Prescott Park in downtown Portsmouth has long attracted locals and tourists alike with its historic backdrop and waterfront views.
But over the last few years it’s also attracted a fair amount of controversy.
At issue is both the history and future of the park.
It’s a Wednesday evening at Prescott Park. The sun is just beginning to set and hundreds of people are situating their lawn chairs, blankets, and coolers around a stage near the middle of the park.
Phillis Guiliano is one of them. She and a friend drove up from Boston to see the band Darlingside, who should be taking the stage any minute now.
“A concert in the park was a fun way to come see Portsmouth. We like the beach we’re going to go see the beach tomorrow," she says. "It’s just a lovely thing that Portsmouth does; putting these concerts on, it’s great.”
As venues go, it’s pretty hard to beat Prescott Park. It offers views of the Piscataqua River, Memorial Bridge, and the naval shipyard. And it’s just a quick walk from the heart of downtown Portsmouth, with its many restaurants, bars, and cafes.
But not everyone thinks that concerts are the best use of this historic park. That includes Mark Brighton.
“I know why people go to concerts," he says. "Guys go there to get drunk and check out the women. Please don’t tell me anything else.”
Brighton, a lifelong Portsmouth resident and self-identified curmudgeon. In fact, when we spoke, Brighton was wearing a polo shirt with the word curmudgeon embroidered into it.
“I wear the shirt proudly," he explains. "Towns like Portsmouth need a curmudgeon. . . . There’s much to complain about.”
In the case of Prescott Park, Brighton’s chief complaint is that, according to him, the concerts encourage drinking in the park.
It’s illegal to drink alcohol in any of Portsmouth’s city parks, but at Prescott Park there’s an added layer of prohibition that comes directly from the park’s namesake, the Prescott sisters.
The Prescott sisters were born and raised Portsmouth in the latter half of the 19th century. In those days, the area of town that is now the park was home to many bars and brothels.
After inheriting a large sum of money the Prescott Sisters bought up their old neighborhood, demolished the buildings, and created a public space, free of the vices it was known for.
In 1954, the Prescott sisters left the park to the city, under the condition that there was to be no alcohol sold there, ever.
We know many of the details of that story because Ray Brighton, father of curmudgeon Mark Brighton, authored a biography of the Prescott sisters.
“That’s what is motivating me," the younger Brighton says. "My objective has been to stand up for the Prescott Sisters.”
But Brighton isn’t alone in raising concerns about the park’s concerts. Over the last few years, a group of the park’s neighbors including David Krempels have complained to officials at city hall about noise coming from the performances.
“I can’t believe we have to beg for one more quiet night," Krempels said. "Just turn it down.”
But supporters of the Prescott Park Arts Festival, the non-profit that produces the concerts, say these concerns come from a small minority of residents and are blown out of proportion.
Recently hundreds of Portsmouth residents signed on to a letter that describes the concerts as wholesome, family events that have had no significant problems related to alcohol.
“I think these are some people who have a little too much time on their hands and feel that it’s their responsibility to take on this non-issue," said Ben Anderson, president of the Prescott Park Arts Festival. He says the events add to the quality of life in the city.
Along with the concerts, the festival a produces a musical, hosts movie nights, and runs a youth theatre camp.
“And the beauty of it all is that it’s by suggested donation," said Anderson. "It’s accessible and available to anyone and everyone.”
Meanwhile back at city hall, a mayoral blue ribbon commission has been tasked with making recommendations to city leaders about what, if anything, they should do about all this.
The commission’s chairman, Tom Watson, says however heated the rhetoric may get, the fact that there is this much interest in the park is a sign of a healthy community.
“Portsmouth is a very successful city and now it’s having the types of tensions that exist when you are successful," Watson said.
The contract between the city and the arts festival for next year will be negotiated later this fall. Meanwhile the park is booked solid with events through the end of August.