Staff photo by Don Himsel Archive photo courtesy of Jennifer Bartlett

Editor’s Note: Imagine Nashua: Then & Now is a weekly photo column by Don Himsel. Each week, he will feature an old photo within a more recent photo and an explanation of how he got the shot.

Who does this kind of thing, anyway?

My usual contact with Parking Enforcement Officer Jennifer Bartlett means me racing along a downtown street waving pocket change at her as the parking ticket hits the windshield. Bartlett, a Nashua native, enforces the parking laws in the city. She had saved some old photos after her father, Norman, passed away and reached out to see if I was interested in seeing them.

First, a story.

“We didn’t know about this until 2008,” Jennifer said. “My partner and I were doubled up in a cruiser driving down West Pearl Street and see this old man with grey hair standing in the middle of traffic. I’m driving and I’m looking and I’m not sure what I’m seeing.

“My partner’s reaction was priceless,” she said. “‘What is that crazy man doing?’ I’m inching closer and I say, ‘that’s my dad.’ ”

I thought I was the only person around here who would garner that reaction.

“He was standing in the middle of the Walnut Street Oval because that’s where he stood, probably 40 years earlier, to take a particular picture, so he needed to be in that spot. It didn’t matter about traffic. He was waving us through,” she said.

She said that was almost, but not quite, normal, and not unexpected.

“At some point, he had taken a whole series of pictures in the area of the old West Pearl Street prior to the Bronstein Apartments,” said Jennifer’s husband, Russ, who is a Nashua Fire Rescue Lieutenant. “Myrtle Street, the courthouse … A lot of these were taken just prior to demolition of that whole neighborhood.”

The resulting collection is a fantastic look back at what was once known as the Myrtle Street Renovation Project. In the early 1970s, aging tenements were torn down, streets rerouted and families moved, all in advance of the construction of what is now the Bronstein Apartments.

“Let’s hope Nashua will be a new city in the next five to 10 years,” said then-Nashua mayor, Mario J. Vagge, in a Telegraph story written by John Stylianos in March 1962. “The money (federal), is available. There are blighted areas here and we should take advantage of federal funds. You’re paying (taxes) for the clearance of blighted areas in other communities,” Vagge said.

“Housing seems to be the most serious need. Myrtle st (sic) is a very sad situation. We need parking to give our industries added services. The area has sub-standard homes. You’ll always have that element; families with low income, usually, with a lot of children. We should not take it out on the children. We need more housing,” Vagge said.

Norman made many photos of the buildings around what was originally a 17-plus acre downtown parcel of land that would eventually be transformed into the squat brick row houses that are there now.

“I had no idea these existed when I was a kid,” Jennifer tells me. “He had a basement full of photos.”

This building was situated in the Bronstein complex along what is now Central Street, across from Ash Street. Careful cross-references with a Sanborn map confirmed the spot.

“Later, he went back and took a few pictures to get the same perspective of what was then and what is now,” Russ said.

“He talked the people at the Labine Building into letting him up onto the rooftop,” Jennifer said. “He was sitting on the ledge with his legs dangling over. He was 80, sitting on the edge of that building before it occurred to him that this could be dangerous. But he got the same shot looking down Pine Street because that was the one he had gotten however many years earlier.”

“We’ve had a magnifying glass out looking at various things,” Russ said. One night he laid out some of the photos onto the floor of the firehouse where he was stationed, going over them with some old-timers who could still remember some of the places. “Now I’m in this district, and you try to picture what it looked like then,” he said, marveling at what was then, and what is now.

The old photos have been collected into a fat binder, with a scattered few of contemporary shots carefully tucked next to them. Street signs and roof lines offer clues to intrepid modern photographers who weave in and out of downtown traffic, forcing drivers to squint out their windows and say “what is that crazy man doing?”

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or dhimsel@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Himsel on Twitter (@Telegraph_DonH).

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