Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Rambles About Portsmouth"

In the nineteenth century, newspaper editor and author Charles Brewster wrote about his beloved city in a series of weekly stories. Last night, our class roamed around Portsmouth on a brisk evening. Consider this post my story about our "old town by the sea."

Our class is a small & interesting mix of New England natives and those from other regions of the country (and other countries altogether, in the case of our professor). The three of us who work and/or live in Portsmouth work at Strawbery Banke and the Portsmouth Athenaeum, though, so we were able to fill in the gaps in our classmates' knowledge of Portsmouth history.

We enjoyed a nice tour of the Athenaeum, a walk down to The Pearl, a wander through The Hill, and a quick walk through of Strawbery Banke. Along the way, we also tried to pay closer attention to our surroundings, especially those of us who spend a lot of time downtown.

This idea was from John Stilgoe's book Outside Lies Magic. The book is not available on Google Books, since it was published in 1998, but here is a short review of it. In short, Stilgoe asks us to get out of our cars & pay a little attention to the human-built environment around us. His descriptions of ordinary objects from sewer grates to electric wires to fences are fascinating. The book remind us to tune our sensors to the things we see on a daily basis & really think about them - why they look the way they do, when they were installed, how they shape the environment through which we move.

The idea paid dividends right away. On the way to SBM, I noticed a carved sign on a brick building on the corner of Daniel & Penhallow Streets. Just above the first floor, it said "Custom House." Not sure if this building was a custom house at some point, but it's certainly a good guess & deserves further research. I've probably walked by that building a hundred times & never noticed the sign.

Our professor asked us to consider two particular questions at the Athenaeum and SBM. In essence, she wanted us to think about what space we would claim as our own in each place. At the Athenaeum, where would you curl up with a good book? In the Puddle Dock neighborhood that SBM preserves, which house would you pick for your own?

In our tour of the Athenaeum (I'm getting tired of typing that), there were a number of places where I imagine it would be lovely to sit. However, the balcony of the library seems like the perfect place to settle in with a cup of coffee and a treasured volume. From the wicker chairs near the window, you can see all the way up to City Hall (the old hospital), which I didn't realize. This perch offers a great view of Market Square and I could see myself setting in there happily for an afternoon of reading, interspersed with people watching.

I've had much more time than others in the class to consider which house I'd choose at SBM. I've been working there nearly a year, after all. My choice is the Shapley-Drisco house, at the river end of Puddle Dock, across from one of the old warehouses and what is now Prescott Park. It's a cozy house, built in 1795, and it gets lovely light in the morning. It's also one of the closest houses to the river, which I appreciate. Working as an interpreter there, I could always hear the seagulls and occasionally catch a whiff of salt water.

Our ramble around Portsmouth was an enjoyable experience. It reminded me that this town always has more to offer and I look forward to continuing to learn more about it.