It’s always fun to read the tourist-guide descriptions of a place where you actually live.

In Portland, my day is supposed to be filled with riding my bike down cobblestone streets to my community garden plot, maybe stopping to pick up an artisanal loaf or some knitting supplies, pausing only to watch a majestic ship slide into the harbor.

In reality, I don’t knit, the garden is dead most of the year and riding on cobblestones will rattle your joints.

So, when a national publication highlighted my hometown of more than 30 years last week, I was ready to find fault.

U.S. News and World Report included Portland in its list of top 10 places in the country to live, behind Boulder, Colorado (No. 1), but ahead of the other Portland (No. 10), with its heatwaves, forest fires and street fighting between armed insurrectionists.

There was the usual puffy stuff: “Artful living and farm-to-table dining are not just trends in Portland – they have been a way of life for years … .”  And the aspirational: “The metro area has a thriving music and night life scene with crowds buzzing along Congress Street and Old Port almost any night of the week.”

But I was surprised (and for the purposes of this column, disappointed) to see how much the writer, Ed Pfueller, got right. Especially this paragraph:

“Though more people discover its charms, Portland is at a crossroads on how to move forward. New development is often met with opposition, while demand for affordable housing is high. An aging rental and housing stock combined with a tight market on mid-tier units has left middle-income earners struggling to settle in Portland.”

We’ve been writing the “Portland at a crossroads” story at least since the 1990s, when the reality sunk in about the loss of manufacturing jobs, so that’s not news. But decades of people discovering Portland’s charms are forcing us to think about how the city is changing.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is Portland’s population. It was 64,157 in 1990 and 66,215 in 2019, according to the Census Bureau. That’s 3 percent growth over almost 30 years.

The most recent decade, often described as a period of explosive or transformational development, the population has grown only by 24. Not 24 percent – 24 people.

The city has changed in other ways. We have more hotel rooms than ever. We get on more “best-of” lists. People come for a visit and want to stay.

And that means more competition for “aging rental and housing stock,” along with higher prices and fewer options the lower you are on the wage scale. The only way you can get in-migration without population growth is by crowding some people out.

One answer has been to put a lid on rents, and city voters passed a referendum last year that instituted rent control.

That will help people who already have housing at a rent they can afford, but it won’t do anything for those who have already been priced out of the market or for people who haven’t come here yet but would like to.

It won’t keep out the U.S. News and World Report readers, but it does make it harder for students and all the people who work in the restaurants, bars, microbreweries, quirky shops, hotels and office buildings who give the city the life the magazines rave about.

Here’s the crossroads that Portland faces: We can become the city that the guidebooks think we are, cobblestone streets and farm-to-table restaurants staffed by people bused in from someplace less charming – think Disneyland with six months of bad weather.

Or we can be the city those of us who moved here fell in love with, the one with a little bit of everything, from a working waterfront to a symphony orchestra and a place for everyone who wanted to be here.

That means we need room for more people – more housing, and not just luxury condos or apartments for professionals and tech workers. We need more decent, affordable housing for low-income families and people with disabilities who have to be close to hospitals and other services.

More housing means more density, which has got to mean less reliance on cars as the only way to get around. Despite all the superlatives, the magazine noted that Portlanders are well below the national average in their use of transit, and that would have to change.

The pandemic showed us that Maine’s real estate market heats up when people around the country realize that their work is portable. As climate change heats the world up, we should expect that more people are going to want to pack up and move north, and we ought to be ready for them.

Portland is at a crossroads (again). Which way will we go this time?


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.