• Joe Pace

Granite State of Mind, #36: Market Square, Portsmouth


It's hip to be Square.

In 1762, a public lottery provided funding for paving the Market Square in Portsmouth, where Congress Street and Pleasant Street and Market Street converge. It made sense - the area was near the beginning of an eighteen-year run as the seat of colonial government in New Hampshire, with the old State House located there until 1776. In the century to come, the square would become dominated by red-brick Federal-style buildings and iconic architecture including the Athenaeum, Merchants Row, Bankers Row, and the North Church. It's a beautiful place, a vibrant downtown that blends history with commerce and culture.

It wasn't always thus. By the 1960s Market Square was suffering from the ills that plagued Portsmouth and many small northeastern cities - declining industry, crime, suburban flight. The city made a concerted effort starting in the 1970s to revitalize the area, and over the last forty years downtown Portsmouth has reinvented itself as a younger mecca for the creative class, bristling with web design firms, marketing companies, and a hard-to-define cohort of new economy enterprises staffed with well-scrubbed tieless entrepreneurs. Market Square boasts bustling coffee shops in the morning and equally bustling craft beer joints in the evenings, its working-class heritage buried beneath a thick veneer of busy avant garde life. Many rejoice in the evolution, celebrating a forward-looking place with liberal values liberally shared, a contemporary bohemian ardor for equality admixed with a vague disdain for those who adapt slowly to the cultural and economic demands of the new millennium. Some are less enthusiastic, lamenting a Portsmouth familiar from their youth, a more rough-and-tumble, more intimate Portsmouth that was more small town than small city, a place where old families had generations of shared experience, where fishing boats still came in and people worked on the railroad or in downtown groceries or even factories. A place where collars were blue or pink, not white or absent entirely like today's Market Square. It continues to be a tough adjustment for these refugees from a bygone eon, realizing that their city has become a bit more polished, a bit less authentic, a bit more fluid.

Market Square is the heart of Portsmouth, a place where this tension plays out. A place where history and future meet, where cobbled streets and wrought-iron fixtures cohabit with bike lanes and webcams. A place that was there when this country was invented, and that continues to be a microcosm of the reinvention of that country. The weaving together of where we've been and where we're headed is on full display there, with all the value-laden debates and clash of world views and generational conflict. It's exciting and energetic and a little bit out of control. The gang from 1776 would feel right at home.

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