It persists still, this myth of the small, flinty state with the politically earnest folks who insist you walk through several dozen of their white-pillared town halls before you can walk into the White House.
And yes, those folks were waiting patiently to do their part the other night — an all-white town hall crowd of about 100, some in their snowflake sweaters and duck boots, sitting on folding chairs in an overheated room at a nursing home in nearby Brentwood. Rick Santorum’s state co-chair, Claira Monier, about to introduce the candidate, looked over the audience members and told them approvingly: “I see of lot of good New Hampshire people here.”
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.
Bilal’s is the last apartment, up three flights of dark stairs, identified by its cinnamon scent. There are no names by the doorbells, and two of them are broken anyway. There’s a jumble of small sneakers on a mat outside her door. Inside her home are five little boys tumbling around a mostly empty room or doing their workbooks, and the baby and a young girl. Four belong to Bilal, 25, and three belong to her sister, Rukia, 21. Bilal has been watching the children while her sister works. She has two jobs as a nurse’s aide and is in college.
Their brother, Jamal Adan, 17, is at the apartment, helping to watch the kids. He just got home from Manchester Central High School, where Mayor Ted Gatsas introduced Mitt Romney at a rally.
It will be great when Romney is president, Gatsas said, because he has been fighting the Obama administration over testing requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act.
“We shouldn’t be testing those children when they haven’t had a chance to learn in their own language, let alone in English,” the mayor said.
Adan, who is a junior, didn’t hear that. Only the seniors were permitted to attend the rally. He’ll take any test they give him, and yes, in English. He spoke only a Mai dialect when he came from Kenya at 10; his family lived in two refugee camps after fleeing Somalia, and the State Department resettled them in Manchester.
He graduated from an English Language Learners program a while ago, although he still attends after-school sessions on Monday “just because it’s very interesting what they teach. You learn about important people who made change — Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And you learn how to do PowerPoint, because it is very important to make good presentations.”