Going Back and Moving Forward

I have the 3,000-word front page feature in this week’s Portland Phoenix. It’s about growth in the city of Portland, the current frenzy of real estate development, and whether or not this is best for all of the city’s residents, or just the few that are able to extract value from the current assets.

The article also looks backward, considering past boondoggles in order to have a better understanding of what might be the best way forward. I also am pretty upfront that I’m not enamored with most of the development ideas and plans coming from city hall.

My first extensive piece of writing about Portland and its economy was published back in 2004. It was about Hadlock Field. It’s hard to believe 10 years have passed on this. I’m still employing the same tools of the trade—research, putting boots on the ground and talking with those on the street, and remaining diligent in finding the narrative thread for the story I’m working on. No one has ever bothered to get this kind of up-close-and-personal look at baseball and whether it’s an economic benefit to the city, or not.


The June 2004 cover story in the late, great Portland Pigeon. “Direct Action Journalism” indeed!

Portland is  unique, in Maine, but also as a destination city that continues being written up in a range of publications from away—usually about the food and restaurants. Once again, Portland’s assets were on display, being touted last Sunday in the Boston Globe. Then there are the myriad national food and lifestyle mags, like Food & Wine doing one of their “slide” articles on the city’s ever-evolving food scene.

Maine doesn’t have a large city, and while Portland fits the definition of urban no matter how you slice it, the city nestled along Casco Bay has that small town vibe most large cities (and even some smaller ones) lack. Portland’s also a two-hour drive to Boston, and connected by bus and rail, which I’ve taken advantage of numerous times on trips to The Hub.

Portland is a place that when I was a pre-teen, our family often visited for school shopping, with Porteous, Mitchell & Braun (now MECA), Woolworth’s, Benoit’s, and Filene’s all occupying the center city shopping district bordered by Congress and Middle, and Monument Square. It was a big deal for a 10-year-old kid living in small town Maine, 40 minutes to the north. At that time, Maine still had numerous cities like Portland–others like Biddeford, Lewiston, and Bangor, still were vibrant with shopping options drawing the suburbanites back downtown. Then came the national mall building push, and the Maine Mall was built in 1971 out near the Jetport in South Portland, off the Maine Turnpike exit. It didn’t take long after that for the stores that made up Portland’s Downtown District to disappear, or move to the outskirts, or leave the city altogether. Porteous left Congress Street in 1983 and relocated to the mall. While my focus is Portland at the moment, Bangor went the same route as Portland, the Bangor Mall the “jewel” of that city’s development clusterfuck located out along Hogan Road, with a large mall (opened in 1978) and the attendant strip malls. Bangor’s downtown became a ghost town and it took nearly 25 years to recover from the opening of the Bangor Mall.

In 1979 and 1980, when my friends drove in for concerts at the Cumberland County Civic Center (now the Cross Insurance Arena), Congress and much of the former center city shopping district was the domain of street people of all types. The shopping was gone and suburbanites avoided downtown. The Dunkin’ Donuts near what’s now Congress Square Plaza was a place to pick up hookers, not eat donuts and drink coffee. In fact, when my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) grew tired of the Grateful Dead’s noodling after two hours at the CCCC during our junior year of high school, we naively dropped in at Dunkin’ Donuts and got chased out by a pimp.

The changes and ongoing evolution of American cities has fascinated me ever since I read Lewis Mumford’s The City in History back in 1997. That and discovering New Urbanism not long after, while coming across James Kunstler’s, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-made Landscape. I’d never view urban landscapes and sprawl development the same, ever again.

Cities fascinate me, but so do small towns. I think much of what passes for growth and economic development theories today are not much different than previous ones that once were the rage, only to be found wanting decades later. Growth for the sake of growth was flawed then, and can be demonstrated as short-sighted and often benefiting a narrow group of specific interests currently.

Never-ending growth is something that Americans have been sold, and they’ve gladly signed up on the installment plan for that one. We’re coming to the end of an economic cycle that continues sputtering and clunking along, sustained by the monetary equivalent of smoke and mirrors.

Too often, a city’s future rests in the hands of men (and women) afflicted by the myth and malady of growth that continues being sold by the salesmen. Greg Mitchell and Mayor Brennan probably aren’t bad people. They are just characters in an American tragedy that’s not likely to end well.

Marxists believe that boom/busts are inevitable, with each subsequent boom—fueled by expansion of business, real estate development, new restaurants and economic trends—leading to the next bust phase (empty storefronts, declining real estate values). I think this view of history and economics is a viable one, easier to accept than what the politicians (like the three candidates for governor) are peddling.

The economy of Maine (including Portland’s) and the rest of the country remains propped up by Ponzi schemes and bubbles that end up eventually popping. How do we know that Portland’s current real estate boom and even the numerous restaurants making up the city’s food scene, might not end up eventually being taken down during the next bust in the cycle?

History will have the final say on that.

4 thoughts on “Going Back and Moving Forward

  1. Do us a favor and post the link to the Phoenix article if they ever put it on line. I tried to find it, but I guess they separate the online content from the printed content. Except for the “Adult” ads, of course. Swingin’ Portland!

    Break: Out of the side of my eye, I read “I think I’m going back,” and immediately the Nils Lofgren tune popped into my head (although wasn’t that McGuinn’s originally?). I took my children to see Springsteen on May 1, and sometime in June the local community radio station, WMNF (online at WMNF.org), played that tune. I called to my fourteen-year-old daughter, you hear this? Yes. Remember that freaky looking guy with the mutton-chop sideburns and the top hat playing guitar to the left of Bruce? That’s him, forty years ago.

    • LP, here is the Phoenix link to my feature, “What’s the plan? Is Portland’s development push a good thing for its citizens?”. In a word, “no.”

      While not perfect as a publication, the Phoenix remains the only print publication with any negligible circulation that will publish freelance journalism, with an investigative element. Having said that, it wasn’t easy getting this to the finish line for a host of reasons, one being that it’s hard to convince anyone these days of the importance of making arguments like this one–how development that comes at the expense of the fabric of the community, especially the working poor and the creative element (best highlighted by Kate Anker in the article) does irreparable damage. I’m guessing it will be one of the paper’s least popular articles in terms of online readers “Liking” it. Perhaps I should take up food writing and schilling for high-end restaurants like so many other, more popular writers.

      Of course, I’ve spent enough time on novelty subjects, and I’m ready to move on to something more substantive.

      “Goin’ Back” was written by Carol King. Lofgren’s version, recorded in 1975, is my favorite, however.

  2. Jim,

    I know you worked diligently on this piece, weaving all the threads of the tapestry together (h/t to Carol King). Three things stand out for me as I read through the Portland Pheonix article:

    1) The “average” person, watching the Tee Vee news and relying on Facebook for information, has no idea what is happening “on the ground” in their communities. They think “someone else” is handling these issues. Maybe they rely on their town councilors. Do they watch the town council meetings on Tee Vee? I am not sure.

    2) Being informed requires time, time, time and diligence. I went to a town council meeting a few weeks ago and what stood out for me was that I needed to start going to every town council meeting. There are certain people who do this and while they are regarded as “cranks” with an “agenda” I admire them for their diligence in supervising the local politics. What percentage of residents are paying close attention? Likely less than 1%. It’s easy to push the “boondoggles” through when 99% aren’t paying attention. When issues come to a referendum, the faction with the most money and savvy create some binary “marketing.” (We’ve got a plan!) Then, it usually becomes an emotional sell instead of a thoughtful decision which is more than just “a good idea at the time.” (James Howard Kunstler)

    3) We still need newspapers, especially on the local level.

    Good job and keep muckraking.

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