The Universal Notebook: Grow up, Portland

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The city of Portland clings to its 19th century past even as it struggles into the 21st century.

The charm of the city by the sea, and especially its Old Port and waterfront districts, is its low brick-and-granite mercantile profile, narrow side streets, picturesque piers, disappearing cobblestones, ridiculously impractical brick sidewalks.

Try to get a table for four in the Old Port even on a weeknight without an hour’s wait and you’ll understand just how successful Portland has been in selling ambience. A fall flotilla of cruise ships floods the streets with tourists, gawkers and hawkers. Downtown hotels now rival banks and law offices as the peninsula’s most visible tenants. Restaurants, cafes, cocktail lounges and bistros open at such a rate it’s difficult to keep up with the hottest new foodie venues. I’m at least three years behind, maybe more.

What much of the vitality of the city suggests is that Portland exists primarily to serve visitors. Grocery stores, hardware stores and drug stores, the things locals need, are in short supply downtown. Now the venerable 162-year-old Rufus Deering Lumber yard down on Commercial Street is set to be replaced by 275 units of housing. I suppose I should be saddened by the loss of a landmark in Portland’s commercial history, but I’m not, any more than I am saddened that the old Portland Co. rail complex is about to be transformed into a major waterfront development, or that there are plans for a large-scale mixed-use development down in Bayside, a moribund industrial zone long infested with junkyards and vacant lots.

Largely because of the unfortunate loss of beautiful Union Station back in 1961, the people of Portland have jealously guarded the city’s architectural heritage ever since, so much that is of value has been saved. But clinging to the past has also held Portland back, preventing the city from re-imagining itself and embracing its future. The dead zones in the city are now being brought back to life, not without objections, of course, but it’s time for the new.

It’s time for Portland to grow up.

I was not surprised that some people in Portland were upset to learn that Camelot Farm out on Westbrook Street was about to be turned into 96 house lots, but Portland needs housing and Camelot Farm is not so much the last farm in Portland as it is one of the last undeveloped tracts. Mostly what the Rogers family raised there were children and Irish wolfhounds. If you’re the last farm in the city or the last railroad factory in the country, that means no one bothered to the save all the others. Time to let go.

Portland’s struggle to free itself from the past has also played out in recent years in city politics, in particular in the bumpy road from a council-manager form of government to a hybrid council-manager-mayor form. The mayor of Portland was a largely ceremonial position, a first-among-equals affair, from 1923 until 2010, when the voters of Portland approved a Charter revision to select a full-time mayor via popular vote. It hasn’t gone well.

The two people who have held the position, Michael Brennan and Ethan Strimling, are both good men, both social workers by profession and both victims of Portland’s inability to let go of the past.

Brennan was a thoughtful mayor from 2011 to 2015, but by then some of the councilors had come to resent the mayor’s new authority and endorsed Strimling, who promised to be a listener and consensus builder. One year into his administration Strimling is already facing the resentment Brennan faced.

The friction between and among Strimling, the City Council and City Manager Jon Jennings probably means some folks don’t know how to lead and some don’t know how to be led. It’s pretty clear that no one in Portland city government understands how the council-manager-mayor system is supposed to work.

Ideally, the mayor should provide the vision, the manager should oversee day-to-day operations, and the councilors should make decisions on policy and spending. Simple in concept, but it doesn’t seem to work because the mayor, the manager and the councilors all seem to think they are in charge.

Meanwhile, the velocity of change is picking up in Portland. The city is being renewed, re-imagined and re-invented. Maybe once city officials work out their differences they will be in a better position to guide Portland into a future that is coming whether they like it or not.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.