A walk down the streets of Portland, Maine, can be quietly disorienting. The city’s facades slide by in unbroken lines of red brick; paved streets become cobbled then paved again; storefront windows are free from national chains, yet the local businesses bustle with activity. It feels like a time before Sears-Roebuck catalogs and national franchises, before steel and concrete, but with the cars and clothes of 2018. How could such a quaint yet vibrant American town exist anywhere but on the set of “The Truman Show?” The story of how Portland has maintained this bygone energy, an alternate reality of American urbanism, starts at the front doors of City Hall.
The main entrance of Portland’s City Hall is framed by a set of gilded iron gates. Above the door and contrasting starkly against the black of the iron is a polished gold rendering of Portland’s crest: a shield depicting a ship under sail, with a large bird at full wingspan perched atop. Contrary to classic Americana, the bird is not an eagle on the edge of flight, but rather a phoenix freshly risen from its own ashes; beneath the crest is the word RESURGAM: Latin for “I will rise again.”
A History of Reinvention
The phoenix and “resurgam” are apt symbols of Portland’s history and tenacity. Since its first settlement in 1633, Portland has been built, destroyed, and then reconstructed on five separate occasions. In 1866, smoldering debris from a Fourth of July firework show blew into the city and sparked a firestorm that burned the prosperous port to the ground. True to the phoenix above the door, an undeterred Portland rebuilt itself from the ashes of tragedy again.
It was this post-fire reconstruction that made the Portland landscape appear as a city out of time. Determined to preserve what had so often been lost, architectural conservation became and remains to this day a priority in the city. The result is evident: quite literally nothing has changed since the days after the fire of 1866. Rows of brick Federal-style buildings line cobbled streets from the top of the hill down to the waterfront. From there the weeping roofs of fishing sheds and shops stretch picturesquely down piers and into the harbor.
For decades after the fire, Portland flourished. The city roared across the first half of the 20th century as a phoenix in full flight. Then, following the construction of Eisenhower’s interstate system Portland became a blurred name on a green exit sign on the freshly paved I-95. In 1971, the first indoor supermall of its kind in the state, The Maine Mall, opened just outside the city limits and began to drain the city of its local commerce.
Down, but not out—this is Portland after all—the phoenix rose again. In 1982 the Maine College of Art opened its doors in Portland. To many graduating students, the hurting city was a blank canvas on which they could leave their mark: so they stayed.
Eat and Shop
Now, emptied storefronts have been filled with restaurants and breweries, art galleries, bookstores and cafes and not a national chain in sight. Stop in at Bolster, Snow & Co. for exemplary Portland farm-to-table fare; write to us if you find better hot chocolate than HiFi Donuts or a more succulent lobster roll than the brown butter variety at Eventide; and disappear into a Lovecraftian paradise (or hell?) at Green Hand Bookshop.
This rebirth can be witnessed firsthand at The Public Market House on Monument Way. Across two open floors of booths and communal tables, upstarting restaurants and food dealers test their product against the marketplace to see if their idea has legs. It’s a picture of Portland in real time; customers meander between booths before settling down at the table to dine with whomever; everybody seems to know each other as smiles, waves, and greetings abound; if you try the blueberry sticky rice at Sticky Sweet one week don’t be surprised if it’s gone the next—they’ve likely opened up a brick-and-mortar and something new has taken their place in the Market House.
Across town the city bustles. Gateway Mastering Studios and Acadia Recording Company draw musicians from across the world, while bars and lounges like Blue have the vibrancy and creative energy of Greenwich Village cafes circa 1963, transplanted to Portland 2018.
Throughout the year, citywide events like Merry Madness (bring a wine glass, hop from store to store, they’ll fill it) and Maine Restaurant Week (fixed full course menus at cut rates across town) bring the community out in droves to shop and dine. The art museum is world class (housing what is believed but can’t be proven to be Da Vinci’s only other Mona Lisa) and the first Friday of every month galleries across town open their doors for free. The best place to take it all in is Top of The East—Portland’s version of Boston’s Top of The Hub—where you can enjoy a cocktail and take in 360-degree views from the highest point in the city.
A true phoenix, Portland’s ability to rise again and anew from the ashes of its past has shaped a city unlike any other in the United States. Physical destruction preserved the city as a living museum of American architecture and urbanism, while economic decline created a haven for the American dream. The streets can be disorienting at first, too good to be true, but then you realize what’s reverberating throughout the entire city—total authenticity—and you vibrate with it.
Recommended: The Francis Hotel, 747 Congress St., Portland, 207.772.7485