Welcome to Portlyn

Munjoy-Hill-Portland

Photographed by Benjamin Williamson.

Now please go home? Ron Currie has some thoughts on Maine’s most rapidly changing city and the gentrification that displaced him from a neighborhood he loves.

For many years, whenever I traveled by air and was heading home to Maine, I could tell I’d found my departure gate with a quick glance at those assembled there. The people waiting for the bird to Portland were always rougher-hewn than most everyone else scrambling around the airport. Their clothes weren’t as new or as smartly pressed. They didn’t seem to have benefited as much, on balance, from orthodontics or model nutrition. They carried on vulgar, friendly conversations, largely free of self-consciousness. Sometimes, they were even visibly poor.

Fewer than half of the city’s residents are from Maine — this in a culture where if your family doesn’t go back at least six generations, you’re considered “from away.”

These days, though, there are a lot more slick, urbane types at the gate, with hundred-dollar haircuts and clothes that appear to have been worn just the once. And the appearance of poverty, where it exists, is likely to be of the cultivated, trustafarian variety, assumed by people who spend an awful lot of money to make it appear they have none. I think of this genus as the “yupster,” a yuppie/hipster hybrid that in recent years has come to dominate not just my departure gate, but the very landscape of the town I call home, a town they’re all rushing to for a taste of the authenticity they try and fail to project by dressing up as poor people.

It’s hardly news that Portland has undergone a whiplash transformation over the last decade, going from a low-profile, blue-collar seaport to a culinary and cultural destination of national repute, with glowing write-ups in just about every glossy magazine and big newspaper one could name. The city’s perceived Brooklynization has even earned it a new nickname: “Portlyn,” a compliment or a term of derision, depending on whom you ask. If you’re okay with these changes, you’re likely to characterize them as “revitalization.” If you’re not into it, you’ll say “gentrification,” with a slight curl in your lip for emphasis.

But putting aside one’s feelings about the phenomenon, here are some facts: Since 2003, the median value of residential properties in Portland has gone up more than
40 percent, compared to a national picture in which home values are more or less unchanged. On Munjoy Hill, the most glaring example of Portland’s gentrification, values are up almost 105 percent during that same period. Perhaps most telling is the fact that since 1980, the percentage of native-born Mainers in the city has gone from just over
70 percent to slightly less than 50 percent. Put another way: fewer than half of the city’s residents are from Maine — this in a culture where if your family doesn’t go back at least six generations, you’re considered “from away.”

Of course, even data evangelists will acknowledge that statistics don’t tell a complete story — or at least the part of the story that matters, if you’re talking about things like community and quality of life. For that, we have to rely on (admittedly subjective) ground-level perspectives.

On my best days, I find blind nativism shortsighted — after all, in a state that needs both money and young people, who cares what zip codes those newcomers were born in?

So here’s mine: A couple of years ago, while living on Munjoy Hill, I watched two run-down houses across the street — one of which had been occupied by squatters and drug dealers, a vestigial remnant of the Old Hill — get stripped to the studs and rebuilt in exceedingly mod fashion at the behest of out-of-state professionals eager to grab their slice of Vacationland. For over a year, I was awakened by the sound of table saws whining and nail guns firing, a racket that went on all day, minus a brief lull during the lunch hour. On-street parking, always at a premium, became nonexistent, monopolized by contractors’ pickup trucks and delivery vehicles.

Throughout the period of this disturbance, I had more than one occasion to reflect that at least the drug dealers had been quiet, and their customers rarely took up parking for more than five minutes at a time. At the end of it all, the out-of-state professionals moved in without introducing themselves, apparently unaware of — or unconcerned with — the disruption that the building of their dream homes had caused for the neighbors.

Certainly in a place like Maine, which has for centuries relied heavily on an influx of dollars from elsewhere, there will always be tension surrounding the question of who belongs and who does not. Resentment of outsiders, and mistrust of their motives and character, is hardly new; I remember a snarky bumper sticker popular during my childhood in the ’80s that read “Welcome to Maine. Now please go home.” On my best days, I find blind nativism fairly stupid and shortsighted — after all, in a state that desperately needs both money and young people who know how to make it, who cares what zip code those newcomers were born in? Besides, Maine has always had more of Boston in it than we’ve been comfortable admitting; the state’s textile and paper industries, along with the communities that grew up around them, were built with Beantown capital.

All the same, there are times when, as a native Mainer, I feel the dark allure of a staunch tribalist attitude, and I find myself wanting to slap a “Please go home” bumper sticker on my car. Because I am wary, with reason, of what happens when those visitors decide that they are home.

The out-of-state professionals are still there on the East End, their New York license plates now swapped out for Maine Loonies. My partner and I, however, got priced off Munjoy Hill and now live on the other side of 295 — within the city limits but, for all practical purposes, a world away from the life we knew before. After quickly giving up on a real estate market where cash sales at well above asking price have become the norm, we find ourselves sandwiched between outer Congress Street and Brighton Avenue, where every morning and evening traffic piles up as worker bees who can no longer afford to live in the city make their way to and from their jobs there. The plaintive sound of the foghorn in Casco Bay, our Munjoy Hill soundtrack on murky or stormy nights, has been replaced by the rumble of jets taking off and landing at Portland International.

Let me be the first to say that ours is a champagne problem and that, make no mistake, a lot of people have suffered far worse fates — no-cause evictions, couch surfing, even prolonged homelessness — as a result of the city’s upward trajectory. The rich have their water views within spitting distance of the craft breweries and yoga studios, the middle class continues to flee to South Portland and Westbrook, and the poor, as always, get the short end of the stick. Portland no longer has enough low-income housing to keep many of them off the streets, and those lucky enough to have a roof over their heads, however leaky, spend so much on rent that they can’t afford to eat (just ask the folks at the Preble Street soup kitchen, who are feeding more people than ever, economic recovery or no).

Meantime, my partner and I have a bigger house, a nice back yard, and a quiet neighborhood. Still, our lives changed for the worse in moving from the city proper to what feels like the ’burbs. Because we lost everything the out-of-state professionals came here for in the first place.

What’s really being lost as outsiders overrun a place like Portland’s peninsula is the web of relationships among people who were already there.

When public conversation turns to reurbanization, the reasons for the reversal of 1950s white flight are often articulated in base, tangible terms. There’s talk of “walkability,” or of access to restaurants, outdoor recreation, arts and culture scenes, public parks, etc. But what’s really being lost as outsiders overrun a place like Portland’s peninsula isn’t just this or that group’s access to urban perks — it’s the web of relationships among people who were already there.

For example, in our old neighborhood, my partner and I were friends with just about everyone with whom we had professional dealings. There was almost no such thing as mere commerce. I’d get a tea from the girl at the coffee shop in the morning, then share beers with her and her boyfriend in the afternoon. At our favorite restaurant, we swapped cooking tips with the guys in the kitchen and plotted after-hours gatherings with the servers. In between debating politics with the dry cleaner, we listened to his stories about what the Hill was like when he was growing up in the ’70s. You could have a whole day’s worth of human interaction without walking more than a couple hundred yards.

Where we live now, such relationships are simply not possible. The suburban buffers that keep people at a remove from one another — big lots, tall fences — hold sway out here. The nearest coffee shop is a short drive away, and after a year, nobody there knows my name or seems to care to. Our long, tree-lined street has no sidewalks, which means that no one walks anywhere, which means the repeated happenstance meetings through which people genuinely get to know one another never occur.

And then there’s the question of what happens to a city when a good portion of the high-end residential property is occupied only part time. It’s difficult — maybe impossible — to know how many of Portland’s new upscale residents go elsewhere for the winter, but if one puts stock in anecdote, it may be quite a few. And in addition to contributing to the problem of affordability for those who’d happily live here year round, these transients also present a problem for local businesses.

Consider a recent conversation with a friendly acquaintance who runs a business on Munjoy Hill. We popped in one weekend after walking our dog on East End Beach (still one of our favorite spots in town, though we don’t get there often anymore). She was surprised to see us and asked why we hadn’t been in. When we told her we’d moved off the peninsula, she lamented that we weren’t the only regulars who had recently gone the way of the dodo, and further, that those who’d replaced us didn’t patronize her business nearly as often — mostly because half the time they weren’t present to do so.

Ultimately, of course, gentrification isn’t just an economic battle, but a cultural one. The obvious irony — one that I’ve observed my whole life, up and down the coast and all along the lakeshores of Maine — is that when people rush to occupy a neighborhood where plenty of others already live, they almost inevitably end up ruining the things that attracted them in the first place: cheap real estate, socioeconomic diversity, genuine grassroots culture, thriving creative scenes.

Munjoy Hill, it seems, will not be an exception. These days, enough time passes between my visits there that I can see the changes in real time. The young artists and cooks and dog walkers are being weeded out. Ever more yupsters and slick urban types prowl the brick sidewalks, and ever more hyper-modern architecture dominates sightlines. If you sit down at the bar at our favorite restaurant, you’re less likely to share time with the coffee shop girl and more likely to find yourself next to a well-appointed retiree from Boston who doesn’t understand that real Mainers treat servers like friends, not attendants; that we make requests, not demands; that we live here precisely because we disdain the hypertensive urban attitude he’s imported along with his wealth.

But this is America, where at the end of the day, money always wins. There has never in human history been a cool and pure thing that didn’t sooner or later end up commodified: hip hop, Che Guevara, Shakespeare, Buddhism. And so it will be, in some form or another, for Munjoy Hill, and Portland as a whole.


Ron Currie Jr.

Ron Currie Jr. is the author of three novels, including Everything Matters and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. His writing has been translated into 17 languages. He lives in Portland.