Good New Hampshire people live in a good, homogenous state of low unemployment, no sales and income tax, and high SAT scores, and this is their biggest city.
But Manchester is not like the rest of New Hampshire.
Tough times have come, and hard, in a rush that seems to have taken the city’s residents and business leaders by surprise — just as the national magazines were declaring it a great place to live and the number of yoga studios looked as if it might catch up to the number of laundromats. A big Lowes by the new spiffy airport opened, then abruptly closed about 18 months later; maybe Wal-Mart can move in there, hopes an alderman, because everybody needs to shop at Wal-Mart now.
Manchester, with a population of nearly 110,000, has had to cut firemen, cops and highway workers. Crime is up, along with evictions. But most shocking, and unmentioned in stump speeches as the Republican presidential candidates race around: One in four children here lives in poverty. Nearly half of the children in the city’s public schools can get free lunch.
“We are becoming more of a true little urban center,” struggling like cities across the country, says Anna Thomas, Manchester’s deputy public health director. This state of affairs, she adds, “is not at all usual for New Hampshire.”
Those with the fewest personal resources — white and minority working poor and jobless, and resettled refugees from war-torn countries — need the greatest public resources, according to demographers and social-service providers.
And that has prompted some blunt and often uncomfortable talk in Manchester about who makes for good New Hampshire people.
“A lot of people are a little edgy” about the new people moving into the old tenements, is how the alderman, Ed Osborne, puts it, “because we don’t have enough for ourselves, and we’ve been here all our lives.”
Soldano Bilal, her hair wrapped in colorful fabric and her youngest child wrapped to her back, walks up to one of Manchester’s tenements Wednesday and disappears inside.
They still call them tenements here, like it’s the Lower East Side in 1870. The poor don’t live in housing projects, or in swaths of distressed neighborhoods. Instead, the center of the city is full of freestanding, white-clapboard Victorians with curlicue wood trim, built by the grandees of the Amoskeag cotton mills on the Merrimack River that flows through Manchester.