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Manchester, NH Visitor Impressions...


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[Warning, long post... My Manchester, NH review!]

Hi everyone,

While attending a wedding in Northern New England this weekend, I thought I'd briefly stop by Manchester, NH for the first time on the way back. Unfortunately, I was there during the mid-afternoon, a terrible time to take photos (there's a harsh, unflattering light). I did, however, snap 3 or 4 shots of possible worth and I'll post them later.

I originally posted this to the Providence section, and am reposting it here. Note that any opinions here are solely my own, and, since I was only there for about three hours at most (about half of which was spent at the ballpark), any observations are cursory at best. I certainly invite any corrections to errors I might introduce below.

Also, try not to take offense at any negative statements I have. I'm trying to be honest about how I felt. I'm an equal opportunity offender as well, and anyone who has read my posts in the Providence section knows I'm harder on my own city than just about anywhere else.

The Drive-by:

Driving through Manchester on highway 293, the city visually makes an impact similar to that driving North through Providence on I-95. There is a West side with quaint mills, residential structures, and church steeples, and an East side where the river runs along with the highway and skyscrapers poke up dramatically behind beautifully preserved mill buildings hugging the water. At the city's Southern end, a brand new minor league ballpark borders the river as well and it, along with the skyline beyond, beg travelers to flee the highway and explore. It's quite dramatic.

Overall feel:

I have to say Manchester isn't quite what I expected. Given its size, skyline appearance, and importance in Northern New England, I expected its downtown to have a urban feel similar to a Hartford or even a New Haven. Surprisingly, it reminded me a lot more of small city USA, much like a slightly bigger Middletown, CT and is a near twin of that city in overall feel and layout.

Both cities downtown cores seem to center around one long, very wide road (in Manchester's case, seemingly Elm St) that function as "Main Streets" with various offshoots from it. Both cities have 2-3 buildings of height that actually aren't very close to one another on the street grid and resultingly have less of an impact on the overall urban experience than one might think by looking at the skylines (unlike cities like Hartford or Providence, whose few building of height are tightly packed, giving them a bigger city/canyon feel than you'd otherwise expect for their size.

Also like Middletown, their buildings of height regrettably seem to date from either the 60's (featuring that decade's obsession with streetscape-killing pedestrian retail plazas) or the 80's (with its uber-suburban office building style). The Northern stretch of Elm on the West side of the street is littered with such buildings, serving as a kind of suburban office building "neutral zone" making one not wish to venture down to the mills on the river (more on them later). These trends combat mightily the otherwise very urban, very vibrant, sidewalk-fronting retail that defines the East side of Elm St more than the West.

Overall, these trends, along with the area's apparent demographics, gave Manchester a working-class "big small-town" feel for me, very much like Middletown, and quite different than I expected.

The Mills:

I can't talk about Manchester without talking about its Mill District on the water. It's quite impressive. The renovated mills are in tremendous condition and they look and feel fantastic. A true treasure. They also house everything from companies to museums to restaurants and all of it taken together has the feel of a neighborhood revitalized. Good work!

The only downside to this (that Providence too will have to deal with in places like the Jewelry District and Valley) is that the mills tend to be surrounded by seas of asphalt surface parking that isn't very pedestrian friendly. Sure, there are sidewalks and signs, but it doesn't feel inviting. Looking at the area, I'd much rather drive there and park, frankly, which is really too bad. I'm sure this district must nicely attract folks from the suburbs who pop off the highway, park at the mills, and then stay for dining or entertainment. When done, though, they probably drive back to the highway home and never walk up the hill two blocks to Elm St. Which is, again, too bad...

But I very honestly don't know how to avoid this phenomenon, in part because all of this black space surrounding mills is actually quite authentic. That space was there when they were built, and it's there now. Providence will have to ask itself what it wants to do with all of its surface space around its mills in the JD, for example. Keep them intact or try to infill around them? Tough issue.

Good Trends:

There are lots of nice trends in Manchester that I saw. The new ballpark (where I watched a game for a while) is a gem and an urban sports amenity to be proud of. While the attached hotel is more bland looking in person than in photos, the overall effect is sophisticated and dramatic.

The main Elm St drag (at least downtown, before it turns into strip plaza hells heading North and South) is, on the whole, quite interesting from a retail perspective. A huge variety of stores seem to get along there (if not thrive). The retail diversity is one that downtown Providence has yet to achieve. Cafes and restaurants of all varieties coexist with music schools, trophy stores, pastry shops, variety stores, shoe repair shops, gyms, law offices, sex shops, clothes stores, and antique dealers. And that mix may just be present in two blocks. The difference in retail footage (Providence's two big retail spaces per block vs Manchester's fitting as many as 5-10 shops on one side of a city block alone) seems to be one big factor in this difference. It's a quite vibrant and impressive public retail space in which local concerns and chains appear to easily co-exist.

There are also some nice public spaces in Manchester. The Veterans Memorial Park is a nice, centrally located space, and I saw one or two large parks located one or two blocks East of Elm.

For a small city, there seem to be many amenities as well. A performance hall complete with orchestra. Also an Art Institute/Museum. The aforementioned ballpark and a very modern Civic Center. There seemed to be a good mix of restaurants, both in price and cuisine (with a decent ethnic range readily apparent).

Overall, the mill area and the Elm street area tended to be very clean and well cared for. Vibrant banners line the street and Manchester seems to have better maintained roads, sidewalks, and, especially, signs than is the norm for Providence.

Hanover Street was very impressive as well. That Elm/Hanover crossing is very nice and full of potential.

Bad Trends:

Regrettably, there were some bad trends I saw as well. First, where was everyone? It's a gorgeous weekend day, the ballgame just let out, and downtown's just dead. In the trendy (and very good) Bridge St Cafe, I was the only one there except for two young men, who were seemingly there to talk to (and, well, mostly look at) the alluring young woman working behind the counter (and I have to say I couldn't blame them :D). The only folks wandering around the downtown seemed to be of the "slightly sketchy" variety I know and love well from my days in New Haven. You know, upstanding folks who, on closer inspection, seem just a touch inebriated, just a touch loitering, and just altogether a bit too interested in what you're doing.

In that vein, two men, seemingly normal appearing cyclists chatting on the street who would otherwise be very image of a vibrant urban downtown, briefly paused conversation as I photographed nearby and then went on to complete a drug deal right in front of me, quite open and in broad daylight, under the awning of the music store/school on Elm as some kids and adults ate ice cream about 40 feet away at outdoor chairs in front of Ben and Jerry's.

Similarly, I browsed three local newspapers while in the cafe (one mainstream, two alternative) and all three had headline articles about violent crime. Is this a big problem there?

On the city planning front, like Providence, the city's highway "gateways" aren't that impressive. Exit 6 (the main downtown exit) greets visitors with a sketchy looking motel with an attached Hooters and some kind of power transformer plant.

Like many New England cities, the various styles inflicted on downtown Manchester (from historic merchantile to suburban office building to pedestrian plaza) seem to have taken their toll on overall urban cohesiveness. It's tough to pin down the city's feel from block to block and the whole ends up feeling less than the sum of its parts, regrettably.

Like in Providence, some of this is due to the predominence of parking garages and surface lots. I couldn't tell (really wasn't looking that hard) to see which were private and which were municipal. Whatever the situation, there are too many in key locations.

The new Civic Center, while nice, is very poorly integrated into the city and, like many such convention centers, feels like it was dropped into the block from outer-space.

Also, are there a lot of housing projects nearby? One or two streets East of Elm, residential dwellings seem to get very scary, very fast. One man on a bike, who seemed kind of discheveled and kind of pupilarily constricted, came by me on a bike (lots of bikes!) and said, "Hey, you from around here?" Me: "No." Him: "Ah, OK, I wouldn't recommend you walk that much further in this direction, if you know what I mean. I'd head back to Elm if I were you." Me: "Okey dokey! Thanks!"

On a personal level, Manchester now takes the prize from New Haven as the "City I've been Most Harrassed in While Taking Photos." Everyone from teens with skateboards, to homeless men, to elderly women with walkers, to drunk men without shirts, to young women in too tight tops, to demented old men wandering aimlessly around seemed to have an insult, gesture, or smart-alecky comment to aim my way. All in an hour and a half!! And I thought the teens from Cranston with the slicked back hair on Federal Hill were bad...

Here's but one example, an aggressive, kinda high guy and his profanity spewing mother in a motorized wheelchair (maybe wife? I didn't ask...) who, um, "asked" me to take their photo in front of City Hall "or else I'll make sure you'll be f*****' sorry!!!" Picture was taken... I'll put it here shortly...

This of course only attracted the attention of two nearby guitar toting, loitering teen boys, who next came over with their own set of insults/demands (these I didn't give into...).

Also, I was hit up for money by more folks while walking Manchester in 90 minutes than in all of my time living in Providence for 2 and 1/2 years. While not a fair direct comparison, it is nevertheless interesting.


So, that's it! The good, back, and the scary. Obviously, this is a city in transition, with lots of potential. One newspaper article mentioned that, like Providence, a master plan for the city is in the process of being crafted (or just recently was, the tone wasn't clear). I'd love to see it either way.

When travelling to and from Northern New England, I'd love to stop in again to sample some of the great looking restaurants I saw. Hopefully, the angry man and his mother/wife will have long forgotten that I never sent them the photo...

- Garris

PS: I'll upload the photos later...

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Wow Garris, I'm really impressed with the accuracy of your impressions for spending such a short time in the city. You really are very astute. I'm glad you made it up. Now let me try to address some of your points. Unfortunately my quote thing isn't working so I'll have to generalize your points.

Skyline impressions

I like the skyline view from a I-293 as well. Elm St. is set on a slight bluff over the millyard, which certainly helps from a visual perspective. The city is also lucky that although the highway does hug the river, it hugs the West side and not the downtown/millyard side. Unfortunately, in 1989 the state demolished The Notre Dame Bridge (seen below) a beautiful art-deco treasure that crossed over 293 and the river and was easily the city's most impressive eye-catching landmark. It still amazes me that the gov't had such little regard for historical treasures as recently as 1989 :shok: !


Poor developments, pedestrian unfriendly Northern Elm zone

You're absolutely right. And it's not just the sketchy commercial buildings that make you want to avoid venturing down to the river, but the extremely un-pedestrian friendly atmosphere there. Further south on Elm (Stark St. for example) there are some great old row-houses that run along the street from Elm down to the millyard. Unfortunately, then there's Canal Street, my least favorite Manchester street. About forty years ago, Canal St, was a canal (surprise) with several old mill buildings running along it (see below). Unfortunately, beginning in 1968 and continuing on until 1990, all of Manchester's canals were filled in, and most of the mill buildings that ran along them were demolished. What we got instead are a sea of parking lots and roads like Canal St, a four lane road that bisects downtown and the millyard and is a huge impediment for pedestrians.





Millyard in general

I'm glad you liked the millyard. Manchester is unique in that virtually all of its mills were designed by the same company- Amoskeag Manufacturing- which for some time virtually owned the city - designing the street layouts, building schools, housing, parks. The company grew so fast that it became the largest textile producer in the world - a title it held until the great depression. So when the company went bankrupt in 1935 it was a nightmare for the city. Over the years, the city responded by trying to make the millyard more business friendly. Tearing down many old mills, filling in canals, and building new roads, and parking lots. I know it sounds horrible :( . But the city was desperate, and the millyard has ulimately proven successful, housing a huge variety of businesses. Recently a New Haven based company purchased one of the largest mills with possible plans to convert it to condos, which would be the millyard's first residential conversion and might help in making the area less of a 9-to-5 area. But given how close the millyard is to the Elm St. corridor, it's remarkable from a pedestrian perspective how far it seems. The city really should take some simple but very important steps to help change that (blow up Canal St. maybe :whistling: )

Lack of people downtown

I think part of this perception comes from the time when you visited the city. It sounds like you were there on a Sunday. Although the ballpark is nice, it is not particularly well integrated into the city, as is the millyard as a whole. It certainly could be, with some pedestrian friendly improvements, but at the moment it is not. So when games get out families more or less run for their cars, or a millyard restaurant if we're lucky. This contrasts particularly with the Civic Center, which doesn't have the most urban design but does suceed in bringing people downtown before or after games. On weekdays, afternoons are considerably busier with the office workers heading for happy hour at the many new restaurants and bars that line Elm and its side streets. Later at night, Elm St. is actually quite busy, thanks largely to all the new restaurants, bars, and nightclubs that have sprung up in recent years.

Violent Crime Problem?

I have to clear this up. Manchester thinks it has a crime problem. In reality the city is actually among the safest, sketchy drug-dealers and all. There's been a grand total of one murder in Manchester this year. In total, there were 308 violent crimes reported in Manchester in 2005, which even when adjusted for population compares very favorably to places like Hartford (1,442) Bridgeport (1,528) Providence (1,207)even Stamford (358). There have been some non-dead;y shootings on the west side lately though, and the city has convinced itself it's headed towards becoming Harlem.

Unimpressive Gateways

Exit 6 could definitely use some work, but the main downtown exit is actually exit 4, Granite Street, which is getting a much needed face-lift using mostly federal funds. The road and bridge will be widened and a median of green space added, which will be a 100% improvement if it ever gets finished!


Unurban Civic Center

The Civic Center replaced a hideously ugly, sprawling Staples Plaza, huge parking lot and all, so while the Civic Center is not overly contextual, it is a vast improvement. There was actually a ton of worry that the Civic Center would fail b/c it did not include parking (Manch has an archaic transit system) So I was very pleased that not only has the lack of parking not hurt the Civic Center (its hockey team actually has the the highest avg attendance in all of minor league hockey) but has helped downtown businesses tremendously.

Sketchy People downtown

I'm so sorry you were attacked by Manchester's finest! What a wonderful impression that must have left on you. It's happened to me before, it is really annoying, and it has certainly become a quality of life issue. All I can tell you is that Manchester's poverty rate is just over 10 percent, which is actually about a third of Providence's. But downtown Providence seems to have a great deal less sketchy people. Why there's such a concentration of sketchy people during certain periods in downtown Manchester I can't tell you.

City in Transition

Absolutely. Unfortunately, the political environment in NH is not one like CT where the legislature will make large investments in improving the city. So the change will be much more gradual, with very little if any gov't subsidies. Will Manchester become Providence? No, I don't think so. But I do think it could be a perfectly pleasant New England city definitely worth a daytrip.

Thanks again for your thorough analysis of Manchester. I think on the whole it was very accurate and fair. I'll have to find one of those 'Welcome to Manchvegas' shirts for you (don't even get me started on that :rolleyes: )

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Hi everyone,

Here are some of the photos from Manchester, NH. Again, the light was harsh in mid-afternoon, so it was tough to photograph. This is the best I could do.

First, the skyline from highway 293. Too bad about the power lines there...:


The river with lining mills, also as seen from 293:


The Eastern facade along Elm Street:


Another photo of the facade:


Yet another, this from a side street off of Elm:


The Hampshire Plaza skyscraper:


The lights lining the building's unfortunately designed, large plaza:


Great Manchester retail signage lining Elm Street:


Old facades against a newer (relative) skyscraper:


The old City Hall:


The old City Hall and the new City Hall:


The old City Hall framed against the new City Hall:


Profile of the old City Hall from Hanover Street:


Elm St. sidewalk dining:


Another view of Elm Street signage:


Hanover St street scene and signage:


More of Hanover St with the Palace facade:


Another of the Palace facade:


The brick facade of Hanover St:


That's about all for now. Perhaps a few more later!

- Garris

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Ok, here are the rest of the Manchester photos...

More great Elm Street retail signage in Manchester:


I really loved the contrast between the old and new City Halls:


I like this old, character filled alley with the antique utility wires sitting next to a brand spanking new satellite dish:


Far from my favorite photo (terrible, harsh afternoon light and poor composition, with the signs and traffic lights), this is the only shot I could achieve to include more than one skyscraper in the same photo. This is the maximally urban Manchester scene:


And to end the Manchester photos, here is yet another old-new contrast:


Sorry I didn't take any photos of the ballpark, but there are other good ones of it here on the UP boards and the lighting was just so, so bright that I knew it wouldn't work, so I just kicked back and enjoyed the game :D.

- Garris

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Hi everyone,

Here are some of the photos from Manchester, NH. Again, the light was harsh in mid-afternoon, so it was tough to photograph. This is the best I could do.

First, the skyline from highway 293. Too bad about the power lines there...:


I think this is a nice view of the skyline. Manchester just needs to add few more skyscrapers into the mix. Are there anymore proposed for the city?

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Ok, here are the rest of the Manchester photos...

Sorry I didn't take any photos of the ballpark, but there are other good ones of it here on the UP boards and the lighting was just so, so bright that I knew it wouldn't work, so I just kicked back and enjoyed the game :D.

- Garris

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