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On Deer Street in Portsmouth, Delmira Pirini Morse describes how the street was lined with well-kept family homes and family-run businesses in the Italian North End of Portsmouth before the neighborhood was claimed for urban renewal. (GRETYL MACALASTER PHOTO)

Former residents recall Portsmouth's North End


PORTSMOUTH — It's been years since Jane Pirini, 95, has lived in the North End here, but she still remembers the neighborhood as if it were yesterday.

Through her stories and those of others, the Italian North End neighborhood of Portsmouth once again comes to life — its busy streets with family homes, barber shops, markets, candy stores and schools, the smell of cooking wafting out of windows and the risks involved with causing any trouble in the few blocks where everyone knows everyone else.

In those stories, there is joy in the remembering. And then the sorrow sets in.

Pirini remembers watching her mother's house sit vacant for 10 years after the city took it and about 200 other buildings in the areas of Russell, Deer and Green streets for urban renewal in the 1950s.

Her family had lived in the neighborhood since arriving from Italy in 1926, when she was just 8.

Former residents said the worst part of the situation was how everyone was forced to scatter to different neighborhoods and often different towns.

The memories remained, and efforts were made to maintain groups focused on preserving the neighborhood heritage, but over the years those efforts petered out.

Then, in July, descendants of the North Enders got together to form the Italian-American Heritage Association in an effort to preserve and share the city's Italian history with future generations. By the start of October, national Italian-American Heritage Month, the group had sold all 152 tickets to its first public event. Attendees were treated to authentic Italian cooking, music and entertainment at the Rye Congregational Church.

"We recognized the need to have a social club like this to preserve and share our culture," founding member Valerie (Capodelupo) Koloshey said.

A big part of that is having fun, she added.

"A lot of associations don't provide a venue for socialization," Koloshey said.

Koloshey started collecting photos of the old North End neighborhood, and now more than 300 of them can be viewed at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, as well as online.

The association made another plea during the dinner event for even more photos.

"It ensures these families' rightful place in Portsmouth history," Koloshey said. "It's like Portsmouth wanted to forget about it."

Six decades after the old North End neighborhood began to disappear, it is now the site of three massive hotels, with another on the way.

Mary Ciotti was born in the North End in 1922. She attended the Farragut School on School street and came home every day for lunch. She bought her first home on Russell Street after getting married.

"They put the (wrecking) ball through that one in the '60s," she said.

"I have to tell you, we were like one big happy family," Ciotti said of the old neighborhood.

North End reunions have been held for many years, originally organized by Al DeStefano, Ciotti said.

Dick Fusegni said if the North End had been saved, it would be another tourist attraction for the many visitors who come to Portsmouth for its history, small boutique shops, and local restaurants.

Both sets of Delmira Pirini Morse's grandparents lived in the North End.

"It really destroyed a lot of people when they destroyed the buildings," Morse said. "We of this generation decided we want to preserve the North End and work on preserving what are now memories of the North End."

Although the group has just started meeting, its members have plenty of ideas for future events —and plenty of interest, as evidenced by the turnout at the dinner.

The Italian American Association meets the second Wednesday of each month at the Portsmouth Public Library, with a social hour from 6 to 7 p.m. followed by a business meeting at 7 p.m.

"It makes you feel so good knowing this younger generation is doing something about it, and they've done so good," Jane Pirini said of the association's efforts so far. "Getting together is just like old home days."

gmacalaster@newstote.com


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