Planting Portsmouth, Ohio

Portsmouth, a small town I wrote about in Dreamland, has been slowly rebounding from years of economic decline and drug addiction.

That’s a remarkable thing. For it was Portsmouth – on the Ohio River — that led the way into our national opiate-addiction epidemic. The town was where the Pill Mill – sleazy pain clinics prescribing massive amounts of pills to almost anyone for cash – was born.

With the town blasted by this huge supply, and the sense of community shredded by job loss and more, widespread pain-pill addiction was a fact of life in Portsmouth by the end of the 1990s.

But a lot has happened since then. The town, each time I return, seems slightly more energetic, more invigorated, more about positivity and less about dope’s inertia and fatalism. A recovery culture has taken hold there that’s exciting to watch.

Not that all the problems are behind Portsmouth, Ohio. But there’s another story now competing with the “let’s get high” culture that gripped the town for so long. I wrote about the beginnings of this at the end of my book – the small clues of rebirth: new gyms, a coffee shop, lofts, refurbished buildings and more.

Along that line, the folks of Portsmouth – 500+ volunteers – get together this Saturday to wash, repaint, redo their downtown in something they’re calling Plant Portsmouth.

They’ll be painting light poles, scraping and painting all the curbs, replacing 120 streetlights, and more. “None of this has been done in 20 years,” said Jeremy Burnside, an attorney in town who got the idea started.

They’ll also be planting plants as a way of signaling the town’s rebirth.

Burnside’s hoping to set a Guinness World Record for the most people planting plants simultaneously.

(Folks — please send me photos from the day and I’ll post them here and on social media. #plantportsmouth)

Organizers have raised $75,000 from local businesses to pay for supplies. That itself is a sign of how locally owned businesses are now growing in Portsmouth. None of that money came from the chain stores and corporate fast-food restaurants that have dominated the town’s economy since things began to go bad in the early 1980s and the shops on its main street closed. (Btw, I bought a couple t-shirts, inspired by Dreamland and the community pool that was the source of my book’s title, from a company called 3rdand Court that began in downtown Portsmouth. Check them out.)

The antidote to opiates is not naloxone. It is community. I say this often in my speeches when I’m traveling around the country. We Americans have isolated and fragmented ourselves in a million ways – this in poor areas and in wealthy areas.  That left us vulnerable; it left us dangerously separate and disconnected from each other – strange to say in this time of technological hyper-connectivity.

The final expression of all that is our national epidemic of addiction to opiates – the most isolating class of drugs we know.

Rebuilding community (in a million different ways) is crucial to fighting it, I believe.

I’m glad to see Portsmouth leading the way on that, too.


Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

12 Responses to Planting Portsmouth, Ohio

  1. Kathi

    Thank you Sam for an uplifting, positive story on my beloved home town of Portsmouth. I am so glad some people with the time, energy and connections are working to restore our town. So many have nothing but negative comments about Portsmouth, but I know what it once was, and I know there are many still in the area who will work to improve it. Thanks for your emails, I enjoy reading them.

  2. Pingback: Plant Portsmouth event seeks to break world record – Your Voice Ohio

  3. Jerry Mann

    Thank you Sam! I was just back to Portsmouth for the 60th PHS reunion. My wife is from Minford and we both have maintained close ties to the area. We are so pleased to read positive things about the city and area. It’s a long road back but this leads by example showing what seemingly small increments can lead to. Good reporting like yours certainly helps.

  4. Jacquie O'Rourke

    I’m also born and raised in Portsmouth and still have family there. It’s heartbreaking on the one hand to see the dilapidation and the plight of many of the people there, but it’s heart-lifting on the other hand when I see and hear about the new businesses and the locals trying to turn things around. I’m proud to be Appalachian and love my home. Thanks for bringing attention to the problems but for also telling the story of the good things too. Most of the people there are the salt-of-the-earth folks that anyone should be happy to call friends.

  5. Jeannie Crockett

    Thank you, Sam, for this story. Portsmouth was a great town when I was growing up there in the 50’s and 60’s. Reading Dreamland was heartbreaking. It would be so great to see Portmouth make itself great again.

  6. Jamie

    So happy to see this comeback …born there love Ohio River Valley and the great cities…Ashland, Russell, Ironton..
    Huntington. Hit so hard by the opioid epidemic…thank you Sam QuinonesDreamland for helping the tide turn. I believe your book and your willingness to speak all over the country was pivotal.

  7. Thank you, Mr. Quinones, for your kind, supportive, praising words of Portsmouth and its people! I grew up in Portsmouth, during a time it was thriving. I was blessed to have been raised there in those times (graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1965). It broke my heart, after industries and jobs left, to watch our wonderful town fall in ruin and drug abuse. For several years, I have seen such a rebirth of pride and renovation in Portsmouth. I’m proud to say I am from there and visit family and friends there often.

  8. Sharon

    Thanks Sam Quinones for the positive story about Portsmouth. Wow what a great job the Plant Portsmouth is undertaking and kudos to Main Street Portsmouth for all they have done to make our downtown beautiful. Lots of determination and hard work from all involved.

  9. Kathie Wahl

    Great to hear about positive things happening back “home”. I left over 40 years ago but still have family living back there that gets me and my husband home at least once a year. It’s truly not the home town I grew up in…such wonderful memories of our 6th and Market Street neighborhood. Every single home of my dearest life long friends are torn down now. It was a wonderful slice of small town life when I grew up there. The Dreamland pool was ” the place” to be in the summer…such memories of that place!!! Can only hope and pray that it comes back around for this next generation. Keep all the positive things happening. ..

  10. Peggy Adams

    Hi Sam, Thank you for such a positive story. Hopefully other towns will be inspired to initiate a similar program when word gets out about the success of such a “slap-back at opioids” can be. The ‘tank-top’ you showed is ‘cool’.

  11. Jim Burroway

    I grew up in Portsmouth, spent my summers at Dreamland. I’ll never forget the first time I brought my partner to Portsmouth to meet my family. Right there at the city limits was a billboard, with the face of my mother’s old Ob-Gyn staring out at the traffic. He and his daughter had opened a pill mill and were advertising for customers. Welcome to Portsmouth, I thought.

    I loved growing up there. I hated leaving in 1979 for college. By 1984 I moved to Dallas. I’ve watched my home town fall apart from afar, like stop-motion animation via visits home for Christmas. When Mom called to say they were closing Dreamland, I thought to myself, “How will kids grow up without Dreamland? How would that even be possible?” Turns out it wasn’t.

    Thank you for telling the story of my home. And thank you for also highlighting the good things happening. It’s so easy to indulge in Appalachian-porn, poverty-porn, rustbelt-porn and opioid-porn. Thank you for not doing that, too.

    My partner and I live in Tucson, but we go back to Ohio about twice a year. My mother still lives there. We’ll be back through Portsmouth in September for my nephew’s wedding. It’s exciting to see a few sparks lighting up here and there — the live music at the Dubliner’s pub, the coffee shop around the corner, the small brewery down on 2nd street. I’m not sure Portsmouth is exactly “leading the way” in rebuilding community, but there are some really good folks who are fighting the good fight.

    • Kathy

      Congratulations Portsmouth and Mr. Quinones. I’m re-reading DREAMLAND and recommending it to everyone. Interesting to see our Senators have a copy – caught that hearing online, January 2018. Look it up if you haven’t. I live just inside Trumbull County, between Youngstown and Warren, Ohio. Fentanyl cut into Cocaine, Methamphetamine and who knows what else, is mentioned as the OD culprit in our evening news. Sad and scary stuff. Greed kills. Nobody needs “it all”. Be KIND to one another.

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