They say those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Another quip could be: Those who don’t try to preserve their history are just plain doomed.

Longtime Westbrook residents know this lesson well. Prior to urban renewal, a federal program that gave towns money to basically wipe out all their beautiful old buildings in favor of more modern architecture, downtown Westbrook was filled with distinguished buildings that formed a vibrant Main Street economy where retail stores and commercial operations of all kinds existed among residential space. Urban renewal came through like a hurricane in the 1970s, heaving the landscape. And ever since, people who remember what Westbrook’s Main Street used to be have yearned for the vibrant downtown of yesteryear.

Westbrook has morphed many times throughout its history. Urban renewal is a lowlight in its otherwise dynamic past, which on June 9 is celebrating 200 years of its separation from Falmouth and becoming its own community. With the lessons of urban renewal fresh, city historians are intent on not making the mistake of disregarding the past ever again. This weekend, a special emphasis on the city’s history will be clearly evident during the Together Days celebration with historical artifacts, slideshows and speakers scheduled on Saturday from noon-6 p.m. in Riverbank Park. Further history-celebrating events, including the unveiling of a 100-year-old time capsule, will take place June 9.

While it’s great to see a renewed sense of place and pride in Westbrook history, the city is not alone in its efforts to keep history alive. A short paddle up the Presumpscot River (if it were still possible as it was when early settlers first arrived in the 1700s), leads to another town with individuals passionate for saving history. The Windham Historical Society has become active especially in recent years to preserve and protect the town’s heritage. Recently, the group got the OK from the Planning Board to start filling up what will be called “the Village Green” in Windham Center. The green, which is a big field near town hall that adjoins the society’s headquarters, will play host to important buildings in the style of Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts or Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore. The nonprofit group is relying mostly on private funding to make the Village Green concept a reality, and it should be commended for its efforts to preserve Windham history, before any more of it is lost to “progress.”

In Gorham, there are efforts afoot to preserve local history, as well. Next month, the town will begin discussing whether it should write some kind of ordinance governing its older structures in town. Historic sites will be surveyed, and then the town will decide how to proceed in preservation efforts. The new Historic Preservation Committee, headed by Town Councilor Bruce Roullard, is seen as long overdue since many structures have already been lost to development such as gas stations and convenience stores. Like their Windham and Westbrook counterparts, Gorham history preservers are intent not to lose any more.

South Portland is getting into the historic preservation swing of things, too. In the fall, the entire city was placed on the Places in Peril list published by historic preservation advocacy group Greater Portland Landmarks. South Portland is filled with architectural gems. Whole neighborhoods were identified as preservation worthy by the Landmarks group – Willard Beach, Ferry Village, Meeting House Hill among them. The new nine-member committee, if OK’d at a June 2 council meeting, would be tasked, among other things, with putting in place some protections for historically significant structures.

The presence of so many history-focused enterprises proves many Mainers want to keep some aspect of their history in tact, whether that takes the form of beautiful old buildings, bridges, monuments or entire neighborhoods.

Why do we love our connections to the past so? Isn’t modern man supposed to be dreaming of the future, engrossed in gadgets, thinking about flying cars and the like? Apparently not. Part of the nostalgia comes from hard-learned lessons such as urban renewal, which damaged not just Westbrook, but also many of the country’s vibrant downtowns. Deep down, people just appreciate a tangible connection to the way life used to be. It’s a comfort in changing times. These old buildings and monuments are reminders of our past. They made it through storms, recessions and upheaval, and so can we. They’re like old friends, a connection to our past.

While many of us walk or drive by without much thought to what’s historically significant around us, it’s fortunate there are preservers among us who are working to keep our significant places in tact, not only for us, but also for future generations.

–John Balentine, managing editor


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