I’m not a real Mainer, but I have been here long enough to take on some of the local customs.

For instance, I orient myself with landmarks that no longer exist. You might take Exit 44 off the Turnpike, but to me it’s still “6A.”

When I go to South Portland, I think I’m driving across the Million Dollar Bridge. And I’ve caught myself at times giving directions like, “Turn left where the church used to be.”

It’s a quirk of the people who live here and one of the things that sets Maine apart from the other places I’ve lived. Mainers are always aware of how things used to be and they don’t jump on the latest fad. It’s a conservative place, if by that you mean a place where things are conserved and not wasted.

But every strength can be a weakness, too, and Maine’s pride in the past can start to look like nostalgia or even fear of change if it’s taken too far.

Where I live in Portland we gripe about how much better things used to be in the good old days, when housing was cheap, you could park wherever you wanted and you never had to worry about crowds of tourists.


Like I said, I’m not a native, so maybe I missed the old days that were really good. But in my nearly 30 years here, I’ve seen a lot of change, and most of it has been for the better.

Sure, I miss the gritty Portland I first saw in the late 1980s when there were dozens of fishing boats tied up at the docks. And I wish my kids could find a cheap apartment on Munjoy Hill like their mother and I did.

But I don’t get all misty-eyed about it. I’m glad some things are gone.

Maybe I can’t afford to eat at the new restaurants on the Hill, whose outdoor tables crowd the sidewalks, but I didn’t buy crack cocaine from the kids who used to stand out on those corners, either, and the restaurants’ clientele gives me a lot less to worry about.

And even if I’m not cool enough for the food trucks that line the Eastern Prom on a summer night, I can still appreciate that they’re a big step up from the anonymous sex scene that used to be so active in the park that the police had to put up “No cruising” signs.

This is the kind of thing I think about when I hear people growl the term “gentrification” as the scourge that ruined Portland.


The analysis goes something like this: Real estate in what used to be working-class neighborhoods was snapped up by people with money, who renovated the buildings and jacked up the rents or converted them to condos.

High-end housing for even richer people got built, but there’s nothing affordable for the kinds of people who used to live there.

All those things definitely happened, but it doesn’t explain everything I’ve seen. Some of those cheap rents were set by absentee landlords who never screened their tenants or invested in their buildings.

The biggest change to the neighborhood came before the condos, in the 1990s, when the state’s New Neighbors program made it easier for someone buying a multi-unit building to get a mortage if they planned to live on-site. As they cleaned up and improved their homes, others followed.

A lot of what people say they miss about the old Portland was the result of neglect.

Sure, kids used to be able to play in the street. You could always find parking because there was no reason to come to the neighborhood if you didn’t live there. Empty lots stayed empty, and people began thinking of them as public open space.


But congestion, competition and new construction are signs of progress, not decline.

Former Sen. George Mitchell likes to say, “the solution to every human problem contains the seed to another problem.”

The challenge for a place like Portland is how to make room for the people who want to move here – rich, poor and middle class – without displacing those of us who are here already and want to stay.

If that’s what we want to do, we’ve got to think about making housing more affordable in ways that the free market won’t, and by permitting enough density to make public transit truly viable.

That will take a readjustment in attitudes about growth and change. You don’t get there by clinging to the past.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:


Twitter: gregkesich

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