50 Reasons We Love Portland: Reason No. 1: East Bayside is rising (and sinking…)

At the bottom of Munjoy Hill and the northern end of Marginal Way may be Portland’s next great neighborhood.

by Sara Anne Donnelly
Photographed by Ted Axelrod

People here call it the frontier. East Bayside, the cluster of blocks between Route 295, Franklin Arterial, Washington Avenue, and Congress Street, is in many ways an impossible place. Built over Back Cove on debris from the Great Fire of 1866, scientists predict that within a few decades East Bayside will be under water again. Already there are rumors one of the buildings here is sinking. And there are other eccentricities — the streets that go nowhere; the eerie stillness cut by grinding or hissing from some invisible warehouse; the city’s largest public housing project and its history of grandiose violence. Five years ago, this was something of a lawless place. Chris Wright, founder of the East Bayside Neighborhood Organization, remembers gang fights outside his Mayo Street home, murder-suicide shootings, recent immigrants who’d rather watch their house burn down than trust the fire department. In turn, he says City Hall neglected East Bayside. Wright recalls Public Works repairing sidewalks right up to the edge of the neighborhood, skipping over it, and continuing west of Franklin Arterial. Like East Bayside wasn’t even there.

But five years later, East Bayside has turned around. Crime is down and many of the city’s young leaders own homes here, since the neighborhood is one of the last on the peninsula where houses still go for under $150,000. A unique stock of warehouse space has attracted artists and other creative types. Portland’s poorest, youngest, and most diverse neighborhood may now be its hippest.

“There are all these empty buildings from previous lives but then they’re all being taken over by individuals who are just trying to do what they do,” says Peter Faris of Pistol Pete’s Upholstery one recent Saturday on the sidewalk outside his shop. Faris, in a fleece jacket and jeans, chomps on an apple under an enormous, vertical Rockingham Electronics sign that the building’s owner left up from the previous tenant. He points up and down Anderson Street. “You’ve got the elevator guy and then there’s the electrical suppliers, a little more of the blue-collar types, and then this sort of craftsman, slightly artsy kind of slant to the neighborhood as well. It’s a little bit of an outpost down here.”

Faris motions down the street, in a half-joking there-goes-the-neighborhood way, to Tandem Coffee Roasters, where a group of young Portlanders in skinny jeans stand out front sipping and chatting. Tandem opened in September and is owned by a young couple from New York City trained at Blue Bottle Coffee, one of the nation’s best roasters. Faris worries his rent will go up now. You know your outpost has been discovered when good coffee moves in.

Along with Tandem, there are now dozens of new businesses on Anderson Street and surrounding blocks, including the Running With Scissors co-op and gallery, the Urban Farm Fermentory mead and kombucha brewer, Bunker and Rising Tide beer breweries, the Compass Project boat building and youth outreach program, the Maine Muslims Community Center, Freeman’s Bicycle Service, Washboard Eco Dry Cleaning, and the gallery Zero Station. If you’re in Portland, you’re likely in love with food, so a creamery, a vegan and gluten-free bakery, and a distillery will soon lease space from the expanded Fermentory. There’s also a set of loft condos encased in silver corrugated metal, designed, as one resident artist described it, with an “industrial vocabulary.” Welcome to the thriving frontier built on ash and preoccupied by water.

“That’s the symbol of Portland, the phoenix; the burning down and the rebirth of the city, which is very appropriate for this neighborhood,” says Wright. “That’s one of the reasons I moved down here and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. There’s just so much potential.”

Sara Anne Donnelly is a freelance writer and author of The Insiders’ Guide to Portland, Maine.