Portland, Maine: Beyond the Waterfront

Disparate activist groups teamed up to preserve the 200-year history of Portland’s wharves


| May-June 1997


Herman Melville would be heartbroken to see what has happened to America’s waterfronts: Some have been abandoned, and others have become so cutesified that no self-respecting sailor would be caught dead in them. But Melville would feel right at home in Portland (population: 65,000), where Victorian commercial buildings of the Old Port district now house convivial pubs, unpretentious seafood restaurants, and antique stores. “I can go to the Free Street Taverna any night of the week and see 10 people I know,” says Sarah Goodyear, editor of the Casco Bay Weekly alternative paper. “It’s cheap, low key, and the company’s good.”

The close-knit community feeling—shared by Portland’s activists, New Agers, fishermen, and big-city refugees from Boston—Is partly a legacy of its past as a whaling town, and partly a result of its staying a city where most people walk places. But it’s also due to recent efforts in which Portland’s citizens came together to decide what they want their city to become.

In the mid-‘80s Portlanders caught a glimpse of the future, and they didn’t like what they saw. Big developers had been buying up the city’s 200-year-old wharves at bargain prices, and at Chandler’s Wharf, the first redevelopment project, owners of condos and yacht slips were protected by a private gated pier, a guard, and high fences. Alarmed that the waterfront would become increasingly off-limits to the public, groups that had always been isolated from one another—the peace activists, the gay rights activists, the neighborhood associations—came together and successfully put on the ballot a referendum to limit waterfront development.

The experience set a new tone for Portland politics. Says Monte Paulsen, founder of the Casco Bay Weekly, “After the referendum passed, all these groups had this tremendous sense of power. People who had similar interests started meeting each other. As a result of this networking, just about any time an individual group had an ad hoc project, they were able to pull together supporters fairly quickly. Young activists joined the little old ladies of Portland Landmarks [in preservation battles] and reinvigorated it.”

The city government became more open and progressive as well. Younger, more liberal city council members were elected. City manager Bob Gandley, formerly aligned with the old boys’ network, called on the business community to create a public/private corporation, the Portland Fish Exchange wholesale market, that was largely responsible for saving Portland’s fishing industry.

This sense of community engagement, along with nicely restored, affordable Victorian houses and swimming and boating among the 100 islands of Casco Bay make people here proud to be from the other Portland.