Downtown, Maine: Lewiston/Auburn
A travel series by Elizabeth Peavey
Fellow armchair travelers, sit back and relax for your Lewiston/Auburn getaway.
Lewiston/Auburn getaway? OK, I know what you’re thinking, and it probably involves a vision of an El Camino racing from a Quik Mart that’s just been knocked off. So, before we begin, let’s agree to dispense with all the snide remarks, insults, condescension and general “armpit” attitudes concerning these cities of the Androscoggin. It’s not nice to poke fun at Maine’s once-thriving milltowns— L/A, Rumford, Millinocket, Biddeford — especially as they struggle to reinvent themselves. Just like the homely girl with hair plugs and a boob job, at least they’re trying.
L/A, which is located about 35 miles due north of Portland — and is cruelly represented on four maps (5, 6, 11, and 12, none of them on adjoining pages) of our trusty DeLorme’s Gazetteer — seems to be leading the pack. Up until recently, I don’t think anyone would’ve believed that was possible. These linked cities have had a bad rap for a good, long time.
As a child raised in Bath in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I would take a yearly trip to Lewiston with my mom to buy cheap wool for the stiff jumpers she sewed for me on her Singer sewing machine. I considered this a gyp of a shopping trip. When we went to Portland, we rode the escalator to “The Loft” in Porteous, had lunch at the Art Gallery, and I came home with bags of new clothes. When we went to Lewiston, there was no lunch and no escalator — just pawing through scratchy wool remnants at one of the mill outlets alongside the smelly river.
Well, the Androscoggin has long since been cleaned up. There’s development and growth, a mayor so popular he doesn’t even have to be on the ballot to get elected, and a good deal of diversity, including L/A’s lively Franco-American community, a substantial Somali population, and the intellectual influx from Bates College. The cheap rents and great expanses of space (Lewiston is almost 40 square miles in area; Auburn, about 67) are luring artists and arty types to what some have termed the next new Portland. (Yeah, and if you believe that, perhaps you’d like to take a stroll through the former “next new Portland,” Westbrook. Still, a few Portland friends have defected to L/A recently and are singing its praises.)
Aside from a couple “ironic” drinking tours of L/A back in the ’90s, I had spent no time there since those mill-shopping days, so I decided to drive up and check it out, dragging my indefatigably accommodating and tolerant husband, John, along with me.
There are any number of routes that will bring you to L/A, but, as far as I’m concerned, there’s just one way to go, and that’s up Route 136 (accessed via the last Freeport exit off I-295, or via the even more scenic Route 9). Taking Route 100 out of Portland and up through Gray and New Gloucester isn’t bad, either — anything to avoid the rip-off of I-95’s extravagant tolls.
Route 136 winds through farmland and hugs the Androscoggin from Durham into Auburn. I especially like the drive this time of year, when the branches of the thin strip of trees along the bank are bare, and you can get a full view of this muscular river. The road rolls and bends as you pass by the dried stalks of cornfields, horses soaking up the winter sun, and cows in their stalls. It hardly prepares you for the jolt of arriving at Auburn’s back door, with its tenement apartment buildings, stately homes and scruffy neighborhoods. As chance would have it, however, this is the perfect entrée to our tour, since 136 terminates at Auburn’s Court Street, smack between two of our destinations: Gritty McDuff’s and Orphan Annie’s.
If you have arrived in town in need of slaking your thirst, Gritty’s is a safe first stop for Portlanders, an opportunity to get your bearings in a familiar environment. You can gaze through oversized windows across the river to hilly Lewiston, which is crowned by the magnificent Saints Peter and Paul Basilica. (There’s no shortage of peaks, steeples, turrets and spires in Lewiston — the city has a sort of architectural meringue.) The Auburn Gritty’s looks alarmingly like the Portland version, only super-sized. As someone who still longs for the pre-expansion Portland Gritty’s of yore, this is not necessarily a plus. To me, it’s like the McMansion version of a bar: Just because you can build it bigger, doesn’t mean you should.
Until I bought an old house, you couldn’t drag me inside a used-anything store. I always envied people who snagged great finds at Goodwill and junk shops, but the deranged part of my brain — the one behind the part that’s freaked out about the cootie content of other people’s belongings — always wondered, What if someone died in this faux red-leather, fur-trimmed, reversible raincoat? I didn’t want to be carting home someone else’s bad karma (I had plenty of my own). When you own an old house, you want old stuff for it, so I had to let some of that neurosis go. I can now say I know my junk and antiques shops, and Orphan Annie’s is the real deal. (Note: If it’s real deals you’re after, you’ll want to hit Orphan Annie’s’ open warehouse sale, Mondays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Owner Danny Poulin knows the market value of every brooch, bauble and bangle; you’ll find no steals in his retail store.)
Cross the threshold, and the first thing that hits your eye are the sparkles. The front room is filled with case after case of paste, costume jewelry and rhinestones. You will be bedazzled. But that’s just the beginning. As you make your way past the art pottery, vintage clothes and Art Nouveau lamps, you will descend a set of stairs and enter a second room filled floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with glass. What’s more, the glass is generally shelved by color, so all the greens and blues and pinks are together. Squint, and it’s like being inside a kaleidoscope.
If you can resist stopping at Reid’s Guns and Cigars next door, then take Court Street onto the James B. Longley Bridge and make your way over into Lewiston, catching the bold river views from Veteran’s Memorial Park, to your left. You are now on Main Street, which climbs a steep grade. You’ll pass the old-timey neon sign of Sam’s Tasty Pizza and the landmark 1908, Moorish-style Shriners’ Temple (look for the Mata Hari-esque double domes). You’ll see gorgeous examples of Victorian architecture and side streets jutting off at various angles begging to be explored. But first, I’m going to take you to the outskirts of town, so keep your eyes on the road and pay attention.
(OK, I was going to have to tell you sooner or later, so I might as well do it now: I am quite confident there is a ring in Dante’s Hell dedicated to navigating around Lewiston and Auburn. The layout of the streets here makes Boston’s streets seem like a grid. And if a married couple starts to get a little tetchy with each other when one of them is looking for a bar she only vaguely remembers from a decade-old bender, and they keep circling the same matrix of streets endlessly, neither can really be blamed, now can they? My advice: Use the basilica as a legend of sorts, get out of the car and walk whenever you can. Also, keep a map handy, and say you’re sorry when you get cranky.)
Anyway, we’re heading to another L/A institution, Marden’s. Just continue following Main Street (which becomes Routes 11/202/100) out of town until you feel like you’re almost to Canada. If you need sustenance before you shop, stop en route at Nothing But The Blues Café on College Street for great homemade soups, wholesome sandwiches and “eclectic ethnic” dishes from a menu that changes daily. Or there’s great barbecue across the street from Marden’s at Little Dan’s. The diner’s interior is cheerfully decked out in black and white and red, with comfy-looking booths, and the meats are slowly pit-smoked — some up to 14 hours. I could’ve settled in for the afternoon with a slab and a beer, but the bargains were beckoning.
Now, I know there are Marden’s all over the state, but this one is the mothership. Sprawling the length of an entire shopping center, it’s acre after acre of surplus and salvage clothing, cosmetics, furniture, flooring, housewares, sporting goods, books, food, and items that defy categorization. As I roamed the aisles, I had to keep myself from falling into my Discount Coma, in which everything starts to look like I urgently need it. I did snatch up two excellent, 1950s-style rooster dish towels, four polka-dot dinner napkins, three rolls of wrapping paper and two pairs of boots (one rubber with steel-toes and a metal buckle — sort of fireman-looking — for only $5) before I could tear myself away. A little fresh air was in order.
There are two side roads you can take off Routes 11/202/100 to the Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary (Montello Street or Russell Street), but I either undershot or missed them both. So, finding myself back in town (quelle surprise), I discovered that Sabbatus Street will also get you there. The sanctuary is located off Montello (take Highland Spring Road from Sabattus). Park in the new, spacious parking lot, grab a map at the gate and have yourself a wander in the woods. The Yellow Trail is a nice, short jaunt that will take you up an easy grade through towering stands of pine and hardwoods, past a crazy stone bench and into a stone amphitheater with a massive fireplace. Bring your binocs and do some birding, or just soak in the quiet and calm. It’s quite a contrast to the postindustrial downtown just moments away.
Sure enough, moments later, John and I were traipsing around downtown Lewiston, looking for the mystery dive bar I only half-recall through the beery goggles of memory (a lunch counter with swivel stools, an ancient bartender serving up a giant, thick, frosted goblet of draft Budweiser — the joint’s only offering — that tasted so good on a hot summer afternoon that I, beer snob that I am, almost forswore the whole microbrew movement. Was it but a dream?).
I dragged him into the Blue Goose at Sabbatus and Pine, which I had remembered as being much more fun than it was for us on this day. We had to elbow past the smokers huddled outside the entrance, then found ourselves in the midst of what appeared to be a private party (unless everyone in L/A brings their own chips and dips and cupcakes to the bar). We didn’t even stay for a beer.
Nor did we drink at The Cage (“since 1969, good grog and good times”), tucked in the hulking shadow of the basilica on Ash Street. The only patron, who was also smoking in the doorway, turned out to be the bartender. And we did not go inside Andy’s Baked Beans on Auburn’s Broad Street, despite the cajoling of the patrons inside playing pool. While we were being waved in, John, who does not share my romance about such places, looked at me and said, “Apparently, it’s not that hard to find a dive bar in Lewiston/Auburn —
just yours.” Maybe the tour would’ve been better at night.
At that point, we were starved. We wandered down by the canal, where there is all sorts of beautiful ruin — boarded-up brick Victorian warehouses, crumbling walls, a string of social clubs and pawn shops — astride some new development. The Bates Mill, where I once raked through remnants, is now a swank, renovated office-and-retail complex. Its 12 buildings stretch over six acres. A block away, a long section of Lisbon Street has one empty storefront after another, including a fabulous, derelict, Art Deco, Lamey Wellehan facade. I have to confess, I’m a sucker for this stuff. I love contrast and contradiction, this jumble of new and old, the bridges spanning the moving waters — all of it. “Lewiston/Auburn,” I thought, “is fun.”
John could see my eyes widening and probably hear my brain whirring. “No,” he said, “we are not moving here.”
Right up the street, we tried the door to Fuel, a “modern bistro” that opened last spring, but discovered they only serve dinner. We’d turned to forge on when the owner chased out after us. Would we like to have a look inside? (A very handsome place, with intimate tables and long, curving bar.) Would we like to take a menu? (Obvious French leanings: steak frites, coq au vin, fried green tomatoes, frog legs and duck confit.) When we told him we lived in Portland and promised to return, he replied, “Ah, the reverse commute.”
We ended up at DaVinci’s Eatery in the mill complex. I didn’t like the look of the cartoony sign (too mall-like), the dining room (too much like an Eggspectation) or the pictorial menu (too Denny’s), but we were desperate. My mood lightened, however, when I discovered they had Dogfish Head IPA on tap. It brightened even more when a basket of hot rolls with dipping oil was brought to our table, and when John’s side Caesar salad (to accompany his chicken Parm) subsequently arrived. The rolls were yeasty and delicious, and the respectable Caesar was large enough to split. (Actually, I don’t know if that’s true, but I ate half of it anyway. I love being married.) My grilled Portobello sandwich — which, for some reason, they called a muffaletta (clearly, they have never heard of Central Grocery in New Orleans) — was quite yummy.
When I went off to hunt down the loo in this behemoth (again with the over-the-top square footage), I discovered the place has an intimate, darkly-lit bar that overlooks a courtyard fountain. I could’ve easily hunkered down for another couple Dogfish Heads, but our day in L/A was drawing to a close. Had we decided to make an evening of it, we might’ve checked out the new music venue, The Maple Room, an 80-seat “listening room” that opened in September and features both local and national musical acts. There’s usually something going on at Bates, and the local arts organization, L/A Arts, presents a lot of stuff. Or perhaps my fella and I could’ve strolled the streets of Lewiston/Auburn arm-in arm, watching the neon flicker while taking the dive-bar tour that hadn’t seemed so appealing by daylight.
But all that, my friends, would have to wait for another time. I had a dyed-in-the-wool Portland boy to take home — that is, assuming we could find our way out.