September 14, 2006

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Nashua Publisher's Note: The art of walking
By Jeff Rapsis

Nashua’s latest Art Walk is happening this Saturday, Sept. 16, and early weather reports (at the time this is being written, anyway) indicate a perfect and sunny late summer weekend is in store.

So what’s stopping you? Get out and start walking! It’s a great chance to discover all that’s happening, arts-wise, in the city’s downtown area and also in the millyard, which is increasingly full of surprises.

As an added incentive, organizers this time around have convinced the folks at Fody’s Tavern to set up tables on the lawn of the Hunt Building, where chowder, sandwiches and non-alcoholic beverages will be offered for those who wander the northern side of Main Street.

I’m particularly impressed by what’s happening in millyard because I used to walk through it not that long ago on my way to and from Nashua High School or, later, to Teradyne on Simon Street, where I worked while home from college during the summer.

Just a little while ago (we’re talking the early 1980s here, not ancient history), the millyard was a pretty grim place. Manufacturing still predominated — nothing wrong with that, but it was no center for the arts. The place generally looked run-down and smelled bad, too.

But you’d have to go through the millyard to get to the trails in Mine Falls Park, which then took you out to the city’s western reaches. There was no avoiding it, unless you wanted to go by Ledge Street, which itself was no fun.

In the millyard, it was the nadir of the pre-gentrification era. Sprague Electric was still operating in the building that’s now Clocktower Place; sometimes I’d go through when the shifts changed at 3 p.m., when I’d get to witness the age-old Nashua ritual of people coming and going to factory jobs to put bread on the table.

(I participated in this ritual at Teradyne, where I worked in a machine shop called the “header fabrication department” on boxes of parts marked “Government of Israel.” But that’s another story.)

Teradyne, though, was out on Simon Street in a brand new building, which was a world away from the decaying buildings of the millyard, which wasn’t a friendly place for anyone on foot, or even on bicycle (as was sometimes the case), with broken glass and rusty scrap metal everywhere.

At that time, the concept of an “art walk” in the millyard would have made as much sense as a moon walk. Artistically speaking, the millyard had nothing to offer anyone on foot, unless you were a fan of industrial surrealism.

Today, things are different. Nashua’s millyard is not a National Park showpiece like in Lowell, Mass., nor is it an economic powerhouse like the one in Manchester. Instead, the Gate City’s mill buildings are going in a different, slightly more Bohemian direction.

With the exception of Clocktower Place, which was a huge undertaking, our city’s mill buildings have been undergoing a slower, more gradual transformation. Little by little, spaces have been filled up with an interesting and varied array of galleries, workshops, studios, and even some modern-style small-scale manufacturing businesses.

Want to see for yourself? This weekend’s art walk is a perfect opportunity to see what’s really new about Nashua, which happens to be in one of the city’s oldest places.

Visit the millyard, and you see Nashua’s future. After all, if it’s changed this much in my lifetime, who’s to say what it will look like in the decades ahead?