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On a recent drizzly afternoon in downtown Haverhill, my 12-year-old persists in sticking his head far out the car window. He cranes his neck upward, ignoring the rain drops hitting him in the face, and stares intently skyward.

“Look at the rooftops, Mom-they look like stairs tipped on their sides.”

He won’t let it go until I see for myself, so craning my own neck, I, too, look up at the rooftops of Wingate Street, in the heart of Haverhill’s Arts District. The roofline of the old, mostly brick buildings looks like something out of Mary Poppins or Harry Potter. Crenellations like castle tops. Ornate and surprisingly delicate wrought-iron filigree. Elaborately patterned masonry, which upon close examination look precisely like tiny sets of brick stairs tipped up vertically like escape hatches to the sky.

The buildings are prime examples of Queen Anne architecture, a hodge-podge style that took hold in America in the mid- to late-1800s, during the height of the Industrial Revolution. Many of them became home to the shoe factories, leather shops, and the numerous shoe industry suppliers that would make Haverhill an industrial powerhouse and international shoe capital by the early 1900s. By 1913, one out of every 10 pairs of shoes in America was produced in Haverhill, which was referred to as the “Queen Slipper City of the World.”

Today, local businesses and buildings don’t hesitate to tout their shoe heritage. The Lasting Room is a popular sports bar on Washington Street, named after the room in shoe factories where a “last,” a foot-shaped block, was used for manufacturing and repairing shoes. A few doors down, the Tap Restaurant and Brew Pub dispenses microbrews with wooden handles that are actual lasts. The Washington Street Shoe District invites strollers with hanging plants, ivy-covered brick facades, and painted murals in between the alleys of the old buildings. Menus posted in the windows of chic bistros and flyers announcing this week’s live music schedule among the street’s numerous clubs further convey an artsy vibe. One recent visitor, in a fit of surprised exuberance, was overheard likening a walk down Washington Street to “strolling the streets of Paris.”

One might say that the aging Slipper Queen is in the midst of a gigantic facelift. Mayor Jim Fiorentini proudly points to the $100 million in new investments over the past four years. Shuttered factories are now chic lofts and condominiums near a vibrant restaurant and music scene, as well as two commuter rail stations.

The city has also received over $350,000 in federal and state funding for improvements, as well as new trees and plants in the restaurant and arts districts. Police foot patrols were added to enhance security, and a new boardwalk on the Merrimack River is being built.

“We’re struggling to regain our footing, but we’re finding it in the arts, our restaurants, and our wonderful architecture,” notes Margot Lindau, who relocated her store, Margot’s Gallery, into a space on Wingate Street after falling in love with the building and the neighborhood. “The buildings are gorgeous. Now they are finding new uses and new lives.”

Sole town

Stuart Weitzman is known among discerning shoe connoisseurs for his attention to detail and trademark use of unique materials. “Name another shoemaker who has worked with cork, vinyl, Lucite, wallpaper, and 24-karat gold!” gushes the copy on his website. He may want to add fiberglass to that list, as per one of Weitzman’s most recent creations. Called “A Weitzman Family Affair: Three Generations,” the fiberglass shoe was designed by Weitzman, his wife Jane, and his daughter Rachel, and is encrusted with Swarovski crystals. The shoe is not for everyone and not just because of its $5,000 price tag. Five-feet long and six-feet tall, the shoe is literally a work of art.

Along with 13 other creatively painted giant replicas of vintage ladies’ shoes, the Weitzman shoe is part of the city of Haverhill’s Shoe-labration, a community-wide arts celebration of the town’s illustrious shoe history. Conceived by a volunteer civic group called Team Haverhill, the oversized shoes were commissioned by local artists and have been installed in strategic locations throughout town. They will be auctioned off at a gala celebration on October 24, with the proceeds benefiting the Haverhill Chamber of Commerce Community Arts and Education Fund, as well as select local charities of their sponsors’ choosing.

Local artist Elizabeth Persing painted the Weitzman shoe, as well as a Loch Ness-type creature called the Merry MAC with the help of students from the Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School. “The kids were really excited about it. Not just the ones painting, but all of the children. They waited in long lines and just went crazy.” Since working on the giant shoes, Persing has also volunteered to mentor children painting many of the decorative murals scattered throughout downtown. “Up until the Shoe-labration, I lived in Haverhill, but I didn’t do anything in it,” she says.

Haverhill’s Got It All, Minus The Commute

Bistro 45

Soft lighting. A charming beamed ceiling and the tiniest of open kitchens. Steak frites, brie, and Moet & Chandon on the menu. Are we in Paris yet? Mais non! This neighborhood eatery in the heart of the Arts District pleases more than just Francophiles; it’s a tapas and martini bar as well. 45 Wingate St., 978-469-9700,

The Tap Restaurant and Brew Pub

With its worn wooden floors and infinitely long wall-length bar, you’ll feel at home in this neighborhood favorite, which has been quenching locals’ thirsts for more than 100 years. They pile the nachos high and brew their own beer in-house. (Their Homerun American Pale Ale may become your new favorite.) Want more? Check out their regular live music and the ample back deck overlooking the Merrimack River. 100 Washington St., 978-374-1117,

George’s Restaurant

George’s Restaurant recently tripled in size, expanding from 40 to 140 seats. The dental molding on the ceiling and the brass in the mezzanine are as original as are the grilled lamb lollipops over warm onion compote and blueberry port wine drizzle. 77 Washington St., 978-374-5150,

Margot’s Gallery

When you buy one of Margot Lindau’s indigenous pieces of art or jewelry, she will supply you with one of her well-written, detailed information sheets. Buy a pair of Baltic amber earrings, for example, and you will learn that the Romans called the yellow fossil resin “Gold of the North” and that it is thought to instill confidence in the wearer. 52 Wingate St., 978-373-0200,

Second Thoughts

Shop for artsy home furniture and accessories and feel good about yourself and the planet, for everything in this funky shop is recycled, reused, or repurposed. Shutters convert to an attractive plant stand, and a salvaged bed footboard becomes an unusual one-of-a-kind bench seat. 63 Wingate St., 978-374-2222,

Winnekenni Castle

Once a private summer residence, this  massive stone castle with four-foot-thick walls, nine bedrooms, a Grecian drawing room, and a Pompeian-style dining room serves as a recreational park and hosts regular events. 347 Kenoza Ave., 978-521-1686,

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Paul Prue’s Picks for a Haverhill Live Music Club Crawl

Haverhill native, blues musician, and stained glass artist Paul Prue swears that the live music scene on Washington Street rivals that of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, any day, but particularly on a Friday night. These spots feature national and local acts and all are within walking distance of each other, as well as commuter rail. The Chit-Chat Lounge has five different ballgames on the flatscreens, a Harley coming out of the wall, George Forman’s and Mohammed Ali’s signed boxing robe, DJs and live music, including, once upon a time, Jethro Tull and Joe Cocker. 103 Washington St., 978-374-9710, George’s Restaurant is a must-see on the third floor in Mal’s Lounge (see Where to Eat above). The Lasting Room is a pub and deli with great local live talent. 122 Washington Street, 978-373-9088, For a good laugh, check out Pedro Diego‘s with authentic Mexican food and live comedy on the side, 35 Washington St., 978-372-5247, No pub crawl in Haverhill would be complete without at stop at The Tap (see Where to Eat above) or at Peddler’s Daughter, one block over. This is a classic Irish pub in the best sense of the term. Pints and charm abound. 45 Wingate Street, 978-372-9555,

For a Sweet Night Cap:

England’s Microcreamery is the perfect spot to end your evening, especially if you’re heading back to the train. Hand-churned on the premises. Cost: 59 cents per ounce. Infinite mix-ins. You can’t go wrong.

109 Washington St., 978-373-6400,

Haverhill Facts

Date of settlement: 1640

Date of incorporation: 1641

Zip code: 01830

Population: 59,902

Total Area: 35.6 square miles

Median Household Income:$49,833

Schools: 9 elementary schools, 4 middle schools, 2 high schools, Northern Essex Community College, Zion Bible College

Notable Residents: Alexander Graham Bell, Tom

Bergeron, Andre Dubus III, Carlos Pena, Rob Zombie

Real Estate

Median: Price: $350,000; 267 South Main St.; 5 bedrooms; 3.5 baths; 2,890 square feet; .24 acres. Listing Agent: Elaine Sawyer and Jim Fitzgerald, Re/Max.

High End: Price: $2,175,000; 43 East Broadway; 5 bedrooms, 7 baths, 8,579 square feet; 4.85 acres. Listing Agent: Connie Doto, Century 21 McLennan & Company. -Alessandra Bianchi; photographs by Robert Boyd