As a Portland resident of 24 years and an artist, I have been teeming with excitement at the prospect of our city building a world-class museum campus that broadcasts all Maine has to offer. When I planned to write this piece, I was going to tell you how I followed the long, inclusive process Portland Museum of Art took to develop the proposed site and the many levels of outreach I was able to participate in as a community member. But after receiving an advocacy letter against the project, I was struck by a larger issue: Who does historic districting serve?

Portland is home to numerous John Calvin Stevens buildings, preserving the legacy of an architect who built more than 1,000 buildings in Maine. The structure at 142 Free St., formerly the Children’s Museum, was not built but renovated by Stevens. This shows that the architect himself valued the role of updating structures to meet the needs of a community as it evolved. In keeping with this ethos, the building has been altered numerous times over the years.

In the decades I have lived in Maine, the city of Portland has changed dramatically. The city has become more diverse and the people in it have begun to speak with greater clarity about the inequities of our past. Portland Museum of Art has played a significant role in these changes: diversifying its staff and emphasizing programming that tells the history of our state through previously unheard voices.

A recent letter in the Press Herald argued that the historic ordinance “was designed so that we all play by the same rules.” The truth is that we don’t all play by the same rules when historic districting puts the preservation of an inequitable past above a meaningful future.

Families of influence and long tenure have preserved a city that supports white Protestant legacies. In 1923, Portland’s Committee of 100 was instituted with help from the active local chapter of the KKK to limit the power of Jews, Catholics and other “people from away.” This white Protestant lock on municipal power was cemented just before the 1926 renovation of 142 Free St. with its colonial revival facade, an architectural style that glorifies an idealized American mythos and reverberates with contemporaneous efforts to decrease the power of rising civil rights movements and growth in immigration.

An unyielding emphasis on preserving the past assures that those who have been in power remain in power. Portland’s history is vibrant, and I am proud to be a part of this city. But as a Jew living in Portland, I wince when I drive by the Cumberland Club and remember its past refusal to admit Jews. I mourn the loss of a major synagogue to arson and the Armenian and Jewish neighborhoods that were destroyed to lay the Franklin Street Arterial in 1967. Preserving a selective architectural past allows those in power to remain in positions of urban prominence while preventing others to have a place.


For our city to be truly equitable, to be forward looking rather than backward, we must take brave steps. This involves embracing uncomfortable change and a willingness to create space for diverse narratives in the very heart of our public squares. If new voices can only speak on empty lots and peripheral parcels, they will remain forever marginalized. To prioritize equity, we must be willing to make space for it to occur. Numerous examples of John Calvin Steven’s work show his vision more clearly than this rebuilt structure. What does it say about our community when we cannot loosen our grasp on any shard of history to make space for something truly extraordinary?

Ultimately, I want to move toward beauty. An exciting building that draws from Wabanaki traditions and envisages the use of state-of-the-art ecological technologies and Maine timber is a breathtaking prospect.

I ask that we appreciate the enormity of this proposal: what it means to the diverse people of Maine, and what these free public spaces and programming will inspire. The press will raise the profile of Maine’s creative economy and further a tourist boom. The green innovations will encourage more sustainable building and show Maine as a leader in the urgent ecological crisis of our moment. It will also be beautiful. The benefits of this project outweigh any loss of a previous structure.

This is a chance to look forward. Let us not miss the opportunities ahead, because we are unable to let go. Holding onto the past makes us who we thought we were. Let’s become who we can be.

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