News, Views, Happiness Pursued

This Used to Be That!

An op-ed about gentrification

by | May 1, 2022

Portland, Maine, in the midst of gentrification, circa 1866. image/Collections of Maine Historical Society

I used to gripe about the way Portland has gentrified. The new condos and hotels are easy and large, corrugated-metal targets of ire. But as willing ears dwindle and the sense that my complaints could actually do something fades away, I am left feeling like saying what’s said to those who complain about Maine winters: “If you don’t like it, move!” 

It is hard to put a finger on the precise source of this existential dread. It’s protectiveness of a family member — this is my hometown, and my Dad’s before me, and his parents’ before him, and dammit if these yuppie bastards are going to turn it into Boston North! And it’s also that a spirit has departed this town that was once present in my childhood. Much of it is about physical space, the changing landscape, and I’d like to explore that.

The relentless evolution of Portland was certainly occurring in my grandfather’s day, and I ask myself, What may have pushed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow over the edge? Did locals scrunch their faces in the 1850s when people landfilled the harbor to create Commercial Street? Given how many times the city has burned and been rebuilt from the ashes, I’m sure someone in 1866 had something to bitch about. The Gilded Age of the 1890s brought tourism and steamboat access to the islands, rich out-of-towners and their money arriving like an invasive species. And let’s not forget Prohibition Papa Neal Dow, who is most certainly screaming in the pits of hell as each new brewery, distillery, kombucha joint and hard-seltzer palace opens up here. This can’t be new.

It feels different to walk the streets as the skyline changes, but it’s not like Franklin Towers is some acropolis that must be preserved — it’s been a useful punchline over the years, being both the tallest and ugliest building in Maine. This attachment to the past is tied more to some mutated object permeance and nostalgia than it is to any demonstratable loss of value. Build one 28 stories tall, see if I care. Downtown Portland is already a gleaming shrine to capitalism, so what’s another soulless monstrosity?

Thus I resign myself to the shrug of apathy. I can no sooner stop the creep of an ever-expanding hotel district than those priced out of Portland can afford rent or stop inflation. Who would care? And didn’t these people move here because they felt the same gravitational pull I feel? It’s not their fault they were born in Greater Boston or Upstate New York. Portland is objectively better. I can still get an Amato’s sandwich and sit on the Maine State Pier. I can still frequent the haunts I’m too afraid to mention here for fear I’ll jinx them. 

There is a war-weary exchange that occurs between Portland lifers these days. The that’s where this used to be conversation happens less frequently every year. Probably for the best. The old spirit is kept alive now through little knowing nods between us. 

Perhaps there is a different spirit at hand that we are too blind to appreciate while mired in our trenches, fighting the unwinnable war against people from away. I can most definitely jaywalk in front of any car with out-of-state plates, which I consider to be a civic duty. I can offer sage wisdom when the transplants start to complain about the gentrification they’ve witnessed since they arrived. I can also find incredible food, drink and culture that simply did not exist when I was a kid. I can choose to welcome these new compatriots aboard the good ship Forest City and see what waters lie ahead, together.

I encourage readers of Mainer (“I remember when it used to be The Bollard!”) who feel similarly to take a deep breath and know that I am with you. Apathy is certainly not the answer, but it helps. We’ll drive ourselves crazy if we keep wallowing in the past. For me, it was an attitude shift: I just stopped pouting. I’m not thrilled about the direction the city has gone in, but it’s still the best city I’ve ever lived in. 

There are some amazing, gritty music venues these days, the comedy scene is better than it’s been in years, and there are still weirdos couched in this sea of normies. New blades of the old grass keep popping up between the cracks of whatever trendy cocktail bar is opening on your block next to whatever dispensary is opening up next door. At least weed’s legal and the ocean is still free (if you know where to go). So keep your chin up and your eyes peeled. 

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