Former casket factory a symbol of restoration in inner city

NASHUA – All summer, as construction crews swarmed over the former Batesville Casket Co. factory on Palm Street, Mario Plante noticed that the work drew pilgrims of a sort.

“People kept stopping by, saying, ‘I used to work here,’ ” said Plante, whose company is redeveloping the 196,000-square-foot building into a mix of apartments and retail shops. “There are so many people who worked in this building, it’s unbelievable.”

The former factory made caskets from the mid-1970s until 2006, when the company consolidated production in Mississippi. It lies in an area on which the city will shine a spotlight Sunday during the second annual Nashua Multicultural Festival. The event showcases the neighborhood and celebrates the city’s cultural heritages, including Irish, Polish, German, Spanish, African and African-American.

When the factory shut down, the impact hit this inner-city neighborhood hard. As many as 200 workers lost their jobs – another blight on a much-maligned area known as the Tree Streets.

Geographically, Batesville lies at the heart of the Tree Streets, and thus at the heart of the city. The large brick building abuts West Hollis, Palm, Ash and Pine streets. Vacant, windows broken, walls scrawled with graffiti, the empty building stood as an emblem of urban blight and inner-city decay.

Now, with the flurry of work, the old factory is a symbol of a transformation that’s happening not just inside its walls, but in the surrounding neighborhood.
The transformation isn’t wholesale redevelopment, but by attrition.

The Police Athletic League has set up shop and grown a vibrant youth program a stone’s throw from the factory on Ash Street. Next door, scaffolding encases the New _Fellowship Baptist Church as its domed roof and former bell tower get an $82,000 facelift.

Beyond that is Los Amigos Park, a small park and playground area for families.
Drug arrests and gang activity happen in this part of the city, but increasingly, they’re only part of the neighborhood’s story. Mostly, crime is the bad reputation the neighborhood struggles to shake.

Other changes are afoot. Smaller businesses and a few homes are undergoing renovation.

A mobile camper known as the taco truck has grown a loyal and diverse following, from Spanish-speaking workers to bicycle cops to business people of all races and colors on their lunch breaks.

In its second year, Sunday’s festival will allow people to celebrate their part of the city and its various cultures – not just Latino – through a large block party of food, music and dance.

That’s one good thing about the festival, said Nicole Giles-Abbot, a young woman who has lived in the neighborhood for a year and a half.

“It gives people down here something to do they don’t have to pay for,” she said as she took a break from her volunteer work in the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter on Chestnut Street.

“It uplifts the people who are trying to do good,” Giles-Abbot said.

As director of the city’s urban programs department, Scott Slattery shepherded the genesis of the cultural festival. It was born from a survey distributed by the department’s VISTA workers. Residents said they wanted to see more city-sponsored activities in their neighborhood.

An idea to have small summer block parties evolved into a bigger plan to launch a festival celebrating the various cultures in one of white-bread New Hampshire’s most diverse neighborhoods.

“It’s just a neighborhood in the inner city,” Slattery said of the Tree Streets. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the people who live there. They’re just people.”
The festival, which will be centered on Ash Street, is for all city residents.

“A lot of people who live in the city of Nashua may never have been on Ash Street,” said Kathy Hersh, the city’s community development director.

The festival allows people to “embrace different cultures and ethnic diversity,” said the Rev. Bertha Perkins, pastor of the New Fellowship Baptist Church

“We want people to come to the area. It was really a fun day last year.”

Plante agreed the festival is good for the neighborhood, and made a pitch that his building will be good for the city, too, when the 120-year-old former Batesville Casket Co. is converted to 140 apartments for people 55 and older plus 15,000 square feet of ground-level retail shops, including a family restaurant and possibly a hair salon.

Tentatively, the renovated building is scheduled to open by the end of October, Plante said.

Hersh noted the developer took great care to make sure the new windows were compatible with the building’s historic architecture. Plante, who lives in Hudson, also will create a missing piece of pedestrian Heritage Rail Trail at the front of the site parallel to West Hollis Street.

Giles-Abbot hopes the festival will open eyes of people from other parts of the city who come to the Tree Streets.

“People say that Nashua is a lot worse than it really is,” she said. “It’s not a bad place.”