A visitor to Olde Towne Portsmouth can immediately see that the city’s original planners got it right: lay the city out in a logical grid with a wide main street (High Street), an occasional less-wide cross street (Court and Washington Streets), with all remaining streets narrow, quaint, and shady.
What has been less obvious – until now – is that the 103 original squares formed by cross streets had names. Some even had names which were linked to their purpose. Church Square? Home of Trinity Episcopal Church. Market Square? That was the Kroger of its day. Courthouse Square? The seat of justice. Prison Square? You get the idea.
June 3 marked the culmination of a years-long effort by Portsmouth resident Aaron Kelley as he installed two granite stones at High and Crawford Streets, marking Golden and Bloomsberry squares, the first two of the High Street corridor. Stones at Market and Courthouse squares have since followed and, on August 5, Courthouse and Church markers will be placed at Court and High Streets during the 5 – 8pm First Friday Courtyard Concert at PACC.
More are planned as the project reaches deeper into the neighborhoods further to the north, east and west. The ultimate goals are to make the original vision of Portsmouth’s planners plain to visitors, and to form the bones of a self-guided walking tour for historic Olde Towne’s visitors.
Kelley is adamant that “. . . history is one of the [Portsmouth’s] greatest competitive advantages. We have no need to recreate or make up history, but quite the opposite – much of our history is well documented. We have an overwhelming treasure trove of historical nuances that can easily be emphasized to benefit this community. Here in Portsmouth we may not have sandy beaches, we may not have a vast and towering skyline; but the one thing that cannot be replicated throughout Hampton Roads is our charming downtown.
Our history is free – we just need to find a creative way to bring it to life.”
The Portsmouth Square(d) project is the second for Kelley’s Portsmouth Historical Initiative. The first was the mural on the Cedar Grove Cemetery wall, along Effingham Street, that commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Craney Island.
Aaron Kelley’s love for Portsmouth, and his passion for its history, is shared by many in his community who see tourism as an overlooked source of both pride and revenue for a city in search of both. It’s low-hanging fruit.
“My hope today,” said Kelley, “is that we find a way to embrace our past and use these stones as a tool for positive marketing and tourism.”