Writing About Maine’s Outliers

I’ve lived in Maine for all but five years of my life. After questing to find spiritual nirvana—in Indiana, of all places—our family unit returned to the Pine Tree State in 1987 and I’ve been here ever since. Sometimes I even write a book or two about some aspect of Maine’s history, trying to relate it to the present.

There are times when I don’t even know my native state. The recent influx of flatlanders and people from away now doing all the writing about the state has created a portrait of my home state that I barely recognize. Somehow, this new brand of scrivener has convinced the rest of us that we are more than the feudal serfs we’ve always been.

If you subscribe to one of Maine’s advert-packed glossy mags, like Maine: The Magazine, or a handful of others, or even peruse it in the check-out line if you shop for your groceries at one of Maine’s supermarkets, rather than Whole Foods, you’d think everyone in Maine is a goldarned trust funder with hours to while away dining at one of Portland’s many high-end eateries, or to sit around sipping the latest in trendy cocktails. Apparently these late arrivals don’t have to worry about eking out a living. Even writers from here that I used to think understood our state—a place I recognized in their books and via their writing—have been suckered in and now serve as sycophants for these nouveau trendy types. They now accept the thinking that Portland is the step-sister of hipster-laden Williamsburg. In fact, writers who once resided in Brooklyn and other exotic zip codes are now taking up residence in Maine’s closest thing to a real city, Portland.

One of Maine's outlying communities that's not Falmouth.

One of Maine’s outlying communities that’s not Falmouth.

After somehow landing an article in one of those glossies, Portland Monthly Magazine, back in June, I opted to go for a discounted subscription via Deal Chicken, or some other wheeler-dealer site, like Groupon. Every month when it arrives, I page through and think, “what the fuck?” I guess this is the state of writing about Maine, which basically means, Portland. Unless you’re slumming.

This month’s feature from their resident foodie, Olivia Gunn, touches down on the subject of “outlier” food establishments. The title itself and my familiarity of her previous features had me wondering how she’d tackle wandering around outside Portland. Apparently for transplants like Gunn, “outliers” and outlying areas are Westbrook, Falmouth, and South Portland. She even got really daring and ventured out to Saco, where there were leather jackets and bandana-wearing hoi polloi—brave girl! God forbid that she’d jump in her car with her beau or clique of high school-similar friends and check out the state’s true outlying towns and territories. Better leave that to the real Mainers, the ones that actually understand the state’s culture dating back 300 years, or so, not the three that you’ve been occupying space in Portland’s West End.

I shouldn’t be so critical. Other than a diminishing handful of cranks, Mainers seem happier than pigs in shit to have sold their souls and birthrights, handing over the state’s cultural chronicling to a handful of 20 and 30-somethings from somewhere else, who care little about the history of the place they’ve landed for a few years before moving on to some other more exciting landmark.

Where’s Joe Ricchio and Food Coma TV, and road-trippin’ off the peninsula? Shoot—they even made it to the Saint John Valley, guns and all.

8 thoughts on “Writing About Maine’s Outliers

  1. I challenge Ms. Gunn to take a trip to Rumford, Brian’s Bistro. Who knows, maybe Rumford will be the next new Jerusalem. Bravo, Mr. Jimmy, for telling it like it is, my brother. #realmaine

    • She thought Saco was edgy. Saco is actually undergoing their own gentrification. Rumford, fo’ shizzle! I doubt she’d even know how to find the River Valley. Rumford is appealing to pubs like Maine: The Magazine, however. They like slumming in run-down mill towns like Rumford and Sanford.

      Sad thing about current economic models for growth is that in order for a town to prosper, they have to sell out their character and culture and become a scaled down version of hipster-ville.

  2. Well said. We do need our flatlanders, but it is tiresome to hear them constantly kiss Portland’s ass when there’s so much more to this state. It’s kind of sad that they are so narrow minded and can’t see beyond the city limits. Portland has a bit of superiority complex these days. I do give it credit because I can remember when it was nothing more than a coastal version of Lewiston (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But now it would starve to death if it didn’t get the right kind of wine served with its meal.

  3. Jim. I feel your pain. They don’t even know of the great state north of Freeport. Tough times for our great state.

  4. JAB, I’m thinking of Sandy Phippen this morning, and his wonderful book, “Cabin Boy.” I’ve mentioned him before, here at the JBE, and on older blogs now shuttered. Sandy never had much good to say about the flatlanders who came (and continued flocking here) to Maine, keeping Mainers running around as hired hands tending to their needs. He often talked about rural Maine having cultural similarities to Faulkner’s South. I found an old link back to a talk Phippen gave 10 years ago. Note that he said that “It’s the writer’s job to astonish, shock and upset.” How many writers do you know that upset anyone these days? The late John Gould also comes to mind. Just two of Maine’s forgotten writers.

    Ben, yes, we do need the money that comes via tourism and rich visitors leaving a few shekels behind. Maine’s always had an extraction economy and it’s not changed much in 300 years. I loved your comment about Portland being a “coastal version of Lewiston.” That it was, and not too long ago (even 20 years ago). Not everyone is living the high life in Portland, either. Lots of good, hard-working people not relying on trust funds for their income struggle to live and work in the city.

    Patti, always so good to hear from you, representing our northern reaches in the County. Loved my trips north during my short stint with the BLN. I only got as far north as Presque Isle (or Caribou). Lot more County to go north of there. What seems to be lacking in much of what graces the pages of a host of publications in Maine is any sense of the state’s culture, especially in places even 15 miles outside of precious Portland.

  5. Not sure the current Portland trenders are much different in some ways from the old Portland trenders. Twenty years ago I heard people from the Augusta area talking about how they lived in northern Maine. We were squeezed out of Portland in the late 1980/s by the then new influx from out-of-state.

  6. Something Kunstler notes is that through almost all of human history, 50,000 people was a “big city.” This has only changed in recent times. Even the incredible blob that is modern London was really a large conglomeration of smaller towns, each with their own laws, governments and customs. Portland remains in the 70,000 range, I think, which means it still maintains its scale. The shape of the harbor and the turnpikes have managed to insure that Portland can’t sprawl, and so it remains physically the same size it was when we were teens and the Portland Civic Center was the happening “new” place to that finally let us see real rock bands (never mind Hendrix at the Lewiston Armory, or Springsteen, Cheap Trick, etc. at CMYC, too small by the late 70s to bring Van Halen or other headliners). Remember when the Old Port was a new, hopping thing in the 1970s? Out of towners were the ones who saw the genius of the locale and put in the work to bring it out of its shutters.

    Portland has one real, maybe mortal danger, and that’s developers who want to prettify the waterfront. Portland’s location and natural harbor, even with its underdeveloped rail access, will assure its long term habitability. But it needs that waterfront not for pretty fern bars or condos, it needs it for shipping. Those Mainers who tried to bring sail back decades ago were on the right track, they were just too far ahead of peak oil. Their time will come again, maybe sooner than any of us would like. Forget the flatlanders, worry about the developers.

  7. Greg, I get the being “pushed out” thing. Maine has always been attractive to people from away having a place on the coast, or the mountains. This new attention to Portland, especially relative to food is a bit over-the-top for my tastes.

    LP, Portland’s scale is very “human.” In fact, it’s really still a 19th century city (narrow streets, centralized density) and that makes it attractive for those who can afford to live in-town.

    It is locked-in due to being a peninsula, which is now fueling much of the development frenzy of the past two years, or so. Oh, and the city has always been amenable to handing the place over to the development mafia. That was the central thrust of my Phoenix feature in October.

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