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In West Granite, the Bypassing Parade

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By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 5, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 4 -- On a day when the presidential hopefuls hustled about the state trolling for votes, some residents of the struggling West Granite neighborhood wondered: What about us?

Claude Venne: "I haven't seen a soul around here. They don't come here. They go downtown . . . but not here. They couldn't care less. Doesn't matter if they're Democrat or Republican, we don't see 'em." And then Venne, 76, retired after 44 years as a Chevrolet salesman, paused just long enough to put an exclamation point on his point. "Hell, they could come in and have a coffee. I've always got a pot of coffee."

New Hampshire is known as the capital of retail politics, where every four years the odds of seeing or greeting a presidential contender are probably better than they are anywhere else in America. Civic interest is high -- turnout rates for the presidential primaries are typically 65 to 70 percent of registered voters -- and the campaigns saturate the landscape with their messages. Yet, some enclaves barely get touched -- no candidates, few fliers, only scattered door-knocking by volunteers.

West Granite is a transient neighborhood of low- and middle-income residents west of revitalized downtown Manchester, across the Merrimack River. Here, the streets are narrowed by the snow piled high in front of the old wooden houses. Two-thirds of the residents have lived here for five years or less; three-quarters rent. Many can't afford the rents for long on low-skill wages, so they get evicted and move on. It is a small community -- seven streets that run north to south, five from east to west -- but it is not a close-knit one. Right in the heart of the neighborhood is Grace Haven Baptist Church, in what was a used furniture store. Rich Clegg, the 28-year-old pastor who could pass for a college junior, has turned this house of worship into a gathering place. Which is how we met Claude Venne. And Diane Bourque.

While the candidates were talking about change and hope and experience, trying to soar or rebound out of Iowa, Venne and Bourque were talking about slumlords, police protection, the quality of life right where they live. The things they always talk about.

"I don't think there is one candidate who I can actually say I'm for," said Bourque, an accounting manager for an engineering firm and a registered Republican who has lived here since 1985. "I'm not really sure a presidential candidate can come into a neighborhood and help us. I'm not sure at that level anything can be done."

Then she adds: "I'm not about to uproot because of the problems in my neighborhood. I'm going to fix them." The problems? They date back to the spring and summer of 2006 when drug dealing moved into the neighborhood and a wannabe gang that called itself the "D-Block" took root. Street fighting followed. And some kids marked a bunch of houses with graffiti. The police helped residents to organize a neighborhood-watch group. "We probably had 50 people at the first meeting," Bourque said, "but most of them no longer live in the neighborhood."

Pastor Clegg pointed to a boarded-up house across the street from the church; that's a drug house, he said. He can tell because he used to watch 20 or 30 cars come by in the afternoons. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist." The church has a small congregation, sometimes only 10 to 20 parishioners on Sundays. But Clegg organized a kind of community center that has given kids a place to go after school.

Said Bourque, "I don't want to say it's a lot better, but I think we're going in the right direction."

Back to the matter of presidential politics.

Robert Tourigny, executive director of NeighborWorks Greater Manchester, a nonprofit community development corporation that assists first-time home buyers and has been working with the West Granite neighborhood, offered this assessment: "Probably the biggest issue people deal with that doesn't get addressed by the campaigns is, the cost of living here is really high. Between fuel for automobiles and fuel to heat their homes, and the cost of housing, it's difficult for low-income people. I don't think that has really gotten that much attention." He means right here, where folks live in a state whose textile and shoemaking jobs have been replaced with skilled, high-tech positions.

Venne, who was a registered Democrat for 25 years, then an independent, now a registered Republican, said he doesn't know whom he'll vote for next week. "I vote for the person, not the party. Neither party has done anything for me. We have to fight for everything we get around here."

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