Positively Portland


By Joshua Bodwell

Photography François Gagné

A city that takes its art, eating, reading, and living seriously


portland_3.jpg When a sea breeze blows off Portland Harbor, carries up the Old Port’s brick and cobblestone sidewalks, and ripples the leaves of the slender birch trees in Tommy’s Park, it feels as though the city is breathing. Situated at the core of Portland’s Old Port, Tommy’s Park is ripe with the daily theatre of small-city life—amongst its winding brick paths and granite benches, humanity melds in rare moments of commonality. Guitarists, horn players, and African drummers with coin-filled hats at their feet load the air with swirling harmonies. Skateboarders roll around trying to impress one another as lunching construction workers ogle lovely office assistants. Gen Xers with bike-messenger bags slung across their chests flock en masse to O’Natural’s for an organic lunch. Business men and women in neatly tailored suits sit beside Boho art students wearing green eyeliner and reading Nietzsche—the latter of the two is likely more interested in the city’s bristling music scene, ripe as it is with everything from alt-country roots rock to soulful crooners and lounge lizards, than they are with Portland’s status as Maine’s chief financial center. In the summer, shirtless, dreadlocked jugglers entertain tourists while lawyers on recess from the nearby courtrooms of the Maine Supreme Court grab a freshly brewed Starbucks coffee. At noon, the air fills with a cacophony of smells—the scent of Indian cuisine competes with the aromas spilling from food carts around the park, such as Mark’s Hot Dogs, and with the meals being served on Natasha’s Parisian-style patio. Tommy’s Park seems to encapsulate everything that is exciting about city life. It makes Portland—a comparatively small urban community grounded by history but brimming with open-minded exuberance—feel as large and cosmopolitan as Boston.

The Lay of the Land
Portland proper is shaped roughly like a dumbbell, with the main thoroughfare of Congress Street connecting the knobs of the Eastern and Western Promenades. The Eastern Prom has undergone a revival in the past decade. Entrepreneurs such as rug mogul and uber-stylemaker Angela Adams have set up shop and Munjoy Hill has turned into a burgeoning strip of neighborhood eateries that includes the Blue Spoon and the Front Room. On the other end of town, Portland’s West End has long been a stately neighborhood of grand old brownstones. Between the city’s two major residential neighborhoods is the Old Port, the city’s famously revitalized waterfront and warehouse district. While all of Portland has undergone a cultural renaissance over the past few decades, the city would not exist if it were not for its deep-water port. The fact that the Old Port has remained a working waterfront while also evolving into an artsy, boutique-filled, cultural mecca is perhaps its most impressive quality. First established in the early 1600s, Portland Harbor is one of the nation’s oldest seaports. Commerce around the port grew so lively in the mid-1850s that Commercial Street, the avenue bordering the waterfront, was created with landfill to make room for the businesses overflowing from the former waterfront, Fore Street. Today, the harbor fluctuates as either the largest or second-largest oil port on the East Coast. The deep-water port also accommodates massive cruise ships that offload tens of thousands of visitors every year. City Hall estimates that more than three million tourists visited the city last year, but they expect even more next year considering that Frommer’s ranked Portland #12 on its Top Travel Destinations list in 2007. Part of what makes Portland such a unique experience for visitors is that it’s awash in so many one-of-a-kind shops, boutiques, emporiums, haberdasheries, markets, restaurants, cafes, and galleries. Last year, the American City Business Journals judged Portland to be the #1 city in the country when in came to “Small Business Vitality.” Just off Tommy’s Park, Exchange Street is loaded with unique small Maine businesses. Abacus Gallery has thrived on a tide of eclectic offerings since 1971. In addition to pottery, jewelry, and art, the windows at Abacus are often filled with wonderful oddities: mailboxes made of license plates from around the country, and robot sculptures pieced together from old tools, scrap metal, and tin cans. Today, Exchange Street’s mix of jewelers, such as Lovell Designs, and stylish boutiques like Bliss seems detached from the street’s seedier days—days when it was known as Fish Street and rowdy merchant sailors haunted its bars and brothels. But even then, more than 100 years ago, Maine’s creative spirit was already present.

A City of Readers
In 1891, the publisher Thomas Bird Mosher set up his offices on Exchange Street. By the time he passed away in 1923, Mosher had produced a startling 750 titles—or nearly two books every month for 32 years. Mosher, who quickly earned the nickname “The Passionate Pirate,” was able to accomplish such a feat by swiping and reprinting titles from English and French publishers in an era when international copyright laws were still in their infancy. Although despised by some, many others considered Mosher a Robin Hood of literature for providing affordable and finely printed books to the masses. In his brief three-decade stint on Exchange Street, Mosher managed to influence several generations of publishers and set a new standard for American book design and typography. Today, Portland remains a city of book lovers. Exchange Street alone is home to both Books, Etc. and Emerson Books. Peppered throughout the city, Cunningham Books and Carlson Turner Books & Bindery anchor the West and East ends respectively, with the eclectic Yes Books located smack dab between the two. It could be argued that no other literary event in the city has eclipsed the birth of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 200 years ago. Raised and educated in Portland, Longfellow became one of the country’s most beloved poets and is still known to scores of school children for penning “Paul Revere’s Ride.” At Longfellow Books, just off Congress Street, co-owners Chris Bowe and Stuart Gerson are helping to keep the poet’s legacy alive while also beating the drum for the city’s current literati. When Maine’s once-ubiquitous Bookland chain went bankrupt in 2000, Bowe and Gerson bought the store’s Congress Street location and renamed it in honor of Longfellow. Today, the men say the city is bursting with readers who “get behind new authors and local authors, and get out and attend readings.” Gerson notes that Longfellow’s best-seller list is often quite different that those compiled by the New York Times or Borders. “In Portland,” Bowe says, “the mix of transplants from New York and Boston and locals full of good old Yankee pragmatism leads to some pretty interesting sales.” “The ‘local’ gets elevated here,” continues Bowe, “and that makes me hopeful.” Titles by local scribes such as Monica Wood, Lewis Robinson, and poet Betsy Sholl consistently sell well. All three writers, amongst many others, are also doing their part to ensure the city’s literary traditions remain alive through their involvement with the Telling Room, a nonprofit organization on Commercial Street that mentors aspiring writers between eight and 18 years old, as well as hosting workshops and readings with some of the country’s leading writers. But one thing Portlanders seem to relish even more than a good read is a good meal. The restaurant scene has exploded in Portland over the past decade and this year the Food Network named the city one of three finalists for their Delicious Destination of the Year award. Though Portland didn’t take the cake (losing, somewhat ironically, to Portland, Oregon, which was actually named after Portland, Maine), the city is still buzzing from the culinary attention it has been receiving. Rabelais, located just a few blocks east of Tommy’s Park, stands as a testament to the city’s obession with good food.

A Gastronomical Metropolis
Opened this past spring, Rabelais has proven that Portland is so cuisine-crazed that it can support a bookstore devoted entirely to new, used, and rare titles on cooking, wine, farming, and gardening. The store is run by Samantha Hoyt Lindgren, a former photo editor turned pastry chef and her husband, Don Lindgren, a rare book dealer. While Rabelais stocks a wide variety of books, the couple says they are pleased to find their best sellers tend to be more esoteric titles such as Molecular Gastronomy by French author Hervé This. “It’s really gratifying to see that both Portland’s chefs and home cooks are seeking out serious books about food,” says Lindgren.
portland_2.jpg From the front stoop of Rabelais, you can practically throw a first edition Joy of Cooking and hit a handful of top-tier restaurants. Right next door is Hugo’s, where former French Laundry chef Rob Evans caught the eye of Food & Wine magazine in 2004 when he was named one of America’s ten Best New Chefs. Just around the corner is Fore Street, home to James Beard Award-winning chef Sam Hayward, the man widely credited with sparking the city’s unquenchable appetite for farm-fresh food. Practically every block in the city offers a dining option. One popular urban legend around town is that Portland has the highest number of restaurants per capita on the East Coast. Whether or not that’s true, the Maine Restaurant Association estimates that Portland (a city of 64,000 residents) does have roughly 230 restuarants. At a time when the fervor for Portland’s restaurants is siphoning diners away from Boston, and when the city is appearing on more food critics’ lists than you can shake a meat mallet at, one has to wonder: What next? For Chef Krista Kern, who opened Bresca on Middle Street just after the New Year, refining her niche feels essential. “Because we’re growing so much as a ‘restaurant city,’” says Kern, “I want to create something special…or risk being just another restaurant on the list.” Though she’s been open for less than a year, Kern is already pushing Bresca to the next level. In addition to doubling her wine list this autumn, Kern tightened the menu from 20 dishes to 12 and is emphasizing the menu’s Basque and Catalonian influences. “We want to do fewer but more intricate dishes that will blow people’s minds,” enthuses Kern. Chef Steve Corry, owner of Five Fifty Five on Congress Street, believes the attention Portland has been receiving will actually make the quality of food rise. “Since the accolades and press are attracting a more knowledgeable diner,” says Corry, “that will force all of us to create more creative cuisine.” After cooking in California’s Napa Valley for several years, Corry says that the camaraderie of Portland’s restaurant scene still amazes him. “It really feels like a community of restaurants, rather than just a city full of them,” says Corry, whose California-influenced fare with a Mediterranean flair earned him a spot on Food & Wine magazine’s list of 2007’s Best New Chefs. In addition to culinary creativity, Portland’s art scene is also continually growing in prominence.

The Art City
In 2005, the book The 100 Best Art Towns in America ranked Portland within its top ten. And even though City Hall has deemed a stretch of Congress Street to be the Portland Arts District, in reality the city’s art scene knows no boundaries. While the official arts district is home to the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art and exciting galleries such as Aucocisco, Cygnet, and the June Fitzpatrick Gallery, nearly every inch of the city offers an artistic experience of one form or another. Just steps from Tommy’s Park, Greenhut Galleries is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Owner Peggy Golden literarily survived trial by fire to become the city’s oldest year-round gallery when its original location went up in smoke in 1984. “I think it’s a real time of celebration right now for art in Portland,” says Golden. “I feel like I’ve seen things come full circle—from the buzz of the 1970s to the hard times in the 1980s to the renaissance today.” Not far from Greenhut, Suzanne Gagnon opened the doors of her Cooper Jackson Gallery on India Street less than six months ago. The former director of both the O’Farrell Gallery in Brunswick and the Clown in Portland, Gagnon has just been named the first president of the new Gallery Association of Portland Maine. “The majority of galleries in Portland have banded together to promote the city as an art destination,” says Gagnon. Like those running the city’s multitude of restaurants, Gagnon says gallery owners feel a great sense of camaraderie. “It’s about an ‘art city,’ not just an ‘arts district,’” she says. “Every painting has a perfect owner, and we’re trying to help make those connections, whether it’s in our gallery or someone else’s.” Thomas Denenberg, the Chief Curator at the Portland Museum of Art, also views Portland as an “art city.” Currently housed in a building designed by Henry Nichols Cobb—architect of the award-winning John Hancock Tower in Boston—the PMA is Maine’s largest and oldest public art museum and houses a considerable collection of work by Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, and Andrew and N.C. Wyeth. “Portland is wonderfully heterogeneous with pockets of creativity in neighborhoods throughout the city,” says Denenberg. “It all comes together to set a tone, however, and there are days when it seems as if the whole community is involved in a conversation about the arts—from students hanging out in coffee shops to tourists in the Museum.” Portland’s insistence on engaging in those “conversations,” as Denenberg puts it, has been attracting people to the city in droves—and Peter and Carole Merrill are one such example.

Living (and walking) in Portland
In the Western Promenade neighborhood not far from the Museum, the Merrills recently settled in a circa 1892 brownstone designed by Maine’s most illustrious and industrious architect, John Calvin Stevens. As great lovers of architecture, the Merrills—with the help of Stephen Pondelis, the senior project architect at Van Dam Architecture and Design—undertook a massive renovation of the house last year that included removing copious amounts of asbestos and the home’s failing steam radiators, fixing the old slate roof, and reconfiguring a few rooms on the second floor. Yet because the house was designed as a duplex (rather than being a single-family home that was split at a later time), the home retains the spirit and energy of Stevens’s original vision. Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., the Director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, says Stevens’ “double houses” (as they were commonly referred to in the architect’s era) were fairly prevalent. “It was a very popular way of maximizing land use when the Western peninsula suddenly became so popular,” says Shettleworth. A Maine native who left Maine after graduating from Colby College in 1957 (but who always knew he would come back eventually), Peter Merrill says that the West End has a vitality that he and Carole missed while living in the South Portland cottage they initially bought when they returned to Maine in 1999. “This is really the most beautiful neighborhood in the city,” he says of the West End. Carole, who gained a love of architecture while living in Paris and Chicago, couldn’t agree more. “I hated having to be so dependent on the car when we lived in South Portland,” she says. “This is really just the kind of house and neighborhood we wanted.” Carole, who describes herself as a “non-architect who advocates for design excellence,” is a member of the Portland Society of Architects and remains involved with Architalx, a non-profit organization that brings celebrated architects and designers from around the world to lecture at the PMA. The vitality Peter and Carole speak of when describing the Western Prom, and Portland itself, is proving to be so powerful that people from all over the country—whether retirees like the Merrill’s or younger families—are deciding to relocate their families and businesses in Portland. One particularly revealing example of this trend is attorney Herb Janick.

The View from Above the Park
In the late spring, attorney Herb Janick set up a new branch office of the law firm Bingham McCutchen on the third floor of a building overlooking Tommy’s Park. When Janick became a partner at Bingham McCutchen—a firm with nearly 1,000 lawyers working in 14 offices throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia—his resume included stints in the enforcement division of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission and as general counsel at the stock brokerage Paine Webber. Though Janick, a native of Connecticut, could have settled into one his firm’s offices in Los Angeles, New York, or even London, he instead convinced the partners of Bingham McCutchen to open a branch in Portland. “I’d done the New York thing for twelve years,” says Janick, “and decided it was time for a change.” After vacationing for years on Deer Isle and falling in love with Maine, Janick says that resettling his family in Cape Elizabeth and expanding his firm’s presence in New England “just made sense.” Janick says that Portland’s location allows him to make regular business trips to Boston, and the “comfortably sized” city is loaded with exceptional food, culture (he’s a season ticket holder to the Portland Stage Company), and an abundance of options for outdoor adventures. Most importantly, however, it offers a quality of life he considers rare. “My kids,” says Janick, who is now the father of four, “were a big driver in the decision to move here.” From his office window, Janick can watch people mill about in Tommy’s Park. It’s an eclectic show down below, but Janick has begun to see himself in some of the strangers. “In the beginning, you feel like you’re the first person who’s made this move,” he says. “Then, slowly, you start to connect with others who have done the same thing.” Portland, he says, is full of people who wanted to be here and found a way to make it work. “It’s wonderful,” he says, smiling, “we’re all here because we want to be…” For specific addresses and contact information, please refer to our Resource Guide. portland_1.jpg 1. The Blue Spoon
2. Hugo’s
3. Five Fifty-Five
4. Fore Street Restaurant
5. The Front Room
6. Rabelais
7. Natasha’s
8. Aucocisco Galleries
9. Cooper Jackson Gallery
10. Cygnet Gallery
11. Books, Etc.
12. Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA
13. Bresca
14. June Fitzpatrick Gallery
15. Portland Museum of Art
16. Daniel Kany Gallery
17. Carlson Turner Books
18. Cunningham Books
19. Emerson Books
20. Longfellow Books
21. The Telling Room
22. Yes Books
23. Abacus American Craft Gallery
24. Addo Novo
25. Angela Adams
26. Bliss
27. Foundry Lane
28. Greenhut Galleries
29. Lovell Designs
30. Furniturea
31. Vignola’s

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