The Universal Notebook: The battle for the soul of Portland

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There is a battle raging for the soul of Portland. And, no, I am not talking about the tedious contretemps between the city’s prima donna mayor on the one hand and its power-mad city manager and inept City Council on the other.

I am talking about the battle between the Old Portland and the new, between folks from here and from away, between low income and high maintenance. I know exactly what I think about most things, but I must confess I am ambivalent about gentrification.

The hipsters and high-rollers who are the cast of the current wave of high-rent development are likely unaware that Portland has been through a couple of other boom-and-bust paroxysms.

In recent years, developers have reported receiving threats, whether proposing upscale, affordable or senior housing. But I remember bumper stickers decades ago that read, “Keep Maine Beautiful – Shoot a Developer” and, more subtly, “KPOOM,” which stood for “Keep People Out of Maine.”

One of the flashpoints of the new resistance to change is the former Camelot Farm out on Stroudwater Street. Lamented as “the last farm in Portland,” the land was really a contemporary home surrounded by fields right next to the Maine Turnpike. The time to save farms is not when you’re down to your last one, especially one that’s not really a farm.

The prospect of 100 homes being built on the 45 acres of Camelot Farm inspired one opponent of development to seriously propose a new ordinance that would allow neighbors within 500 feet of a proposed development to block it if 25 percent are opposed. The would-be developer would get a second cut at the apple, however, if 51 percent of the neighbors within 1,000 feet of the development approved.

Codifying NIMBYism with a tape measure and a show of hands is no way to manage a city.

If you’ve lived in one place longer than 30 years, you’re no doubt aware that gentrification – the process by which undesirable places become desirable through the influx of new and undesirable people – is part of a cycle of economic development and growth management. So, in the course of little more than a decade, Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class” (2002) – the book that counseled urban areas to encourage artists and other creative types to move to town with the promise of cheap space – has been replaced by Peter Moskowitz’s “How to Kill a City” (2017), the book that warns that gentrification is a form of civic death.

Both authors oversimplified complex processes, but they each made a cottage industry out of advising municipal officials who lack vision of their own what to do about the forces at work in their cities.

The pathology of gentrification goes something like this. Artists and other creative folks need lots of cheap space, so they move to empty factories, warehouses and neglected neighborhoods. By moving into sketchy neighborhoods, they make them safer and more attractive. First a few bistros, bookstores and clubs follow, but eventually the coffee shops are displaced by Starbuck’s and the lofts become condos for folks from away who can pay $400,000 for a pied-a-terre and $100 a pop for a meal of eel milk infusion and sea urchin foam.

The metastasizing of hotels all over the Portland peninsula, where there are already more than 1,000 hotel rooms, coupled with the plague of cruise ships, suggests that Maine’s largest city is finally living up to the state’s nickname, Vacationland, a place that primarily exists for the pleasure of people who don’t live here.

As gentrification continues, the artists and other idealists are priced out, just as they previously forced out the low-income residents and street people. And the caravan moves on. In San Francisco, Moskowitz’s exemplary dead city, all the cool people moved across the bridge to Oakland or the trendy East Bay, as it is now known.

In Portland, Munjoy Hill is the textbook gentrified neighborhood, but the battle rages on in Bayside, where big money has big plans for an area once dominated by public housing, junk dealers and social service agencies. On one hand, residents and businesses complain about the increase in addicts, derelicts and panhandlers in Portland. On the other, residents complain about the increase in rents, real estate prices, tourists, retirees and hipsters.

The way I see it, these things ultimately have a way of taking care of themselves. Maybe the street people will help keep property values down. But if Portland doesn’t want panhandlers and poor folks in Bayside, where does it want them? Everyone has to live somewhere.

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

  • Max Millard

    As a former Mainer and now a longtime resident of San Francisco, I dispute Peter Moskowitz’s description of my adopted home as the “exemplary dead city,” where “all the cool people moved across the bridge to Oakland or the trendy East Bay, as it is now known.”

    A dead city? The San Francisco Bay Area, which includes Silicon Valley, is the epicenter of new ideas and new technology. This area has given birth to the iPhone, Uber, Airb&b, Twitter, Google, and universal Facebook accounts. While it’s true that the well-paid techies are replacing many of the original residents and businesses of some ethnic neighborhoods, Moskowitz, a New Yorker, apparently doesn’t know that we have rent control to protect a large part of the population. In the apartment building where I’ve lived for the past 35 years, some residents pay as little as $500 a month per family, including heat and water, but whenever an apartment becomes vacant, it rents for more than $2000.

    I do regret the gentrification, which has probably contributed to the homeless crisis here. About 7,000 people out of the city’s population of 860,000 is homeless. That’s a definite downer about living in certain parts of the city. But the techie money has brought many benefits. For example, all people over the age of 65 — unless they have a very high income — may ride the buses and streetcars for free. We have a very good public health system. The public library system is unparalleled. Fresh produce is very inexpensive in Chinatown and the still-Latino Mission district, and there are many farmers markets. We have excellent tap water and hundreds of free events, such as concerts in the park, street fairs, festivals and parades. I can’t think of a more exciting place to live. I’ve always thought that if I had to leave San Francisco, I’d want to move back to Portland, Maine. But now I realize I couldn’t afford to do that.

    By the way, the East Bay simply means the section of the San Francisco Bay Area that’s on the other side of the Bay Bridge. That includes Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda and other cities.

    • EdBeem

      Max, I have a niece who lives in Oakland and works in SF. She loves it. Here’s what Moskowitz’s says about SF in his intro:

      San Francisco is an outlier—it did not experience an economic crash that became an excuse to reorient policy to the same extent that the other three cities did, nor did it have much in the way of an industrial economy that needed to be gutted in order for it to be filled in with a bourgeois consumption-based economy. Instead, a surging tech industry pushed its way into the city (with help from its government) and rapidly transformed everything around it. Because this gold rush economy forced San Francisco to gentrify so rapidly and completely, the Bay Area is maybe the best place to peek into the future of the gentrified economy and find out what happens when the poor have literally nowhere to live in a city. The answer, as the Bay Area shows, is that they move to the suburbs, where they are underserved by jobs, transit, and community services. Across the United States, but especially in megalopolises such as the New York region and the Bay Area, the suburbs are booming with the displaced. The poverty rate in the suburbs, which for decades rose at a rate similar to poverty in cities, began quickly surpassing urban poverty after the year 2000.

  • Chew H Bird

    Brunswick is a similar community that is being gentrified on a smaller scale. We have disposable schools that are replaced every 40 years, (unlike peoples homes). We have a college that caters to the wealthy and intellectually gifted community with a billion dollar endowment. We have property taxes that go up every year, speed bumps on Maine Street, raised crosswalks on other streets, and we have a multi million dollar train barn that fails to perform. We have a multi million dollar boat launch where it is against town ordinance to fish. We have people wanting to spend more money to repair an old bridge than replace it with something that will last longer and cost the taxpayers less.

    And we have a homeless population, food banks, malls that are nearly empty, trailer parks, and a religious institution that wants to spend millions of dollars because they think there isn’t another like them for 800 square miles…

    Gentrification is always a poor idea as it widens the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

    Improvements and renewal efforts are often good things. We all want to improve our surroundings and make our town more attractive and efficient. Most of us want to help other people and improve the lives of those less fortunate. However many people in Brunswick are being squeezed by fees, squeezed by taxes, and see many of our towns expenditures as optional rather than necessary. Do we really need to pay overtime wages on a Sunday to water flowers on Maine Street in the rain? I saw this a few weeks back and was appalled.

    • EdBeem

      I see very few signs of gentrification in Brunswick. Still a pretty affordable town.

      • salesguy9

        It depends on your perch Beemer.

    • Queenie42

      I agree with most of what you have stated here however it is time for me to defend our decision to buy a new double wide and live in a trailer park. Many older people simply can’t afford a ranch style house in Brunswick or anywhere else for that matter. After my hubby’s bout with cancer and the fact that we did not need a huge house, stairs to climb, the upkeep, taxes, etc., we decided to look for other alternatives. We now have a sweet little home that is easy to maintain, no stairs and all the mod cons. We have great water, free. We have recycles and trash pickup, free. Our heating bills are low and because we replaced all the light bulbs with energy efficient ones, our power bill is low.
      I can plant a garden with shrubs and small trees and we have a screened deck that we enjoy in three seasons.
      We live a very low-key life and take pleasure in simple things. We have no mortgage. Our taxes are very low. We have a new vehicle.
      I am grateful, every day, that we made this decision.
      Please don’t lump all of us in with the “trailer park trash” and deride all who live in one. We own our home. It doesn’t own us. ‘Nuf said.

      • Chew H Bird

        I have no issues with trailer parks, double wides, single wides, or anything else. The only point I was trying to make is the simplicity of a trailer on a rented lot is a stark contrast to the three million dollar homes I recently saw for sale on Mere Point Road. My wife point out to me that we are, (in her words), “being priced out of Brunswick”.

        I also agree with Mr. Beem in that Brunswick is still an affordable town when compared with the prices of towns heading south. My point here is gentrification as a process is alive and well in Brunswick. I am looking forward to seeing what our town has decided about our property tax assessment. We have a very small house , 880 square feet on a one acre lot with no water view or access, no garage, and only a crawl space for a basement. I suspect a relatively modern trailer would have a higher value than our actual structure as it would be an upgrade to what we own. We already pay more than 2k per year in taxes and I hope the number actually goes down.Thank you for commenting.

        • salesguy9

          Did you just say you agree that an area is more affordable then a more expensive area? I gotta write that down, “if an area is more expansive then another it will cost more”…ok got it. That’s a NO on value question. If you flatten your house, thrown a slab down and plop a trailer on it, it’s not increasing in value.

          • Chew H Bird

            Sometimes the value is in the location rather than the structure, and we all have different tastes, styles, and budgets… I suspect it may be less costly to remove an older trailer than to tear down an existing stick built structure, (depending on the details). Some houses that need massive repairs are not cost effective to renovate. Some trailers are extremely nice. Maintaining a living space can be expensive regardless of whether it is pre-fab, stick built, trailer, or whatever…

            What I want to “say” is that people who make the most of what they have, regardless of what it is, set a good example for our community (in my opinion).

  • salesguy9

    Munjoy Hill reference was amusing, I’m sure you spend many weekends walking your Golden in the neigboorhood to know much about it. Beem yes lets go back to the 80’s and State Street peep shows and Commercial street fish factory town…. Pasture time for you. Stick to subjects you know something about like… well… give me a minute I’ll think of something.

    • EdBeem

      Born in Portland 68 years ago. Know it as well as most. Never owned a golden.

      • salesguy9

        Oh beem you were born in Portland but come come now it’s been a few years since you walked the streets of MJH. Falmouth is much more to your likening and you do have a dog, one that you walk in fear of the noise of gunfire coming from Falmouth Rod and Gun Club. I know I know your just one of the people for the people. Good work, keep beating that drum. Please tell everyone else how they should live. I’m so very excited to read your annual hit piece and fake news on hunting, guns and gun violence that runs rampent in Maine. Ya know Beems I think bear season is just a few weeks away, time to pull out your old clever donut headlines and connect the dots (or donut holes he he) to the growing bear population. Then within weeks you can talk about all the scary deer hunters and the sniper rifles they carry… oh it’s going to be a great forecaster fall!!

      • salesguy9

        Hows Falmouth…?

  • Jack

    Beem outlines the gentrification process yet fails to grasp it. Change happens. Always has, always will and surprise… life continues.