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urban areas to encourage artists and other creative types to move to town with the promise of cheap space – has been replaced by Peter Moskowitz’s “How to Kill a City” (2017), the book that warns that gentrification is a form of civic death.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.

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