One of my first workplaces in New Hampshire was a third-floor office on the corner of Elm and Amherst Streets in Manchester. It was 1990 and, yes, imaginary tumbleweeds did roll down Elm Street.
But it was still cool to work in the city, even on a hot August day.
I’d moved up here from Atlanta, so I knew what a “real” city looked like, smelled like and sounded like and many of those features were evident — just in miniature. Picture a snow globe version of downtown that, when shaken, sends a tiny cloud of grit, cigarette butts and parking tickets swirling and drifting down around City Hall.
There were efforts to liven things up. From my office window I could sometimes hear a concert series on the plaza next to what was then the city’s main “skyscraper” at 1000 Elm St. (now the Brady Sullivan Plaza). Later, the plaza was converted to a skating rink in the winter, but that plan only lasted a year or so.
A video game arcade stayed open at night on Elm and cars full of high school kids would cruise by and shout to their friends inside. That was not the only nightlife the city afforded, but, at least for young people, it was the most evident portion.
I know I’m doing the city a big injustice, overlooking lots of shops and businesses that were keeping culture alive (hello, Palace Theatre), the city’s lights on and the local economy going, but those were my impressions and they were shared by many.
One person who remembers a different side of the scene is Todd Griffin, a former member of the Recycled Percussion crew who is now a director at the Amherst Country Club. In the ’90s, the recession and the crack cocaine epidemic hit the state like a two-punch knockout, he says. There were few (if any) real nightclubs for young people, but there were lots of empty spaces. Griffin was, and still is, a DJ. In the city’s desolation, he saw potential. An underground music scene that took root in the United Kingdom was making its way to the US and Griffin wanted to see it blossom here.
“What became the Jillian’s building (now The Foundry restaurant) and Autodesk, were just concrete floors and pillars,” he says. Likewise, the old Coca-Cola bottling plant and other abandoned spaces, so he and some talented friends would set up dance parties or raves with elaborate lighting and sound systems and generators, drawing crowds ranging from a couple of hundred to more than 1,000 young people who would dress up and dance from 10 at night until sunrise.
“It was kept so secret,” says Griffin. “Even if you were in, you still had to call a phone number to go to a place to get a map to the building where the party would be.”
So while the city might have seemed to be in a coma from the street level, behind old brick walls and in basements full of pigeon droppings, kids were making their own fun.
As hip as all that may sound, kudos must be given to the suits who were making plans for a revival of downtown. Expansion of the Manchester Airport, the opening of an multiuse arena that was big enough to host national touring acts (now the SNHU Arena), and a lot of entrepreneurial risk-taking by real estate companies and restaurateurs laid the groundwork for the Queen City we now enjoy. But the best news is what’s happening today and where the trendlines are heading.
Those ambitious kids who once had to build their dreams in the vacant garrets and warehouses of the city are still around and new ones are moving in. As our cover story suggests, these young transformers now have the tools they need to dream even bigger dreams and to make them come true.