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.
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.