2004-06-09 Karl Beisel: Moving to Manchester
Moving to Manchester Head 'em up! Move 'em out!
by Karl Beisel 6/9/04
I want to take a moment to explain how I came to select Manchester as my new home, and tell a little about my impressions of the city.
Last December, I did a week-long driving tour of southern New Hampshire, stopping in the towns on a list of possible destinations. My route took me through Keene, Claremont, Lebanon, and Hanover, then down to Concord and Manchester, then up to Rochester, Portsmouth and finally Hampton. I prefer a more urban lifestyle, so I did not stop in small towns and rural areas. I'll describe my impressions of each town briefly.
Keene: This is a neat and vibrant medium-sized city, dominated by Keene State College in the center of town. Its downtown has many businesses that cater to a college crowd. By all appearances, Keene is a great place to live. It is, however, a bit too isolated for my wants, and it has a reputation for being one of the most "liberal" towns in the state, which has advantages and disadvantages, I suppose.
Claremont: This city was mentioned months ago as a possible destination for Free Staters. But be warned, this town is in rough shape. Claremont was the town that originally brought forth those infamous Claremont lawsuits, which resulted in the statewide property tax. The Claremont lawsuits are just the latest attempt by the Claremont government to foist their self-created economic disaster onto the rest of New Hampshire.
Although it has a reasonably pretty downtown with a beautiful City Hall, about a third of the shops are shuttered. It has several abandoned mill buildings that will soon be the home of a technical college that will be moving from its current location north of town. Otherwise, the downtown is in a perpetual state of "revitalization" that has apparently been going on for decades, at great taxpayer expense, and to little effect. Despite all this, the town manages to support BOTH a K-Mart and a Wal-Mart, among the many stores located on Claremont's particularly ugly sprawl strip. There are few jobs and worse-than-usual public schools. The good news: dirt-cheap housing, and the city is nestled amidst some beautiful rural semi-mountainous country.
Lebanon: North of Claremont, Lebanon is like a smaller version of Keene; it has a community college at the town center. It's much prettier than Claremont, and there is actual industry there; it seems to benefit from the nearby interstate highway and its proximity to wealthy Hanover a couple miles north.
Hanover: Home of Dartmouth College, with its premier medical school. Georgetown on the Connecticut River, and absolutely beautiful. This is the definition of a college town; Dartmouth College practically IS the town. Downtown, the many shops, bars and restaurants cater to a college crowd, and the many out-of-state visitors. There are a couple of ski resorts close by as well. By most measures, a fine (though expensive) place to live.
Concord: A bit closer to what I'm looking for, though a tough egg to crack politically, due to the large number of state employees and lobbyist-types. It has a vibrant downtown, with the State House at the center. I visited the State House, and the stories I've heard are true. No metal detectors, no bag searches. I walked through the corridors unmolested. I walked by the office for the "Speaker of the House." I could just walk in if I felt like it. Living with the police presence of Washington, DC, this experience was quite novel. I didn't stay in Concord long, because I wanted to get to the 2nd city on my "short list", Manchester before the end of what, as it turned out, was literally the shortest day of my life (the farthest north I've been on a winter solstice). As I headed out, I noticed the Federal Building, which is oversized and fronts the street at crooked angle, with its bunker-style architecture, completely out of character with the rest of the city, like a UFO had landed in Concord. Typical. Anyway, I decided to avoid I-93, and traveled back roads through Bow to Manchester.
Manchester: There's a whole lot more going on here than anywhere else in New Hampshire. Manchester is the largest city in the state, at about 108,000 people. Its downtown is dominated by a series of large mill buildings, many of which had been abandoned for a long time, but are now mostly in use as warehouses, offices, hotels, retail shops, apartments, a museum, and even a branch of UNH. The downtown is bustling, and it promises to become even more so, with the construction of a new minor league baseball stadium, and new downtown apartments. Manchester may have a reputation for an industrial-grit character, but its downtown is becoming increasingly "yuppie" with new independently-owned coffee shops and restaurants. I'm a yuppie, so I like this stuff.
Transportation is excellent. I-93 and I-293 both go through town (I-93 is being widened now), and there is a small bus system, apparently used mostly by the elderly. As in most NH towns, homes tend to have a lot of off-street parking, which is especially important because of the winter parking ban (most towns in New Hampshire have ordinances that ban street parking during the winter months). There is also rumored to be a future passenger rail line connecting Manchester to Nashua and Boston, but its status is unclear.
Manchester has several identifiable neighborhoods. The very center of the city east of Elm Street (Manchester's "main" street) is densely packed with 4-12 unit tenements, where mostly lower-income residents live. Along Elm Street and in the Mill district along the Merrimack is the site of much post-industrial redevelopment, and an increasingly popular area (read: pricey) for those who like genuine urban living.
Outward, the neighborhoods are generally identified as one of four "ends" north, east, west and south. The "West End" is the part on the west side of the Merrimack River. This is mostly lower-middle income, mostly apartments mixed in with businesses but also some houses. The "North End" is the upscale part of town, with many large houses, especially along Elm Street, which is ridiculously wide. The "East End/Hanover Hill" neighborhood is largely middle class, as is the "South End" both of which consist mostly of single-family homes. Beyond these urban neighborhoods is the customary asteroid belt of sprawl, with its cookie-cutter colonial houses and strip malls. Beyond that, it gets rural quickly.
Manchester has everything three pro sports teams (baseball, hockey, and arena football), a major shopping mall (The Mall of New Hampshire), and a newly updated airport with flights throughout the country (note to self: get on Airport Commission and make them stop piping FOX NEWS throughout the airport). There are also many parks, and a large lake (Lake Massabesic) where you can enjoy fishing and light boating. The quality of life here is something to behold.
Rochester: After visiting Manchester, I knew that was the place to be. But Rochester was also one of my "short list" cities, so I headed up that way. I've heard some not-so-flattering things about this city, but I didn't think it was that bad. If you like the seacoast region, Rochester still has reasonably-priced real estate, and a reputation, whether true or not, for being among the more libertarian-leaning towns in New Hampshire. The city's main newspaper has an emblem that reads "Your Rights, Your Liberty." Sounds good to me. I think Rochester is a good compromise city for those who want a city like Claremont but with less poverty. Some Free Staters have suggested Rochester as a candidate for a larger "free town" but I'm not aware of any takers so far.
Portsmouth: I buzzed through Portsmouth pretty quickly. I hear it's a great downtown, but fabulously expensive, being right on the seacoast. It's also a major retirement destination, and a high-tech employment center, due in part to the proximity of a US Navy shipyard that builds submarines (this base has been under the threat of closure for some time). I hear the downtown was a dump not so long ago. Now it's a major tourist destination and a choice spot for uppity living. Lots of restaurants and touristy shops.
Hampton: After a few days in Portland, Maine, I headed back south to Hampton, one of New Hampshire's beach resort towns. It is located adjacent to the Seabrook nuclear power plant. Its downtown is right on the coast, with a small beach, complete with a boardwalk and beachy trinket shops. It was the dead of winter, so the whole place was shut down; even the McDonalds was boarded up. From what I could observe, at least in winter, there must be a rule that you have to be over the age of 65 to live in Hampton. Apparently, like Portsmouth, Hampton is retirement destination. I'll have to return this summer to get another take.
The decision: Manchester.
So, why Manchester? Having lived in very urban neighborhoods in Washington, DC and Arlington, VA, I've come to prefer the urban, where I may walk to most of my destinations, and where I feel I can take a more active part in the community. New Hampshire is one of those special places where its inner cities are, for the most part, still vibrant, productive, and safe. Manchester in particular has a sort of aura about it that seems almost to brag about its industrial ethic, an embodiment of the Yankee spirit that I find so appealing. I want to be a part of that. Other towns share that spirit, but perhaps Manchester's mill yards and the raging Merrimack River through the center of town, and even its large buildings and traffic congestion on Elm Street, make it stand out.
Manchester is the very heart of southern New Hampshire; anyone living there has access to the employment opportunities and amenities available in Portsmouth, Nashua and Concord, and even Metro Boston.
Politically speaking, I know only a little about Manchester politics, just what I've occasionally read in newspapers. As the largest city in the state, with its share of urban problems, I see living there as an opportunity to help open up discussion to new ideas for solving these issues in a way that is consistent with the principles of liberty. I certainly don't see Manchester ever becoming a libertine "free town", but I can imagine that one successful and innovative reform in local government, in a city of that size, could serve as a powerful example of what such policies can achieve. I'll do my best to take my time in becoming a member of the community; and I will pursue my goals as such a member. And so, we'll see how it goes.
Meanwhile, on to the Manchester in New Hampshire, the Free State