Is Portland, Maine, the new Portland?

Not if Mainers have anything to do with it

Portland, Maine.
(Image credit: Enrico Della Pietra / Alamy Stock Photo)

Where are you from? This question is always both complicated and simple, and especially so in Maine, where you can only be from one of two places: Maine or away.

In Maine, all non-Mainers are, by definition, "from away." When I'm in Maine, I am absolutely and definitively from away — I didn't grow up there, I've never spent more than a few weeks there, and I have no family in the state — but the term is more malleable than you might initially think. While I was in Maine last month, I asked a friend who grew up in the Portland area if she was a Mainer. She said it depended: Her parents had only come to Maine in the '80s. They were from away, and their from away-ness was passed down to her.

"But you're probably less from away than all the people moving to Portland right now," I said. "Maybe the more completely from away people arrive, the more Mainer you become."

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Maybe, but it's chill consolation at times. In the last decade, the from away people — all us unlucky non-Mainers who just live in "away," somehow — have discovered Portland, and the city is changing to accommodate them. New luxury condo buildings are popping up like mushrooms on a fallen log. Some make a concerted effort to blend in with the brick- and widow's-walk-heavy architecture of Portland, but many look like they could just as easily be in Houston or Denver or San Jose. Or Portland, Oregon, for that matter.

I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and though my parents are from away, that distinction matters a lot less in Portland, Oregon, than it does in Portland, Maine. In the city I started calling "my Portland" while I was in Maine, new residents have also started arriving from away — actually, they started arriving about 15 years ago, and now we have the luxury condos to show for it. Portland welcomed this influx of new visitors, partly, I think, because we were so used to being forgotten that we were happy to get any attention at all.

When Portland was mentioned in national media before the Portlandia years, it was usually depicted as a kind of Mithlond: the city you moved to when it was clear to everyone that you had given up. On ER, Dr. Doug Ross talked about moving to Portland after a crushingly tragic experience with a young patient (he ended up moving to Seattle, where he may have settled in next door to Sleepless in Seattle's Sam Baldwin, another man driven out of Chicago by heartbreak). In Broadcast News, Albert Brooks, unable to hack it in a D.C. newsroom, moves to Portland, too. And in Hello, Larry — a short-lived Diff'rent Strokes spinoff that aired between 1979 and 1980, and may have been the first TV show set in Portland — the theme song says it all:

Well, Hello Larry!

You talk to people all day for a living

But all those easy answers you are giving —

Are you really living your life that way?

Portland is a long way from LA

(A long way!)

"Portland" is synonymous with "loser." Or was. Now, it's the kind of place that people actually move to on purpose — and many of the city's locals, and to an even greater extent its local government, have embraced this new role. And — aside from the unsustainable effect this has had on the housing market, and the fact that so many of the people who can actually afford to live in the city these days are from away — I find this all, perhaps a little pettily, to be embarrassing. Why are we so desperate to be appreciated? And how far will our need for popularity push us? (Anyone who has actually seen Hello, Larry, as I have, has also watched staggering amounts of TV, and knows that a previously uncool kid desperate to stay in the popular crowd is probably a hair's breadth away from helping to murder a teacher, as so many Lifetime movies have demonstrated.)

Will Portland, Maine, look like Portland, Oregon, in a few years? I don't know. I hope not. And I think the Portland that is not my Portland, and will never be my Portland, and will tell me so in no uncertain terms, has better chances — and not just because it's so far away from California. For one thing, Mainers have been catering to tourists and part-time residents who come from away for about as long as such a distinction has existed. As such, everyone understands the logic of the tourist economy: You're here to buy what we're selling, in the form of cottages and lighthouses and lobsters and sweaters and Maple Sunday. But you won't stick around to help with our non-tourist economy or our politics or our opioid epidemic. That's fine. We didn't ask you to. You want to see our picturesque side, but not the more complex realities of living here — of belonging here. So take the picturesque side, and go back to away, wherever away is, when you've had your fill.

We all fall in love with places that see us as being "from away" — some more than others. But as we wonder how to build our homes in a world where the idea of being local to anywhere can seem increasingly old-fashioned, Mainers' definition of what it means to belong somewhere — to not just own a part of it, but to belong to it — seems especially crucial. If you have the freedom to settle anywhere you want, don't ask for a place to sell you a fantasy. Accept the complex realities — the problems, the hardships, the need for your help — that make a place your home.

And then, if you can make that commitment, in two or three generations, your descendents might just be able to get away with calling themselves Mainers.

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