Wild for Willard Beach
The undeniable appeal of South Portland’s beach neighborhood
“I think the boundaries are expanding all of the time,” says longtime resident Paul Leddy, co-owner of the contracting company Leddy Houser Associates and SoPo’s famed Willard Scoops, where he can regularly be found making (and scooping) gourmet ice cream. The boundaries are growing as more and more people move to become a part of this increasingly popular community. “To me, it’s heaven,” says Leddy. “I’m five minutes from Commercial Street if I need to be in Portland. Every morning I walk on the beach with my dogs and a cup of coffee.”
The beach, of course, is a big part of the neighborhood’s draw. On a sunny summer day, after dogs of all shapes and sizes have come and gone during the pet-friendly morning hours of seven to nine, locals and visitors converge on the sandy shore. Tucked into the harbor, protected by layers of Casco Bay islands, the water is calm. Women and men with babies strapped to their backs wade in, while toddlers and small kids splash around them. Stand-up paddle boarders weave around moored boats, and sailboats skim the water’s surface farther out in the bay. Every once in a while a large cruise ship or tanker temporarily alters the skyline—just in case a person has forgotten she is in the midst of a working harbor.
Covering about four acres, the semicircle doubles in size when the tide is out, revealing patterns of seaweed and dark, rocky outcrops on the beach’s edges. Facing the water, to the left are the brick buildings of Southern Maine Community College, punctuated by Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, and to the right, stacked up on the rocks, are two fishing shacks serving as reminders of the neighborhood’s history as a fishing village. As a rule, beaches are spectacular, but dare I say that there is also something sweet about this one? By virtue of Willard’s smallish size, accessibility (there is a decent-sized parking lot at the beach’s entrance), and the modest, well-kept appearance of many of the homes lining the streets leading down to the water, there is something charming—and even a little quirky—not just about the beach, but about the neighborhood as a whole. Spend 10 minutes on a bench outside of Scratch Baking Co. with a cup of coffee and you will see and hear bikers whizzing by, kids playing in yards, neighbors greeting each other with hugs. As Scratch Baking Co.’s co-owner Sonja Swanberg says, “It is a very alive place.”
Willard wasn’t always the hip little hub it is now. Rita Thompson, who was born in 1940, has lived in South Portland all her life. She remembers jumping off the rocks near those fishing shacks at high tide as a girl, the grand waterside hotels that are no longer around, and the lobster traps, nets, and boats that filled the yards of the fishermen who lived near the beach. A few folks who have lived in the neighborhood for decades tell me it was a little run down in the ’90s and early 2000s. These days, no one would describe Willard Square that way. In 2004, when Swanberg and her business partners, Bob Johnson and Allison Reid, opened Scratch, Willard was “this quiet, sleepy neighborhood,” says Swanberg, scooping a mound of cookie dough onto a tray. “People were looking for a beautiful, walkable place to live, and at that point in time it was very affordable to buy a house here. A lot of young families started moving to Willard Square, and it just started gaining speed. It’s the kind of place where you know your neighbors. You can run down to Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. It’s a great place to be active.”
David Turin, who opened David’s 388 in 2007, would agree. “My Portland restaurant will be closed because of a snow storm, but at David’s 388 there might be four pairs of cross- country skis and two pairs of snowshoes stuck in the snowbank in front of the window, and the restaurant will be packed. In the summer, people come in for a burger with board shorts on and their paddle boards on top of their car, or stop in right after yoga class,” says Turin. “Willard Square is probably the most awesome place to live and do business. I was really lucky I showed up when I did. Willard Square just has this laid-back, very cool vibe.”
When the housing market crashed in the late 2000s and home prices were dropping all over the state, real estate values for homes in Willard Square continued to rise. A decade later, the trend continues. The neighborhood’s proximity to both the city and the beach, its family-friendly feel, quality local businesses, and longstanding institutions like the Portland Players—the oldest community theater company in Maine—make it one of the most sought-after places to live in the greater Portland area.
While there’s little room to expand the footprint of each house—they’re packed so closely together—many homes have been renovated or spruced up in recent years. Along the beach itself is a mix of mostly contemporary homes, and up and down the streets are one- and two-story clapboard or shingle-sided houses decorated in nautical accoutrements and dressed up with flower gardens or brightly painted trim. Despite these whimsical touches, Willard Square isn’t the kind of beach town that hibernates in the off-season. Even in the middle of the winter, you’ll find folks at the beach, bundled up in wind-resistant layers, enjoying the unique beauty of the ocean despite—and even because of— the quiet chill. Willard is a community of year-round Mainers with urban inclinations, who appreciate both the natural beauty of the coast and the cultural offerings across the bridge in Portland.
“Even the people who rent from us have this sense of ownership,” says Leddy. “Some of them have gone on to purchase places here. They’re not just passing through.” That’s the overwhelming feeling you have when you make your way to Willard Square, for a walk on the beach or a famous Scratch bagel. The sense of community is so strong you’re almost tricked into believing you’re a part of it, and if you’re anything like me, you might leave wishing you were.