For over 160 years the Broadway section of Derry has been a busy place. In 1849, the railroad cut through the area; the availability of rail transportation brought about the construction of a half-dozen sprawling shoe factories employing thousands of workers. Houses, tenements and boarding houses were soon being built all over the area. Stores were erected and Broadway became a shopping hub for Derry and the surrounding towns. Western Derry was also where most of the town’s doctors, lawyers, churches, fraternal club houses and theaters were located.
Back in the 1950s, I remember my mother doing all her weekly shopping on Broadway. Groceries were bought at the First National Store or the A&P, medicines at the Low’s Pharmacy, banking at First National Bank and other stuff at Newberry’s Five and Dime Store. Also each week I’d hear Ma complain about the lack of parking on Broadway. She’d often have to cruise up and down Broadway for a quarter-hour before finding a car pulling out of its parking space.
The earliest parking complaint in my files was way back in 1929. A storekeeper wrote to the Derry News that: “It would be a great advantage to the merchants of Derry if there was a space set apart for automobiles, so that autos will come here with their machines bringing their families for shopping purposes.” It was feared that without parking these out-of-townies might choose to spend their money in Haverhill or Manchester.
In 1947, the Park-O-Meter Company brought a proposal before the town fathers meeting in the court room at the Adams Memorial Building. They suggested that, if we installed their parking meters, Derry could solve its parking problem. They told us that no one would park longer then necessary because “time is money.” They also projected that the meters would bring in between $1,000 and $1,500 monthly. The town meeting in March 1949 voted to have the town buy parking meters. This was also the year the voters approved the very controversial warrant article to begin having a town manager to run the day-to-day affairs of the town.
The selectmen soon entered into an agreement with the Park-O-Meter company but immediately a Nashua law firm told the selectmen that the contract was illegal. A lawsuit was being threatened by Benjamin C. Adams, the author of the town manager article. Ben’s argument was that the voters had ordered the hiring of a town manager and only he or she could sign a contract for parking meters. The selectmen countered that the town meeting hadn’t voted any money to pay for a town manager so they couldn’t hire one. Many locals suspected that the purpose of the lawsuit was to force the anti-manager board of selectmen into hiring a town manager because Adams believed the selectmen were counting on the revenue from the meters to “balance the budget of the police department.” In time, Adams dropped his suit after the selectmen gave in and hired a town manager. Soon, there were nearly 200 meters scattered throughout the area.
In 1947, the parking meters charged a penny for 10 minutes and a nickel for an hour’s parking. During the first eight days the meters collected $254. That year, the average haul was $200 a week. About half the money went to pay for the meters, $50 went to the police department and $45 paid for a patrolman to monitor parking and collect meter money. There was free parking on Thursday afternoons and Sundays when most stores were closed. Parking at the meters was limited to a maximum of two hours.
I don’t know if the parking meters did help the parking situation but I do know they once did a really good and rather clever thing. In 1950, the March of Dimes told local donors to put their dimes into the parking meters. Even though the meters only accepted pennies and nickels, the dimes would “pass safely” through the meters. The town had agreed to turn over any dimes found in the meters to the charity. Cool, eh?
As the town grew, the needs for more parking became critical. Parking lots were added on Manning Street and Wall Street; despite this the customers and merchants said there still wasn’t enough parking. To encourage parking turn-over the selectmen in 1971 cut the maximum parking time to 60 minutes and then 30 minutes in 1972. This was brought about because the Plaza Cinema was showing X-rated movies and “outsiders” were flocking to Derry and taking every available parking space. The standard fine for parking violations was raised from 50 cents to $2.00. The problem was rectified the next year when the theater owner was arrested on obscenity charges.
The biggest threat to Broadway remaining Derry’s commercial center occurred during the 1960’s. when the five-and-dime store burnt down and the A&P and the First National Stores moved off Broadway to areas with big parking lots. And more importantly, the Hood Plaza with its acres of free parking opened in 1968. The remaining Broadway merchants now began to have fewer and fewer customers. It was soon proposed that making parking free on Broadway would bring many customers back from the malls. The town meeting in March 1973 voted to eliminate all of the town’s parking meters. In April, Police Chief Ed Garone asked and was granted permission by the selectmen to use town money to behead the meters. After only 26 years, the parking-meter era in Derry was over.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.