Downtown Lewiston seen Saturday morning from Broad Street in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — During those rare moments when the world holds up a mirror to a community, it can, for better or worse, see itself.

The front page of the New York Daily News the day after the mass shooting in Lewiston last month.

Back in 1965, when a strange confluence of circumstances led to Lewiston hosting a heavyweight boxing match for the world title, reporters flocked to the area to watch the newly minted Muhammad Ali knock out Sonny Liston in the first round.

That spring, the United Press International called Lewiston an “old Maine mill city,” while its wire service counterpart, the Associated Press, termed it “a neatly kept town on the Maine Turnpike” where “residents generally are financially comfortable,” though “few are wealthy.”

In short, like a lot of news coverage, it was kinda sorta on the mark — but not especially enlightening.

When Robert Card gunned down 18 people at two entertainment venues in Lewiston a week and a half ago, the world once again focused its ever-shifting attention on this small city that rarely gets noticed even by the tens of millions of tourists who pour into Maine annually.

Covering the terrible news, the Los Angeles Times described Lewiston on Halloween as “a weathered town that has seen dark days,” which is true but not exactly enlightening.


Kate Woodsome, writing the other day in The Washington Post, said that when she grew up in Portland, she thought of Lewiston as an “old mill town of gritty Mainers who had to deal with the poverty, crime and lead paint that remained after the jobs disappeared.”



Amy Bass, whose “One Goal” book recounts a Lewiston High School soccer team, took to CNN to deliver a more detailed, more nuanced look at the community.

Bass said the city “is a place that once saw its best days in the rearview mirror, a city that has fought hard to find its light.”

“Its story is one of transition,” she said, “from its former heyday as ‘Spindle City,’ a textile center with factory jobs that brought an influx of French-speaking Canadian immigrants to its triple-decker Italianate-style apartment houses, to its increasingly global landscape, created in large part by the thousands of Somalis who migrated there at the turn of the 21st century, immigrants who carved space for themselves amongst Quebecois culture.”


That’s a mouthful, but it’s on target.

Bass also summarized the city’s enduring nature: “Lewiston is a hardscrabble hockey town that made room for soccer, a place that understands the meaning and worth of community and the work that goes into making a city into home.”

Rachel Ferrante, the Lewiston-based Maine MILL’s executive director, called Bass’ description both beautiful and on target.

Carlo Pope, left, and Dr. Deng Marac have a cup of coffee Saturday morning at The Root Cellar in downtown Lewiston. “I love Lewiston,” says Marac, who moved to the city from Sudan 10 years ago, adding, “I am so proud to be a part of this community.” “The shootings have affected everyone,” says Pope. “I will do anything to have peace and quiet again.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal


Ferrante said that in her mind, “Lewiston is in many ways the best of America.”

Ferrante, who is steeped in the city’s history, said it has been “a center for industry and immigrants of all sorts for a long, long time,” and partly as a consequence has developed “a real, true, community feeling” that she’s never seen in other cities where she’s worked.


“That sense of community is unparalleled,” she said. “There’s a resilience and a strength of character and a pride of place.”

Through the long years that Lewiston has grown, faltered and recovered, it has seen tragedies large and small.

City Hall itself has burned to the ground twice, including a fire that consumed the original structure on the site where it sits today, a grand edifice constructed to replace the government offices that fell into ashes in 1870 when a block on the corner of Lisbon and Main streets fell victim to a blaze that most of the city’s residents watched with horror.

Lewiston has also seen murders and accidents that left a trail of dead and mangled people. In short, it has known heartache before.

The community has also coped, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, with the closure of the mills that once provided thousands with jobs they could count on, if not always love.

It has always soldiered on, counting on its own people and its own resources to create something better.


Ferrante said she believes the community’s strength “will shine through” in the weeks ahead as people try to heal and recover outside the glare of national and international publicity.

At last Sunday’s vigil at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, she said, she could see that the process is already underway.

A group of cyclists led by John Grenier, right, pass by a memorial in front of Schemengees Bar & Grille on Saturday morning in Lewiston. Grenier, of Lewiston, organizes a ride that passes by the Lincoln Street business every Saturday from ice out in the spring until the snow flies in late fall. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal


Cynthia McFadden, a longtime television journalist who serves as the senior legal and investigative correspondent for NBC News, grew up in Auburn.

For her, the massacre in Lewiston hit home in a way easily understood by everyone who lives in the area.

She told a national audience on the nightly news, when anchor Lester Holt came to Lewiston to capture the local flavor, that despite the presence of nationally renowned Bates College, “Lewiston is not exactly a quaint college town.”


“Nor is it what lots of people may think of as a quintessential Maine town: no lobster boats or rocky shore, no major tourist economy to speak of,” McFadden said.

She told viewers she grew up in Auburn, “the twin city of Lewiston, L/A as locals call them. Two towns, one community that sit across the Androscoggin River from each other.”

McFadden said the area has “its own natural beauty” but also recalled that when she was young, “if the wind was blowing just right, you could smell the river before you could see it,” a consequence of generations pouring wastewater from factories and sewage plants.

She didn’t mention it, but a regional hero and Bates graduate, former U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie from Rumford, upstream on the same Androscoggin River, was the driving force for the Clean Water Act that made restoration of the river possible — and saved thousands of other waterways as well.

That’s not quite an example of Lewiston’s resilience, but with Muskie, and the pressure he felt from locals, the city played a role in cleaning up both its river and the entire country.

McFadden said that when she was little, L/A wasn’t famous for much beyond the controversial Ali-Liston fight.


It was, she said, “a blue-collar, middle-class and family kind of place” where people “tend to their own business” but “rally around when someone’s hurting.”


The preeminent voice in journalism, The New York Times, also weighed in with a story by Jenna Russell that sought to peg Lewiston as “a city of 36,000 that feels more like a small town.”

Russell noted that Lewiston “sits away from the picturesque harbors and privileged enclaves of the coastline, in the sprawling inland interior of this vast rural state.”

“With a history bookended by two waves of immigration, a century apart, and hollowed out by the lost textile mills that once defined its economy, it is frequently described by outsiders with well-worn, vaguely disparaging adjectives. Gritty. Scrappy. Blue-collar. Down-on-its-luck.”

She wrote that “some bristle at terms they consider put-downs of their home, its old brick mills and triple-deckers, deep French-Canadian heritage and new African migrant community.”


But, she added, others “embrace the idea of Lewiston and its sister city as stubborn survivors,” citing for evidence comments by state Rep. Kristen Cloutier, a Lewiston Democrat, and Mayor Carl Sheline.

“Scrappy and gritty are central to this place,” Cloutier told the Times. “People say that Lewiston is tough as nails, and that is true. The place is genuine — what you see is what you get — and people are dedicated to it in a way that feels deeply personal.”

“Lewiston people are known for our strength and grit,” Sheline told the paper.

People working on their own vehicles is a common sight in downtown Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Russell attributed “some of the region’s toughness” to its “long, harsh winters demanding raw endurance,” which nobody who lives in Maine would deny.

Economic struggles also play a role, the Times story said, “as new industries failed to fill the gaps left by shuttered mills.”

While true, it’s less clear the economy has contributed to Lewiston’s hardscrabble reputation given the low unemployment rate and the spate of companies that have moved to town in recent decades. The mills, after all, never paid most employees much, and in almost every case funneled the profits they made off to faraway financiers in fancier locales.


“We are resilient, strong and used to putting our shoulder to the wheel,” Sheline said Friday during President Joe Biden’s visit to Lewiston.

Russell’s story mentioned the wave of African immigration that has “transformed the city” and gave a nod to the “fear, mistrust and resentment of the newcomers, mainly Muslim Somalis, by some white residents” that have “fueled lingering tensions.”

That racism, which assuredly exists, is dwindling, however, as the 2020 election of Safiya Khalid to the City Council in a contested race in a majority white district shows.

The city is, by most any standard, doing OK.

“Somali immigrants have brought new vibrancy to my old, White state,” Woodsome wrote for the Post. “Federal money has rehabilitated the downtown. New businesses and artists have decided the city on the Androscoggin River is a beautiful place to be.”

Maybe that long-ago fight between Ali and Liston has a lesson for Lewiston.


When Liston was down, with unexpected speed, Ali stood towering over him.

“Get up and fight, sucker!” Ali yelled.

Liston couldn’t do it.

But Lewiston knows how to take a punch.

It is already on its feet again, already fighting back. Never giving up.

That’s what champions do.

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw on May 25, 1965, in Lewiston. John Rooney/Associated Press, file

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