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Portsmouth’s Lost, But Not Forgotten Little Italy

The ruination of the North End should no more be contained in a book to collect dust in a library any more than the men and women in the city's African Burying Ground should be forgotten. They are different stories, yet they are both part of the city's history, and both provide opportunities for all who follow to learn from the lessons of our past.[1]

For city leaders and developers alike, Portsmouth’s North End today has become a “district ripe for development opportunities”. But for locals, especially old timers of Italian descent, the rapid change in the North End’s landscape has been nothing but a painful reminder of what was once was called home.

Like many cities in the 1970s, the North End, formerly known as Portsmouth’s Little Italy, was targeted for economic revitalization. Fatigued and decrepit, Little Italy was a growing blight in the eyes of city leaders. Incentivized by the federally funded program known as Urban Renewal, hundreds of hard-working Italian immigrant families who made the North End their home were pushed out in the name of progress.

Lot by lot, Little Italy vanished. Families were torn apart and displaced. In total, over 400 buildings were razed. But for decades, nothing happened, leaving its former residents feeling resentful. Today, the North End is home to multiple corporate-owned hotels, with several more in the works, and is a growing extension of Portsmouth’s downtown cultural footprint as envisioned in the city’s Master Plan.

But back in the days of Little Italy, the neighborhood was comprised of hundreds of Italian families, social clubs, and a smattering of family-owned businesses established to support their own neighbors—Italian bakeries, diners, pizzerias, breweries, and so much more. It was “a world unto itself” wrote local historian, J. Dennis Robinson in an article featured in the Portsmouth Herald back in 2005.

We were all very poor, but we had a great life,” said local resident, Delfo Cominati, at a North End reunion held in 1985. Cominati was born in the North End in 1911. The men and women worked at the local factories the shipyard, and in their own neighborhood businesses. They worked hard, and lived, loved, and cared for Portsmouth.

While very little historical context remains in this now modernized district of downtown Portsmouth, the memories of days past are very much alive in the hearts of the Italian families who now reside scattered across this 16-square mile city. Meet with any one of them and they wax nostalgic about their childhood growing up in Portsmouth’s Little Italy. Losing their homes to urban renewal was nothing but a tragedy for this tight knit community of Italian families.

The Italians who lived there nonetheless developed a strong attachment to the neighborhood because it was home, because it was where they grew up and raised their children, and because of the strong social networks that developed there. ~Blake Gumprecht

Learn More About the North End and Little Italy


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A recording of the 1986 Russell Street Reunion. Produced by J. Dennis Robinson of Ideaworks. Introduction recorded by Portsmouth Public Library, 2023. Images from the North End House Histories Collection, viewable at

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