News, Views, Happiness Pursued

An Invader Speaks

Confessions of new Portlander

by | Dec 5, 2022

illustration/Katy Finch

It’s been nearly a year since my little family of three joined the ranks of more than 10,000 others who have migrated to Maine since 2020. And, like it or not, we’re not going anywhere.

We in-migrators are the invasive species occupying seats in every restaurant and brewery (and cidery and kombuchery and distillery) you frequent, competing with you for the last few parking spots, apartments and homes available in the Portland area. We walk among you unnoticed, smiling and nodding as we pass you on the sidewalk, desperately trying to blend in. 

We mean no harm. Really, we don’t. We simply want to live here and work here and play here, just like you. We don’t want to pay a zillion dollars for rent or a mortgage, and we don’t want you to have to pay that, either. We just want to build a life in a place we feel has promise, and that place is Portland, Maine. 

My partner and I first visited Portland on our honeymoon, in 2018. Like so many others, we fell in love with this little coastal city and put it on the short list of places we’d like to live. When our daughter was born during the dumpster fire that was 2020, we adopted the mantra, “If not now, when?” 

Becoming parents was certainly transformative, but bigger changes were brewing. We reevaluated our goals and career paths and resolved to leave our secure jobs in pursuit of professions and a place more closely aligned with our passions and our vision of a good life for our family. I began pursuing my dream of being a writer, and my partner accepted a senior position with a nonprofit here in Portland. So as 2021 was coming to an end, we were looking for a place to live 800 miles away, packing up our possessions, saying goodbye to friends and family, and preparing to forfeit our cozy home and all our social capital — a more important asset than we realized we had in our small, Northeastern Ohio town. 

I’m not sharing our story because I think longtime locals will care or find it interesting. I’m making this confession because I think it’s important to distinguish us from the other newcomers. The way I see it, Maine has two types of invaders — or investors. 

One type are the wealthy out-of-staters buying up rental properties, condos and vacation homes. They don’t live here year-round, allowing housing to remain vacant during the nine coldest months, when people most need shelter, and their real-estate speculation drives rents and home prices far above what most people can afford. These invaders invest little more than money into the community, and most of that money is profit for banks.   

The second type of invader is much less menacing. They move here and make Maine their permanent address because they love this rugged, frozen state and everything it has to offer. More than money, they invest their time and energy, their lives, to contribute to their community. That’s the type of invader we are — the kind that leaves a cozy, 1,300-square-foot, single-family home, with a $700/month mortgage, to drive for 12 hours, caravan-style, with a 17-month-old, in the middle of January, for a much less affordable place.  

Finding a new home is stressful even under the best circumstances, but in the dead of winter, during a national housing crisis, in a market deemed one of the most desirable in the nation, we found it to be nearly impossible.

Zillow and Google Street View were our spies. We scoured and filtered listings and basically internet-stalked entire neighborhoods. We left countless unanswered voice mails and sent a seemingly endless stream of e-mails into the void before signing a lease for a home we’d never set foot in. 

I must note that nearly every local and landlord with whom we discussed housing was incredibly kind and helpful, including, and especially, the owners of the apartment we’re living in now, who generously paid our January electric bill and facilitated the installation of Wi-Fi before we arrived — bravely shouldering the burden of doing business with Spectrum. My partner’s new coworkers offered to drive by potential homes and provided much-needed insider information. I’m not so naïve as to think every Type 2 Invader has the same experience, or privilege, that we’ve had. We just got lucky. 

I’m also not naïve enough to believe a Portland address alone makes us locals. One of the things we were saddest to leave behind in Ohio was the experience of knowing almost everyone everywhere we went. The neighborly small talk we’d engage in while waiting at the check-out counter was a much bigger thing than we’d realized. 

So shortly after we got here, we set out to make ourselves regulars at the locally owned establishments in our neighborhood. We shopped at Pat’s Meat Market and The Quality Shop, ate and drank at Woodford Food & Beverage, Rwanda Bean, and Elsmere BBQ’s Portland pit. While chatting with the butchers, wait staff and baristas, we’d casually mention that we’d recently moved here and live nearby. And it worked! These days, they call our daughter by her name and ask us how work is going — a small victory, but one we’re proud of nonetheless.

These days, our weekly routine includes Sunday brunch at The Maker’s Galley, on the eastern end of Commercial Street, where they serve our daughter baby-mosas and offer to babysit, and Sunday dinner at Luke’s Lobster, on Portland Pier, where they treat our visiting friends and family like their own. We also routinely visit Tipo, the Back Cove eatery where they’ll squeeze us in even if they’re packed, and we order takeout from Otto, whose tortellini pizza is our toddler’s favorite food.

In this famously foodie city, mundane food items can be the hardest to find. We’re more likely to see mashed goose liver on a menu than mashed potatoes, and gravy is a gamble. During the first two months we lived here, I was convinced garlic bread didn’t exist in New England. I finally found some for sale at Shaw’s in SoPo, but have yet to find Marzetti Ranch, the salad dressing of choice in the Peden household. Leave it to a Midwesterner to prioritize carbs and ranch dressing, but seriously, if you happen to come across some, send it my way.

Unlike the moneyed invaders, we didn’t come here for the cuisine. We wanted to align our values with our work and place of residence. That meant leaving a cultural vacuum and hive of right-wing extremism for a progressive, enlightened and inclusive community.

We knew we’d made the right choice the night we arrived, as we navigated unfamiliar streets lined with Black Lives Matter signs and Pride flags displayed on houses, schools, churches and businesses. The streets of the small town we left behind are lined with Trump flags and “blue lives matter” signs. Granted, signs and flags are only worth so much, and even here, one doesn’t have to look too hard to witness hateful ignorance. But feeling a sense of moral belonging, of solidarity and compassion for strangers, for the first time in many years, restored our faith in humanity. 

This is not to say Portland doesn’t have serious problems. The local economy still hasn’t recovered from the pandemic, the housing and labor crises are deepening, and near-constant construction makes city streets a maze of partially finished projects. A short stroll through West Bayside makes one keenly aware of the hardships faced by the unhoused. When city workers at Peppermint Park warn you about uncapped needles, and empty Narcan cartridges litter the sidewalk outside Dutch’s, you realize this place is no paradise. Liberal politics does not guarantee a livable community for all.

And there are more subtle struggles. Nearly a year after moving here, we’ve yet to find a place among a group of friends.

Making friends as an adult can be a real challenge, especially when you add in factors like kids or not having any friends or family already living here. Am I supposed to befriend other moms on the playground? Join some kind of civic group, hobbyist klatch  or bowling league? Insert myself into the conversations of diners at the next table? There seem to be some opportunities for adult socialization, but I can’t just drink craft seltzers at Après all day and hope to stumble into my new squad, can I?

I’m not desperate for friendship at this point, but as an introvert who’s married to an extrovert, I know the longing for a more intimate sense of community. In a place like Portland, where individuality and eccentricity are celebrated, it seems like making friends should be a lot easier. We do have a few friendly acquaintances, but we’re not at the meeting-for-drinks or dinner-party stage yet, and with another COVID winter on the way, we may not reach that goal anytime soon.  

As parents of a toddler, our social calendar is quite limited. Still, it would be nice to have some people. When our friends back in Ohio ask how we’re faring, we tell them we love it here, but that this place would be much better if we could just transport a few of them to Maine. 

Since our first visit four years ago, the song “Rainbow Connection” has always reminded me of Portland. I’ve sang that song to our daughter every night since she was born. Before we got here, it made me dream about what it would be like to raise her in Maine. Now that we’re actually doing that, I still get the same hopeful feeling. It comes when she screams “Ocean!” and runs toward the water. I get it when I gaze across Casco Bay while I push her on the swings at the Eastern Prom, and while I hold her hand as she confidently walks over cobblestones in the Old Port.

We’re the lovers and the dreamers, and living in Portland has been a dream come true, so you’ll have to excuse me for not giving a shit whether you don’t want us here or not. We’re not here to gentrify anything. We’re not running an Airbnb or trying to influence anyone on Instagram. We’re good people trying to do good things, and we’re not leaving anytime soon. 

I don’t mean to come off too harshly. It’s just that being an object of scorn, even hypothetically, as some kind of auslander, really bothers me. I know newcomers are resented here, even though we haven’t directly experienced that resentment. 

Have our neighbors been smiling at us on the sidewalk and cursing us at their kitchen table? I don’t believe that’s the case. Portlanders have always struck me as being more honest and authentic than that, and, in my experience, I’ve learned you’re pretty damn good at recognizing inauthenticity in others. You can sense when someone is here for the wrong reasons. I think that’s why you’ve been so nice to us. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.

We won’t always be newbies. I promise that someday we’ll swap our Ohio plates and driver’s licenses for Maine ones — as soon as we can brave the BMV. This winter, we’ll be mucking around in L.L.Bean parkas and duck boots, softening the pronunciation of our r’s, and using “wicked” as an adjective. By next summer, we’ll do our best to avoid the Old Port (but probably not, because I still really love it). Slowly but surely, we’ll become one of you. I hope we can make you proud.

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