Monday, October 17, 2005


Chillicothe St. at rush hour, 2005

Though it would be a challenge to say exactly what its boundaries are, where it begins and where it ends, there is a downtown Portsmouth. But the downtown Portsmouth of today is not the downtown Portsmouth of a hundred or even fifty years ago. The downtown Portsmouth of a hundred years ago is dead. Fifty years ago, in downtown Portsmouth, arteriosclerosis was already beginning to set in. Twenty-five years ago, at the time of the shopping mall scam, it was more like rigor mortis. The Glockners got out of the hardware business and got out of downtown and into the outskirts years ago, which was why their auto dealership became one of the few success stories in Portsmouth. If only Marting's had done the same. How many more antiques/junk shops can downtown accommodate? Chillicothe street, which has trouble handling what little traffic there is now, will be constipated with the additional traffic brought by the new bridge – it won’t take much traffic to do that – and there is little parking space to provide relief.

Certain people, some in good faith, others in bad, are claiming that downtown Portsmouth can be resuscitated, if not born again, as a shopping and business center. That is a very doubtful proposition. In the last half century, drastic changes have taken place in where and in the way people shop, including on the internet, as well as the way in which they get around, changes that almost guarantee that the bustling prosperous downtown Portsmouth of the past is going to remain a thing of the past. If anything is going to revive downtown Portsmouth, it is not going to be nostalgia.

I have nothing against downtowns. On the contrary. I am of a generation and from a class (blue-collar) for whom downtown was a wonderfully defining experience. I love downtowns and feel lucky for having been too old to have been part of a later mall generation. How hard it must be for anyone to outgrow the experience of having been a mall rat. My favorite floodwall mural is the one of Chillicothe St. on a Saturday night in the mid-1940s. I would like to be able to step into that mural and go back in time. “Downtown” is one of my favorite ballads, especially when belted out by Petula Clark. But I know the difference between fantasy and reality, between the past and the present.

Mural of Chillicothe Street, Saturday night, 1940s

The long delayed grand new U. S. Grant bridge replacement is not going to change the obsolescence of downtown Portsmouth anymore than the picturesque old U.S. Grant Bridge did. The new bridge is a striking structure, a triumph of engineering, but it is a bridge to the past, which is to say it is a bridge to Portsmouth’s downtown. The new bridge is not nearly as questionable as that so-called “bridge to nowhere,” the $941 million bridge from the Alaskan mainland to Ketchican (pop. 8000) on the island of Gravina, but the $38 million (and counting) Portsmouth bridge is another expensive link in the chain of American transportation pork. The Carl Perkins Bridge, about two miles down the Ohio River, enables cars and trucks to avoid downtown Portsmouth. What drivers wanting to go north on Route 23 will take the new Portsmouth bridge and negotiate the ten or so traffic lights on the short stretch of Chillicothe Street, when they can go two miles south to the Carl Perkins Bridge and avoid downtown Portsmouth?

$38 Million Bridge to the Past

It was hoped that a new university would revive downtown Portsmouth. Shawnee State has been downtown for almost twenty years, but it has not revived downtown Portsmouth. There are those who say gambling casinos could revive downtown Portsmouth, but that would not be the downtown of the past. Portsmouth may already have more prostitutes per capita than any city in Ohio, and gambling would only increase their numbers. Downtown gambling casinos would create a hooker’s heaven. And as for political prostitutes, Portsmouth already has enough of those, and gambling gravy would only increase their numbers.

The “downtown” mentality, the view that the city’s recovery must be focused on and begin in downtown, is one of the things holding the city back. The “downtown” mentality and, specifically, treating the Marting’s as a sacred cow is one of the things that led to the Marting’s scandal. Do our over-privileged know the difference between a sacred cow and mad cow? Portsmouth’s downtown is decrepit, and trying to recycle century-old commercial structures like Marting’s as public buildings while destroying the historically significant public-use buildings, such as the N&W railroad terminal and the Municipal Building, reflects Portsmouth’s lack not just of architectural conscience but of architectural consciousness. Patriotism, Samuel Johnson said, is the last refuge of a scoundrel, but in Portsmouth downtown is. The Marting building is the crown jewel of the downtown con.

What is to be done? I say let the police and the courts defend the constitutional rights of prostitutes to operate downtown as they do their right to operate in the John St. area, and I say let Neal Hatcher do his eminent domaining in downtown Portsmouth, and together, the prostitutes and the developer, might do for downtown Portsmouth what they did for the John St. area, which is to say level it. That is not the worst thing that could happen.

Postscript: A blogger in Cincinnati has been tracking pork in Portsmouth in a special series. I recommend the series, and in particular the most recent installment. Click on