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Dana Wormald: Discovering Concord’s hidden noir landscape

  • The rear of 5 S. State St., as it appeared in the spring. The building is undergoing a renovation. Geoff Forester / Monitor staff

  • An old taxi stand sign near Angelina’s restaurant in downtown Concord. Geoff Forester / Monitor staff

  • Two people walk up Bicentennial Square in downtown Concord. Geoff Forester

  • A fire escape off Low Avenue downtown. Geoff Forester / Monitor staff

  • The Endicott Hotel on South Main Street in Concord. Geoff Forester

  • An old sprinkler/fire alarm in a back alley off North Main Street. Geoff Forester / Monitor staff

  • The alley between Angelina’€™s restaurant and Cheers restaurant off of Depot Street in downtown Concord. Geoff Forester



Monitor staff
Sunday, August 05, 2018

The evening is cool, almost cold, and a moonless sky presses down on the city. At the corner of Pleasant and Main, a couple of long-dead leaves scratch and twist their way down the sidewalk, two autumn refugees reunited for one last pas de deux. A young woman, her shoulders hunched to break the breeze, moves swiftly along the pavement. The dancing leaves follow, but if the phantom pursuit unsettles her she doesn’t show it. Click-click. Click-click. Click. The echoes of her gait fade toward silence as she carries herself deeper into the darkness, and then she’s gone.

The night moves on without her.

Downtown Concord has changed a lot in the past few years. No longer is it merely a collection of places where one conducts the business of life. This section of the city – brighter, sharper, cleaner – is itself a destination. People don’t walk here now, they stroll. If you want to learn something about a place, pay attention to the way people move through and within it. Nobody takes their time in a dying town. 

Like most old cities, the dead and reborn alike, Concord is divided by the night. The glowing streetlights and storefronts, the laughter of friends as they move from one bar to the next, the whispers and locked arms of lovers who see none but each other are the mise en scene of the urban ideal. This piece of the city belongs to chambers of commerce and tourism bureaus, to all the boosters who see their own progress tied to that of their downtown.

But a different story plays out beyond the neat lines of brick facades. Amid the dim alleys and back entrances that populate wrong turns and shortcuts, a noir landscape emerges like a colorless dream. The sinister beauty that seduced auteurs like Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak and Jules Dassin in the 1940s and ’50s emerges within a frame of fractured light. 

On this cool, almost cold, moonless evening in Concord, the hidden city is hidden no more. Decades of progress and change fall away in an instant, and night becomes unmoored from its place on the timeline. Where and when seem almost to be a matter of choice, as if the perceptions that serve as anchors to the here and now are nothing but illusions to be abandoned at will.

This isn’t time travel, of course, or even how we might imagine time travel to be, but rather a pair of related realizations: one, that there’s more than one way to see a city at night; and two, that time moves differently in the shadows – if it moves at all.

Back at Pleasant and Main, the words “Endicott Hotel” glow neon red. The building may have once attracted weary traveling salesmen, bourbon-drenched and fedora-clad, but now the whole place looks buttoned-up and pretty. Too buttoned-up, too pretty for tonight. 

Pleasant Street toward South State looks more promising. Cities aren’t reborn all at once, so move a block up or a block down from the rejuvenated heart and sometimes you can catch progress napping.

And there it is: No. 5 South State Street. Tired brick on the outside and abandonment within, but the dumpster and tools of demolition in the alley say not for long. At the front entrance, a sign taped to the glass tells the curious to stay out, move along, come back another time. But we don’t want to go inside anyway; the scene around back is why we’re here. It’s perfect. Distressed wood, rusted metal, clouded windows and a foundation that disappears into nothingness. This is the noir aesthetic, but the word that rises first, and forcefully, is tenement.

There was a time, perhaps, when to be here was to dream of being somewhere else. And for better or worse, all those wishes came true. Everybody’s gone. Everybody got away.

We take our cue and move back toward the street, darting in and out of shadows as we go. In alley after alley, fire escapes snake their way up the sides of buildings like iron ivy and vent pipes release their fog into oblivion. We cross North Main toward Phenix Hall and move past a faded copper wart that proclaims itself to be a Grinnell Automatic Sprinkler Fire Alarm. This is a signpost of sorts, so we make our way down Phenix to where it connects with Low Avenue.

Sinking a little below street level, the door of an Italian restaurant glows white but everything else is in a losing battle with darkness. There are stenciled words, old words, on some of the buildings: “Depot Iron Store” and “Taxis Only.” There’s more welded metal, more uninviting doors, more damp pavement, more shadows. 

Lang, Siodmak, Dassin – this part of the city belongs to them. It is noir. Beautifully bleak, stunningly inelegant. 

As we emerge from the shadows, and return once again to where Pleasant splits Main into its north and south segments, time begins to reassert its dominance. But before it does so fully, let’s take one last dreamy glance at the entrance to the Endicott Hotel.

The door blows open, and there’s Richard Widmark whispering something to Victor Mature in the lobby, as Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews walk arm-in-arm toward the lounge. And there’s Dan Duryea sitting at one end of the bar and Robert Ryan at the other, with nothing but tension between them. The back tables are full and lively. There’s Ida Lupino and Edward G. Robinson, Gloria Grahame and Richard Conte, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. On a small stage and under a single spotlight, Miles Davis plays the opening strains of Ascenseur pour l’echafaud. This is night and the city.

And then, just like that, the spell is broken. On this cool, almost cold, moonless evening, progress washes over the noir landscape. But the old city isn’t gone, not really.

You just have to walk in the shadows to see it.

 

(Dana Wormald is the “Monitor” opinion editor. He can be reached at dwormald@cmonitor.com or 369-3370.)