December 28, 2006

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Nashua Publisher's Note: My trashy neighborhood
By Jeff Rapsis

As much as Nashua has changed, the little corner of the city where I grew up has very much stayed the same. That is, until now.

Get this: When I visited the area the other day (my mother still lives there), I saw a crew wearing Hazmat suits on the streets. I don’t know about you, but for me Hazmat suits are not a sign of business as usual.

Where is this? It’s the area where Prescott Street meets Bennett Street, close to where Broad Street branches off Amherst Street. It’s not as ritzy as the North End, but just as old.

I think our neighborhood’s appeal was always somewhat limited because it was hemmed in on one side by the Boston & Maine’s Hillsboro Branch, a railroad line that remains in place and active to this day.

Another factor: In an earlier age, the entire area once served as the municipal dump for anyone who lived north of the Nashua River.

Back in the 19th century, what’s now our neighborhood was on the outskirts of Nashua. As such, it formed a convenient dumping ground in the age before anyone cared much about solid waste disposal.

The dumping ended a hundred years ago or so, but the layers of trash stayed put. Eventually, houses were built—hey presto, a neighborhood!

When I was growing up, it wasn’t a secret that my neighborhood was built on top of a dump. All you had to do was look in the woods at the rusted washing machines and discarded industrial equipment that stood arranged as if part of a Salvador Dali painting.

Were we worried? On the contrary. I actually thought this was cool. As kids, we could dig a hole virtually anywhere and find things like intact sand castings from the Gate City’s many forges and foundries or colorful old glass bottles.

Because of this, a Wild West claim-staking spirit prevailed among me and my friends. For a long time, my older brother had a “bottle mine” in the side of an embankment from which he pulled out dozens of specimens.

So what’s going on? In the past year, a developer bought several odd lots (including part of a former oil depot at the end of Bennett Street) and came up with plans for “Prescott Square,” a residential community with something like 40 condominiums in several buildings clustered together.

Well, it’s certainly not suburban sprawl. But only recently, with excavation now started, has the scale and scope of the project become apparent.

Huge stockpiles of dirt have risen down the hill. An old house was demolished to make way for a secondary road. And yes, crews in Hazmat suits are digging up what will probably be tons and tons of asbestos.

They’ll put it in special trucks and haul it up Bennett Street. And I hope I’m there when they do, because I can then point at those trucks at say, “There goes the neighborhood!”.

Merry Christmas!