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The day the music died: Business as usual on Portland's Munjoy Hill

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The day the music died: Business as usual on Portland's Munjoy Hill

PORTLAND — On North Star Music Cafe’s last afternoon of business, owner Kim Anderson was out of bread.

“Business as usual,” she said.

North Star was a cafe without coffee. A piece of notebook paper on the counter announced what was left to eat and drink, with items continually being crossed out.

A jazz ensemble played for a suggested $7 donation. A $10 bill and pile of pennies scattered the bottom of the can. The guitarist's wife clapped for the entire crowd – a few laptop computer workers and couples sipping tea.

Business as usual.

Anderson leaned against the back wall, crossed arms cutting her forearm tattoos in half. “The best I am capable of doing,” reads one in Finnish.

For three years North Star was an all-ages home to Portland’s artistic and gay community. Now Kim had one week to move out of her apartment above the cafe. Baseball cap covering her short brown hair, she collected hugs, but did not cry. She knew she was losing more money every day she stayed open.

'Space for the community'

In 2001, Anderson moved to Portland for the people, positive and accepting. Even with all its restaurants and bars, she felt the city was missing something. She wanted to provide a place for people to be themselves, envisioning a community center, but not wanting to deal with the bureaucracy of a non-profit.

“Owning a restaurant, a music venue, that wasn’t what I wanted to do," she said. "I wanted to have a space for the community.”

A mutual friend introduced her to Anna Maria Tocci in 2006, a like-minded singer interested in opening a venue for local musicians. The two merged their ideas and only nine months later, after taking out a business loan and finding a home on Congress Street at the bottom of Munjoy Hill in the East End, the cafe opened for business. Even with no experience managing a restaurant, the two owners were confident.

According to landlord Mike Salisbury, who frequently visited the cafe, “North Star defied classification. It was gay and straight. It was old and young. It was rock and roll and acoustic.”

One day a few local children crafted paper hats and a sign reading, “No service without paper hat.” This included employees, parents, and businessmen on a lunch meeting.

North Star also organized a Thanksgiving pot luck open to the public. Kim said they ate turkey, lots of potatoes, and enchiladas brought by a woman who just moved to Portland.

Former employee Caitlin St. Laurent said North Star felt like home for all groups: “Like everybody’s living room, a non-threatening environment.”

“From the beginning it’s been crazy and beautiful and really busy. There were lines out the door,” she said.

“She’s bullheaded,” said Anderson's landlord, savoring his final bowl of rice and beans. “When she gets it on her mind that she’s going to accomplish something, she does it.”

Cleaning up the Hill

When Salisbury bought the distressed building in 2006, used needles, teeth and broken bottles covered the floor.

Munjoy Hill has seen a wealth of groups come and go in the last century, including Native American tribes, early American farmers and shipbuilders. After World War II, many of its thriving residents moved away and the Hill gained reputation as being saturated with violence and drugs and was avoided for decades.

The city initiated a clean-up effort in the 1990s, with young artists offering new life, followed by condo complexes and rising property values. Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization board member Katie Brown described the Hill as a good balance between artistic energy, middle-class retirees and traditional, hard-working residents.

Sometimes, she said, she fears the area will become too gentrified, with its growing number of upscale eateries like Figa and Bar Lola. “No one I know will be able to afford to a buy a $400,000 condo that used to be a $400 rental,” she said.

She believes the Hill reached its saturation point for restaurants years ago but that luckily for the neighborhood, new entrepreneurs try every year.

'Maybe it was too much'

Inside North Star, Anderson looked out the front windows at “the best view in Portland.” Bicycles leaned against light posts, cars brake for a red light, strangers smoke cigarettes. Freshly planted trees and gravestones the size of brown paper bags, about 200 unknown, scatter Eastern Cemetery. Behind, the Eastern Promenade touched the edge of the Atlantic.

To provide the community with whatever it needed, North Star created new menu items and events on the recommendations of customers, which might have been part of the problem.

“Coffee and lunch and beer and rock and acoustic, maybe it was too much,” Anderson said, without mentioning poetry night, psychic readings and dance events. “The space wasn’t about what I wanted to do. It was about what the community wanted to do.”

She had a hard time remembering when the decline started.

“I know December 2009 seemed to be kind of the start of it for me," she said. "Which probably means it was for the business too, because my life was not very different from the life of the business.”

Facing the recession

The end of North Star’s initial buzz coincided with the recession, which Anderson blamed in part for the cafe’s death. At the same time, Tocci, exhausted and unhappy with 80-hour weeks, decided to leave North Star.

Anderson bought out their entire business loan and turned it into a personal loan. She restructured the menu, eliminating some of the most expensive ingredients and making others in-house. Even as she hired two outsiders to handle music booking and public relations, customer flow did not improve during the typically busy winter. She was no longer bringing in enough money to cover cost.

In February, Anderson made one more effort to keep North Star alive through a fundraiser. She asked the cafe’s e-mail list of 1,500 for donations to eliminate the  $6,000 in debt. After the cause spread to Facebook, customers covered the number in only two weeks, but revenue never increased. Kim began working for Pratt-Abbott’s uniform rental division, Maine Uniform, to help pay bills.

Her biggest concern was what her staff would do next. They worried about their owner. Anderson finally announced the closing via North Star’s Facebook page on Sept. 16, three days before the last day.

She wrote, “I have so much love for this community and this city. I am sad to say goodbye, but I am grateful for the three years you have embraced me and the North Star as family.”

As it neared 4 p.m. customers faded away and friends filtered in. Anderson didn’t bother locking the door. She said she views North Star as a success. She believes that even though the physical home of the community is changing, the people will still thrive.

Behind the counter, an employee added up the tab still owed by customers: about $4,000 – more than a month’s rent. “It’s like somebody died,” she said.

After the final music event, regular Keagan Hammond wailed, “I just want to lie on the floor and listen to Radiohead.” A few winters ago she and her siblings used to come to North Star to stay warm and sip coffee all afternoon when they could not afford to pay for oil.

The same friends who helped Anderson paint the walls and tile the floor were there for one last song, one last drink before they helped clean and move out. They huddled around a few tables in the middle of the room.

“People ask how I’m going all the time,” Anderson said. “And I’m like ‘I’m fine,’ it’s just cleaning, it’s just moving. And I don’t have time to think about it or feel yet. I just have to get it done.”

By the end of October Anderson was working as Maine Uniform’s plant manager in Westbrook, spending about 18 hours a day alone. From Portland, downtown fades to car lots and strip malls and then residential neighborhoods. Kim rented from a friend whose house is on the market. She said she hopes to stay long term if the house doesn’t sell. It will take her years to get her finances back on track.

“I never thought it would end up like this,” she said. She still wakes up at 4:30 a.m. out of habit.

"For Lease" no longer hangs from the bottom of North Star’s sign. Neighboring businesses can hear construction through the walls. Otto Pizza – one of the most popular dining options in the Arts District – is preparing the space for its second location. Like with the sports bar before it, the dive bar before that, and the thousands of gravestones across the street, pedestrians turn their heads, wonder whatever happened and keep walking uphill.