The Persistence Of Portland


In the 1970s a vision for Portland’s historic neighborhoods grew. Instead of featuring rundown, empty warehouses and desolate bars, why couldn’t the Old Port become Portland’s premier business, shopping, and tourist area? Mightn’t professionals like to locate by the water and enjoy high-ceilinged offices with harbor views? Today not only the Old Port but much of Portland is enjoying the fruits of the risks taken by restoration-minded developers two decades ago. Congress Street, lined with empty storefronts only a few years back, has revitalized itself as the Arts District, anchored by the Portland Museum of Art, the Children’s Museum, the Maine College of Art, and a nearly completed community arts center. Homeowners and landlords all over the city have improved the housing stock. New architecture—such as the popular downtown Public Market—blends harmoniously with the old. Residents on the West End and the Eastern Promenade take particular pride in the upkeep of a concentrated treasure of nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century houses. There is some grousing about the strict regulations governing historic properties, but most Portlanders realize that preservation not only raises property values and puts a shine on the city’s face but acts as a catalyst for all kinds of entrepreneurial efforts.

As I make my own way around my new hometown, I’m grateful that Portland honors its past. Walking where so many others have walked, you can readily catch glimpses of how it must have been. These old walls do indeed talk. At the museum in the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, I am in an empty building, but I hear whispers and giggles from the many children who grew up in those dark rooms. Strolling by the grand Federal houses on State and High Streets, I see women in long dresses welcoming visitors into airy candlelit parlors. Wandering the overgrown ruins of Riverton Park, I imagine trolley cars depositing Sunday pleasure-seekers there. Tramping the Eastern Promenade, where once the Indians had their campfires, or stumbling over cobblestones in the Old Port, I feel the many who were here before me, deluding themselves, as I do now, that this is it, this is the way things are, even as everything moves and changes, as future and past partake of every passing moment.