Portland wasn’t exactly a city on the move as it entered 2010 and began a new decade. It seemed more like a city idling in neutral.

Still facing the effects of the Great Recession, city and school officials struggled to balance budgets with declining revenues, developers couldn’t secure funding to move forward with new projects, and the number of people without homes or in substandard apartments was on the rise.

Now, Portland is cruising in overdrive, after a decade of dramatic change in Maine’s largest city.

Bayside American Cafe waiter Lloyd Yesberger carries a tray of food upstairs to patrons, while others wait to be seated for brunch at the popular Portland restaurant on April 9, 2017. Carl D. Walsh/ Staff Photographer

Portland poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “beautiful town that is seated by the sea” has established its reputation as a small destination city and appears regularly on national rankings as a top place to visit, due in large part to its working waterfront, historic charm, foodie reputation and tourist-friendly businesses. The decade has produced a seemingly endless list of options for fine dining and craft breweries, distilleries and wineries, with chefs and brewers among the best in the nation.

To host all those visitors, more than 521 hotel rooms have been added and another 600-plus are in the pipeline. And hundreds of apartments are listed for nightly or weekly rental on websites such as Airbnb.

Portland embraced technology in a big way during the decade, with streetlights that provide free WiFi, traffic lights that analyze and react to traffic flow, and video cameras worn by the city’s police officers. The city manager’s vision of a smart city also includes self-driving buses to shuttle people on and off the peninsula.


But with change has come growing pains.

Portland renters experienced steep rent increases – including a 40 percent spike in the first half of the decade for a typical two-bedroom unit.

People gather on Noyes Street near the scene of a house fire on Nov. 1, 2014, that claimed six lives. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

In 2014, the city experienced one of the deadliest fires in Maine history when six young adults were killed by a blaze in a duplex with known code violations. In response, the city ramped up housing safety efforts. Buildings changed owners. Investments were made. But more low-income and affordable housing was lost.

What began as a ripple eventually grew into a wave of gentrification – one that continues to wash over the peninsula, especially the East End, where some residents are fighting to create a historic district in hopes of retaining what character remains.

City neighborhoods were reshaped by new development, often in the form of luxury condominiums, hotels, office buildings or parking garages.

Affordable housing has become more scarce, forcing the workers in Portland’s booming service economy to struggle or move out. And in stark contrast to the city’s prosperity and low unemployment rate, homelessness and addiction are growing crises.


“Overall, the 20th century took a long time to make it to Maine, but the 21st century has hit Maine hard,” said Herb Adams, a former state legislator, historian and adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College. “Yankee Maine is a land of steady habits where change comes slow. But when the rubber finally hits the road, places like Portland feel it first.”


As the decade began, the global economic collapse of 2008 was still fresh and Portland was swept up in demonstrations happening across the country to protest the growing income inequality and the financial institutions whose predatory and irresponsible practices brought about the Great Recession.

Heather Curtis hands her mother, Dawn Peterson of Falmouth, contents from her tent as she and other Occupy Maine members dismantle their tents in Lincoln Park in Portland on Feb.6, 2012. John Patrquin/Staff Photographer

Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, a group calling itself Occupy Maine took to the streets in Portland in the fall of 2011 and built an encampment in Lincoln Park, between City Hall and two courthouses, that included a geodesic dome and a library.

The movement grew into a nearly five-month standoff between the demonstrators, who had no clear goals or objectives, and city officials, who became increasingly worried about public safety at the encampment. As snow fell, demonstrators went to court to argue for their First Amendment right to occupy the public space. They ultimately lost and the broke camp in February of 2012.

“The act of protest itself became the point,” Adams said. “They were an important symbol that something was seriously wrong with society. Will we listen? Will we change?”


Brenda Lynn Gould of West Paris marches with a sign that says “resist” during Women’s March Maine in Portland in 2017. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It wouldn’t be the only time national outrage manifested itself in Portland during the decade.

Black Lives Matter protesters shut down Commercial Street in 2016 to protest police killings of unarmed black men in several other states. Donald Trump’s election as president sparked women’s marches across the United States in 2017, including one in Portland that drew more than 10,000 people.  And rallies in support of immigrants drew hundreds when newly-elected President Trump began clamping down on immigration.


Voters in 2010 approved a fundamental change in city government that, 10 years later, is still considered a work in progress.

Rather than having a mayor appointed by city councilors to serve part-time for a one-year term, voters approved a full-time mayor, elected by voters citywide, to serve a four-year term. The newly defined mayor’s post didn’t have any executive power to implement policy or run daily city operations, but was envisioned as a leadership position that could coordinate the council’s work and put it into a cohesive vision for the city.

Its long-term success is still a much-debated question. Some have blamed the hybrid position for conflicts at City Hall, and the high-profile position has contributed to an exponential increase in the amount of money pouring into municipal elections.


Mike Brennan became Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in nearly 90 years. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Voters have changed mayors in each election since the job was created. Michael Brennan became Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in nearly 90 years, but was ousted by Ethan Strimling, who was ousted by Kate Snyder. Snyder was inaugurated in December as part of a historically diverse City Council composed mostly of women, immigrants and people of color.


Portland clearly established itself as a political trend-setter.

It became the first municipality in Maine to use ranked-choice voting, successfully demonstrating the unconventional method during a 2011 mayoral race that allowed voters to rank 15 candidates in order of their preference.

Today, ranked-choice voting is used throughout Maine to choose U.S. senators and representatives – a first in the nation – and in primaries for state legislative and gubernatorial nominations. And voters in Portland will be asked in 2020 whether to use the voting method for all City Council and school board races.

Photographers wait to take photos of Michael Snell, left, and Steven Bridges at Portland City Hall on Dec. 29, 2012, after they became the first same-sex couple to wed in Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In 2012, Portland became the first Maine community to perform a same-sex marriage, opening City Hall at midnight as soon as the new state law went into effect. It was the first to declare recreational use of marijuana legal – which it did in a 2013 referendum, three years before the state Legislature followed suit.  And in 2015,  it became the first Maine community to establish its own local minimum wage, higher than the state and federal minimum wages.


Portland also was the first to require businesses to charge customers for single-use plastic bags, and the first to charge property owners for the amount of storm water draining off their properties. The money is used to fund costly upgrades to sewer and stormwater systems mandated by state and federal agencies.

There were limits to Portlanders’ appetite to lead the way. Voters turned down a proposal in 2015 to create an even higher, $15 an hour minimum wage. And, after months of studying and tinkering, the City Council opted not to become the first community in the state to require business owners offer earned paid sick time to all employees. That vote ostensibly stemmed from the state Legislature creating a statewide paid time off mandate.


The last decade has seen Portland’s meteoric rise as a destination for foodies, craft beer enthusiasts and other tourists.

Customers enjoy beers at Bissell Brothers Brewing Company’s tap room. The Bissell brothers went from producing beer in their garage to a large brewery and bustling tap room. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In 2010, six breweries and two wineries called Portland home. Today, the city hosts 19 breweries, 11 wineries and eight distilleries. That growth was fueled mostly by a change in state law that allowed tasting rooms to charge customers for samples, creating a beer tourism industry with family-friendly social clubs featuring live entertainment, games and food.

The city’s restaurant scene continues to grow and receive national accolades, as evidenced by Portland being named the “2018 Restaurant City of The Year” by Bon Appetit magazine.


Guests seen through the window during a Wednesday night dinner at Chaval. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The area’s chefs are regularly nominated for coveted James Beard Awards. And several have won, including a godfather of city’s craft beer scene, Rob Tod, who owns Allagash Brewing Co.

The food at breweries is often provided by a food truck sitting in the parking lot – another culinary experience to take root in Portland within the last decade. First allowed to operate in Portland in 2012, food truck operators are now licensed with the city, 45 of them in all.

And, along with growth in overall tourism, the number of people disembarking cruise ships has nearly doubled, from 81,749 people on 67 ships in 2010 to 153,564 people on 99 ships in 2019.


Portland’s quirky side was alive and well,  providing a fair share of amusement and a few viral stories – whether it was the city’s legal action against a downtown whistler in 2013, a pair of dentures left in a voting booth in 2017 or the colorful owner of a local diner owner snapping at an out-of-state couple because of their fussy child.

Darla Neugebauer, owner of Marcy’s Diner, works the grill in July 2015. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

“Who knew calling out (expletive) parenting made you a bully? Whatever,” former diner owner Dara Neugebauer famously wrote on Facebook in 2015. “The only thing I am sorry for is that child has to grow up with such terrible parents.”


And who could forget the mysterious and ill-fated Google barge of 2013? Envisioned to be a floating showroom, the barge was anchored off the city’s western waterfront for nearly a year before being hauled off and eventually scuttled because of safety concerns.

Then there were some legitimate attempts at performance art. One Portland artist drove around town with a giant hay ball strapped to the top of his Toyota Yaris. Another artist dressed up as a pine tree and crossed Congress Street at a glacial pace, bringing mid-day traffic to a standstill.


The most dramatic and long-lasting changes in Portland come from an explosive period of development. City planners have said the development boom is rivaled only by the rebuilding efforts following the Great Fire of 1866, which destroyed a third of the city’s downtown.

Consider the India Street neighborhood on Portland’s East End.

In 2010, vacant, weed-strewn lots sat directly across Thames Street from the Ocean Gateway Terminal on the eastern waterfront. More vacant land surrounded Hancock Street, including the site of the former Village Cafe, along with more vacant parcels just across Newbury and Middle streets.


Development transformed the India Street neighborhood, including this area of vacant lots near Portland’s waterfront. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Today, all of those sites have been developed into upscale hotels, condominiums or office buildings, including the new glass-walled corporate headquarters for the payment processing firm Wex.

Also on the East End, a series of buildings in the former Portland Co. complex has been demolished as part of an ambitious plan to redevelop the 10-acre waterfront site into a new mixed-use neighborhood, resembling the Old Port. Shipyard Brewing Co. is undergoing its own transformation into a new beer-themed hotel, or brewtel.

And, as the decade comes to a close, an Old Port developer has just applied for a zone change that would allow him to build a 25-story building downtown. It would be by far the tallest building in Portland.

All of this change has brought about anxiety and public opposition, especially on Munjoy Hill, where developers have been tearing down traditional triple-decker apartment buildings and constructing boxy buildings with luxury condos.

“More than ever in Portland, neighbors have a strong sense of citizenship and caring about what makes their part of town special and livable and worth keeping, and there’s more neighborhood associations with that spirit than ever,” Adams said. “And that spirit is a sign and a symbol that the city would do well to listen. When the city does not, that results in the rise of these public referendums.”



The anti-development zeitgeist first reared its head in 2013.

The Eastland Hotel had just been sold to a developer from Ohio, who later renovated the building into the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

The council had voted to sell the adjacent Congress Square Park so it could be turned into an event center, culminating months of debate, opposition and protests. In response, residents launched a citywide campaign and successfully overturned the sale through a referendum that established greater protections for Portland’s open spaces.

Today, the park is alive with activity, thanks to an energized friends group. Throughout the warmer months, volunteers clean the square, plant flowers, place colorful seats, tables and umbrellas in the park, and organize a host of community activities and concerts.

Munjoy Hill residents and advocates for the working waterfront have convinced city officials to enact several development moratoriums, one of which led to the preservation of views across the city from Fort Sumner Park. And a lawsuit forced a developer to scale back a massive development project, called Midtown, that was slated for Bayside but never built.

Some other citizen referendums aimed at reining in development and gentrification have not been successful, whether it was the effort to protect scenic views or to give neighborhood residents the power to block zone changes or an effort to institute a form of rent control.


Portland said goodbye to a number of local institutions, including The Pepper Club, Sangillo’s, Silly’s, Momma’s Crow Bar, Happy Wheels and Rufus Deering Lumber Co., whose site is now being redeveloped into condominiums.

“I am smart enough to know my business model won’t work in a city destined to be Seattle, which isn’t meant to be a slam it is just my opinion of where Portland is going,” Silly’s owner Colleen Kelley wrote on Facebook when announcing the closure of her landmark East End restaurant. “I don’t want anything but wonderful things for Portland, Maine, I have enjoyed many years here. However, I am a fat woman who serves fat, over-portioned food and I won’t charge 24.00 dollars for 4 oz of dip and some pita bread.”

The demolition of Joe’s Smoke Shop began on Dec. 29, 2015. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Joe’s Smoke Shop on Congress Street was torn down, but reopened on the first floor of a new apartment complex. Paul’s Food Center closed after 40 years downtown. And Mike’s Guitar Grave pawn shop left downtown after 15 years and moved to South Portland.

And 2019 was the final year of the Old Port Festival, an early summer staple for the last 46 years. Organizers said the annual event was no longer needed to draw people downtown.

“The festival is an event that’s achieved its mission,” said Casey Gilbert, executive director of Portland Downtown, the nonprofit downtown improvement group that ran the festival for 20 years. “It started at a time when the area was in need of economic development.”



The city found itself in court numerous times in the last 10 years, primarily justifying zoning changes to accommodate development proposals. The city prevailed in most zoning cases, but suffered some high-profile losses in other arenas, including infringements on the freedom of speech.

In 2013, the city enacted a “free speech buffer zone” around Planned Parenthood’s downtown office. The goal was to push anti-abortion protesters across Congress Street, so people accessing medical services were not subjected to shouts and incrimination. But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling the following year against a similar buffer forced the city to repeal its ordinance.

That same year, the city passed an ordinance banning panhandling and other loitering in street medians. That too was struck down by the federal courts.


Despite an economy that appeared to be booming in many respects, numbers at the city-run emergency homeless shelters have only increased. In 2010, the city-run Oxford Street Shelter served a total of 1,402 men. In 2018, that shelter served 1,872 people, including 465 women. That’s a 34 percent increase over eight years.

A team led by Oxford Street Shelter director Rob Parritt canvasses an Interstate 295 overpass near Fitzpatrick Stadium during Portland’s annual Point-in-Time homeless count. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The city has been recognized for its efforts to house the chronically homeless. But those efforts have been challenged by economic forces as demand has increased for housing among retiring Baby Boomers and young professionals. Low-income renters with housing vouchers can no longer pay market rents, so they remain in city shelters for longer periods and in some cases lose their vouchers simply because no housing is available.


In addition, more than twice as many people in the adult shelter report that they are struggling with substance use. Ten years ago, 43 percent of those staying at Oxford Street self-reported as having substance use issues. Eight years later, that portion was 88 percent. And the last decade brought a shift from alcoholism to addictive street drugs such as opioids and crystal meth.

Those numbers reflect only those who are staying in the city’s shelters and does not include the increasing number of people who are choosing to sleep outside in tents, doorways or on other people’s couches.

Meanwhile, the city is planning to move the Oxford Street Shelter out of the Bayside neighborhood to the Riverton area near the Westbrook city line. The move follows the relocation of the city’s public works operations out of Bayside, which opened up large chunks of peninsula real estate to redevelopment.


The city’s shelter for homeless families has seen a dramatic rise in the number of people from foreign lands who came to the United States to seeking asylum from violence and persecution and saw Portland as a welcoming community and a safe haven.

The city set up an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo for an influx of asylum seekers in the summer of 2019. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Just last summer, more than 450 people seeking asylum showed up in a period of weeks, prompting city officials to use the Portland Expo building as a temporary shelter. That was followed by a smaller wave of nearly 200 people who have arrived since late November.


The influx highlights a shift in immigration patterns in Portland, a city that has long been a hub of immigration for Maine. The shift from refugee resettlement to asylum seekers has presented a unique challenge for city officials.

Refugees typically spend years in camps waiting to be let into the United States, then arrive with federal support to meet their basic needs, such as housing, food, medicine, education and more. And they are allowed work as soon as they arrive.

Asylum seekers are typically professionals, business owners or workers who have the means to come to the U.S. on their own to escape violence and persecution based on political, religious, ethic and other grounds. They are legally present no matter how they got here, but they do not receive federal support and are not allowed to work for months, or even years, after they arrive. For many, the homeless shelter is their only option.

Portland has maintained its commitment to sheltering those in need over the last decade regardless of where they come from, defying efforts by former Gov. Paul LePage to reduce funding or adopt more restrictive rules.

When LePage won a court case to make asylum seekers ineligible for public assistance, Portland stepped up and created its own fund. And Portland residents have welcomed all newcomers, helping to donate more than $1 million in 2019 to help newly arrived families of asylum seekers, many of whom risked their lives to get here.

“There’s no question that the face and pace of immigration has changed abruptly and the city’s reaction to it has been generous and openhearted thus far,” Adams said. “My concerns is, will the feeling of generosity and open heartedness continue if the wave of immigration continues?”

These are just some of the surprising ways Portland has evolved over the last decade. How long can Portland continue to grow at this pace? Will it be able to address climate change and rising sea levels and prevent areas like Bayside, the Back Cove and the length of Commercial Street from going under water? Will it move forward with plans to relocate its shelter of Bayside?

What happens next over the next decade is anyone’s guess.

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