Around Town: Downtown Exeter

Another in a series of pieces focusing on the places in Exeter: 

Katie Reilly stepped out of Town Hall, notepad and camera in hand. If she could get this streetscape grant for Exeter, the town might be able to make some other improvements that didn’t make it into the budget this year.

She turned and snapped a photo of Town Hall itself, the clapboard building sprawling out from additions over the years as the town grew. The white columns at the entrance were peeling, but she knew structurally they were sound. She turned her back on the building and took a second shot, this one capturing the entire area. She paused to record the information, as if she wouldn’t know just by looking at the photos.

The Town Common was front and center, the grassy area that had once served as grazing space for town resident to stake out their animals. Now it was the community gathering space, home to concerts and the farmers’ market during the summer. She walked across the street to take a close-up of the street lamps Steve Donaghue had donated to the town 20 years ago to light the space. They couldn’t get exactly the same kind — too much time had passed — but if they won the grant, they would have enough to replace all the streetlights downtown with the lamps once they buried the utility wires.

From there, Katie walked the perimeter of the area, one block wide and three blocks long. The south side faced St. Brigid’s, while the north faced Town Hall. It was all houses to the west, while the east bordered downtown.

She shot a view of the entire street, the brick storefronts shabby, but familiar, before crossing to document the number of vacancies. The old department store that once took up half a block, and smaller spaces, like Simmons Shoes. Mr. Simmons still hadn’t restored the storefront to where it had been before a drunk driver plowed into it a few weeks back. Dad, Dan and Mike had been out here one day working on it, but only to make it safe and weather-proof. She’d pestered Dan until he told her Mr. Simmons said that was all he could do for now — he didn’t have enough insurance to fix it up the way it had been, and the insurance company for the drunken idiot who’d slammed into the store was dragging its heels.

He wasn’t the only downtown merchant hanging on by a thread. The county courthouse two streets over kept enough lawyers and other businesses in the town center to make sandwich shops viable, but the other merchants were squeezed as more people shopped in other towns.

The Historical Society had a big project they were working on, but Dan hadn’t talked to her about it because he worried if he did, they would make him step away from the plans when it went before the town for approval. She’d heard rumors, though, and knew it involved the old Angston Mill down by the train station. Katie squashed her curiosity down and returned to documenting the downtown.

The concrete sidewalks throughout downtown were cracked, years of frost and freeze knocking pieces out of alignment and making the surface treacherous for anybody who wasn’t surefooted. She knelt down and got closeups from above, then set the camera on the ground to shoot the difference in levels from one piece to another. It was too easy to stub a toe on a piece of sidewalk — embarrassing for her, but often hazardous for the older residents who were loyal to the downtown businesses.

One of them was headed her way, Mrs. Boylan. The retired teacher walked with a cane and carried a shopping bag in the other hand.

“Can I get that for you?” Katie jumped to her feet.

“No, dear, but thank you for asking.” Mrs. Boylan stopped and nodded, her arthritis-twisted knuckles wrapped around the handle of the cane. “My Sara promised to take me shopping this afternoon, but I wanted to get a few things at O’Leary’s.” She started on her way again, her eyes focused on the uneven pavement. Katie snapped a few photos, though she didn’t know if she could use them in the application.

The next block down, south of the Common, had houses on the Common side, so Katie stayed to the east, photographing and recording. It was only mid-morning, so the streets and sidewalks were quiet.

Another block east and the mix changed, with offices mixed among the storefronts. Riordan’s law practice was a bright spot in the area, the two-story converted house painted in crisp federal blue with brick red and black trim. Gold lettering on the sign in front gleamed in the sunlight.

Declan’s coffee shop was down on the corner, the plate-glass windows gleaming even as the rest of the building looked tattered about the edges. Inside, she could see people on stools at the counter, their backs to the door. Declan wanted to remodel the place to be more like coffee shops today, try and attract some of the college crowd who would pay four or five dollars for a fancy coffee, but the big chain that had taken over Exeter Savings Bank a few years back wasn’t willing to loan him the money. He’d told Katie about his plans a dozen times, and she thought he had a good approach. But his dad’s illness had depleted all the family savings, so her high school classmate was stuck until he could make a dent in the medical bills his mother still was trying to pay off.

She made a mental note to have him talk to Dan — whatever the Angston Mill project was, it had to help Declan out. The mill complex was the only thing separating the college from downtown, but the chain link fence surrounding it might as well have been a ten-story brick wall. Anything that got the space opened up and used for something other than decaying buildings had to be a good thing.

As she finished with the second block of downtown, she decided to shoot some photos around the mill, incorporate it into the plan. If the town could find a way to open it up, develop it to link the college and downtown, her grant would stand a better chance of success. This was just a small piece, something to put the framework in place to let the Historical Society do whatever it was they were planning.

That done, Katie headed north again, planning to finish up by O’Leary’s. Then she could stop in and see what nights Mr. O’Leary needed her to work this week.

She passed the Exeter Ledger office, the plate-glass windows the the left of the door looking lost without the giant press behind them. In the winter, Katie had always been able to tell when they were running special sections because the lights would be on, the press running full-speed, in the early evening. Now it didn’t matter, with the paper printing in Worcester and being trucked back here each night. Katie understood why — the old press had been too expensive to fix — but she still missed stopping to watch the pages whiz by, the rumbling of the giant machinery filling the air.

She reminded herself to send CJ to her boss if he or one of the reporters called asking about the grant. After the last time, she knew better than to talk to the press, even if CJ was somebody she’d known her whole life.

The newspaper office was just a block south of the courthouse, which was behind Town Hall. The granite courthouse steps were worn from years of feet. Katie made a note to get some information about how many people were in and out of the building each day. Enough to keep Kerr’s sandwich shop in business as lawyers, judges and reporters from all over the county stopped in for a quick bite between hearings. The ones who didn’t want Kerr’s would walk the other direction, toward O’Leary’s Market. Katie checked her watch. Mrs. O’Leary would be in there now helping to fix sandwiches for the lunch crowd. Making the last of her notes, Katie headed there herself.