Her Lasting Impressions

2/4/2007


By: Adam leech
Date: Sunday, Feb 4, 2007
Publication: Portsmouth Herald

PORTSMOUTH -- For local architect Lisa DeStefano, the redevelopment of the northern tier is not only a tremendous professional opportunity, but a personal one as well.

In 1907, DeStefano's great-grandfather, Frederick, left San Giovanni, Italy, to come to America. Before he left, he became engaged to his fiancee, Victoria, and told her he would send for her as soon as he could. After a few years, he had saved enough money to pay for her passage to join him. A year later, he bought a newly constructed home on Russell Street.

The area became a close-knit community, known as the North End, and was largely populated by other Italian immigrants. It was an intimate setting for people far from their native land, grouped together to find assurance and comfort from foreign customs and the language barrier that surrounded them.

"I remember hearing stories from my mother when they were newlyweds and surrounded by my dad's aunts and all the houses," DeStefano said. "One could sneeze in one house and someone next door would say, 'God bless you,' because they were that close. It must've been a great time to live in the North End."

The Sheraton, the Vaughan Mall, the Portsmouth Herald offices and other businesses replaced the neighborhood in the mid-1960s during an urban renewal project. The land was deemed more profitable as commercial property.

The immigrants scattered throughout the city and with the "renewal" came the dissolving of the heritage -- the Victrolas, grape vines, markets and the community that had always looked out for one another.

"There's some wonderful character that was taken out when they did the urban renewal -- neighborhoods, streetscapes," she said. "You know that song, 'They paved paradise and put up a parking lot?' Boy, it happened. It really happened."

It was DeStefano's uncle Albie who, in 1998, got a memorial bench at the street corner in front of the Sheraton Harborside dedicated to the 65 immigrants who settled in the North End.

Exactly a century after her family came to Portsmouth, Lisa DeStefano will play a crucial role in what the old North End will look like for years to come.

DeStefano will help design the redevelopment of the Parade Mall Office and the Portsmouth Herald building -- two properties identified in the 1999 Northern Tier Study as crucial parcels in plans to improve the "gateway to the city." She already has left her mark sculpting the reconstruction of the 12,000-square-foot 22 Deer St. building and assisting in the design of the Hilton Garden Inn and Harbour Hill Condominium complex.

With the Westin Hotel conference center and parking garage also scheduled to move into the area, the old North End will get its third identity over the course of a century.

"The northern tier is such a unique opportunity, especially for a New England town, to have a large area just ready for development," she said. "And to be able to leave my mark on the city I grew up in and still live in, with all the passions that come because of my history in the area, it means a lot more to me than if I was developing some district in the Midwest.

"I'm sure our forefathers thought they were doing the best thing when they did urban renewal in the '70s," she said. "But with what we're looking to do in the northern tier -- that pedestrian-friendly area for people to gather and pay more homage to people than cars, open space, green space -- is bring back what is really a better urban environment."

While the northern tier will never be the North End, DeStefano said it is still possible to create an area that embraces the sense of community that was lost with the razing of the residential area.

DeStefano said she is not looking to re-create Market Square or any other part of the city that already has its own identity. Diluting the small coffee shop and clothing boutique business already in the city is not the goal, but rather to include uses for which there is a need. The redevelopment also creates a loop that will help make Portsmouth even more of a destination city.

"It wants to feel more like another node that brings people to the city, where they come, leave their cars and explore the city," she said. "Do they start at that destination? Do they start at the Westin? Do they start at another location? But it's giving them a reason to continue on in the city."

All the projects for the northern tier are being considered at various levels of the city's land-use boards, but as designs are finalized, the picture of the future look of the area is becoming clearer every day.

"And we're just beginning," she said. "There's wonderful opportunity ahead and I plan on being there from start to finish."

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