Woolworth's, or Ted Herbert's music store, or Ferretti's market. On special afternoons, we'd take in a movie at the cavernous State Theatre. And in warmer months, we'd hike to Dorr's Pond and the public pool at Livingston Park on the Daniel Webster Highway, always grabbing a double scoop at the Puritan ice cream stand on the way home. Then there were the ball games at Gill Stadium, where the Manchester Yankees, a farm team for the mighty Bronx Bombers, played.
Unfortunately, hard times hit Manchester. Cities, like time, don't stand still. The red brick manufacturing mills that hug the mighty Merrimack River, once the lifeblood of the town, are now mammoth reminders of another time. Primarily built in the mid-1800s, the mills were the economic engines that propelled this small settlement into the forefront of the world textile industry. The city's very name - originally Derryfield - was changed in 1810 to Manchester, after England's great manufacturing power. The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, formed by investors who developed textile behemoths in Lowell and Waltham, Massachusetts, constructed a mill complex that eventually stretched a mile long, resembling a medieval fortress. Into this city flooded immigrants, from Greece, Poland, Lithuania, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Ireland and, particularly, the French-speaking provinces of Canada.
But by the 1980s, many of the mills were either torn down or boarded shut, and the once-bustling downtown was pockmarked with empty storefronts. With each successive visit, the exodus proceeded – the State Theatre was razed in early 1978 — and the downtown I cherished looked as if it were on life support. There was no bounce, no snap, no energy at all. The great civic pride that swelled in the city's collective heart seemed deflated.
Happily, times are changing again. Antique mill buildings are brimming with a new-found energy, rescued by forward-thinking developers and an infusion of capital. Today, the historic structures house white-collar offices, high-tech companies, restaurants, mill and science museums, even a rock-climbing gym and the think tank of eccentric inventor Dean Kamen. Up on Elm Street, a new-found confidence is fueled by a relatively new conference facility, the Center of New Hampshire, and a sparkling new civic center, the Verizon Wireless Arena where Aerosmith was one of the first bands to rock the joint. Livingston Park now houses manicured athletic fields for my alma mater, Central High, and the Puritan Backroom Restaurant dwarfs the ice cream stand. And the cozy Grenier Field has become the Manchester International Airport.
On my most recent return, to attend a high school reunion, I brought my trusty two-wheeler, and went spinning through my old neighborhoods. I rolled by homes once occupied by my family or friends, my high school sweetheart's home, and the school where we met. But the most moving sight was my grandparents' place on Pickering Street, a house I've known all my life. The ranch is a lighter shade of brown, with a small addition off the front where my grandfather used to transform the garage into a fair-weather porch. I made several passes before being overcome by kindhearted ghosts. As I pedaled away, I put a hand to my cheeks, and felt the warm trace of a tear. I guess the city's magic is still there.