The Dark Side of Parkside
Maine’s most notorious neighborhood heats up again
By Chris Busby
Portland may be one of the most “livable cities” in America, as Forbes recently rated it, but its downtown Parkside neighborhood has blocks that must rank among the most unlivable in the country.
“It’s a strange neighborhood to have in a nice town like this,” said Ken, a 29-year-old musician who tends bar at one of the city’s classiest restaurants and has lived in an apartment on Grant Street for the past three years.
“We have a lot of beatings. You hear a lot of ruckus at all hours of the day and night,” he said. “You walk to the gas station a block away and get asked to buy crack … I’ve gone outside and seen six to 10 prostitutes lined up there by the cops, all on cell phones saying, ‘They got me again.’ I’ve had windows broken, bikes stolen out of the hallway. There’s always something going on.”
Ken is trained in martial arts. He is not a small man. But he won’t walk the streets of his neighborhood without a knife or a retractable baton for self-defense. He keeps a semi-automatic shotgun in his bedroom.
“Both my two downstairs neighbors got jumped,” he said. “A buddy of mine got jumped on my doorstep last summer. He’d rung the bell and called me. I looked out the window and there were three guys on him.”
Parkside has endured waves of criminal activity over the past four decades. Another appears to be cresting this summer.
“What’s worrisome to me is it seems to be getting worse,” said Kathleen, a 29-year-old teacher who owns a condo near the infamous intersection of Grant and Mellen streets. “There were some issues last summer, but this summer there’ve been a lot more serious crimes. There’s a lot of random crime.
“What you hear is a lot of anger and frustration from a lot of people,” she continued. “Just constant screaming and swearing … The other day, at two-thirty in the afternoon, I was doing some gardening and a prostitute was standing there soliciting people, yelling inappropriate things.
“My boyfriend and I are calling the cops almost every night,” Kathleen said. “There was a fistfight last night right outside our window.”
“Summertime is when stuff goes down,” said Kim, a 40-year-old artist on Grant Street who heads a social service program (and who, like Ken and Kathleen, spoke on condition their last name not be published for fear of reprisal). “Over the past eight years it’s been up and down … This year there’s definitely more activity.”
Drug dealing, assault, robbery, burglary, prostitution and vandalism are the most common crimes in Parkside, as is typical of urban areas. But these everyday plagues are periodically punctuated by high-profile incidents that, justifiably or not, make the neighborhood’s bad reputation even worse.
Like the night last year when 10 cars got torched, some of which ignited residences, including a large apartment building on Sherman Street that’s still scorched and partially gutted. Last April, Portland police fatally shot David Okot on the porch of a Parkside apartment building. The cops contend Okot had pulled a gun, but the shooting enraged the Sudanese community, whose members said they feel as unsafe here as they did in the country they fled.
In May, a young woman was strangled to death, decapitated with a sword and set on fire by her boyfriend in an apartment on Cumberland Avenue in Parkside. Earlier this summer, heavily armed officers cordoned off a section of Congress Street along the neighborhood’s southern edge after a witness reported a man was waving a gun from an apartment window (the witness had recently assaulted one of the men detained by the police, according to the Portland Forecaster; no weapon was found). Among other incidents that made news last month: a Portland cop allegedly assaulted and injured by a burglary suspect on Grant, and a pizza guy beaten with a beer bottle and robbed on the same street late at night.
“A lot of people think I live in the ghetto,” said Kim. “I feel a little sad that Parkside gets such a bad reputation and has for years … A girl got beheaded two streets up from me, but that could have happened anywhere.”
“It’s such a beautiful neighborhood,” she added. “I live in a gorgeous apartment with off-street parking, with trees all around my house, yet people from Maine are like, ‘Oh my god, you live in that ’hood?’ It has such a shady past to it, it can’t seem to shake it.”
In response to the perceived increase in crime, neighbors are organizing again to try to take Parkside back from the thugs, hookers and crackheads roaming its streets. The Parkside Neighborhood Association plans to revive its neighborhood watch program this summer. Portland’s new police chief, James Craig, said he wants to “enhance” community policing in Parkside and other neighborhoods.
Community policing and watchful neighbors did a lot to curb crime in Parkside in the early 1990s, and promise to do so again. But the until the factors feeding the mayhem are addressed, the crime waves will just keep crashing.
The darkest days
Parkside is bordered to the north by Deering Oaks, from Forest Avenue to Hadlock Field; the stretch of Congress Street between Forest and Maine Medical Center’s towering new parking garage roughly forms its southern border.
“It’s the most densely populated square mile in Maine, and the most religiously and ethnically diverse,” said State Rep. Herb Adams, a historian who’s lived in Parkside for 25 years (and represented it in the Legislature nearly as long).
The neighborhood took shape when the city pushed westward following the Great Fire of 1866 that decimated the India Street area (then Portland’s downtown). Sherman Avenue and Grant Avenue — as they were originally called, named after the Civil War generals — were laid out at this time, Adams said, and the hillside overlooking what would soon become the public park filled with three-level, three-family homes to accommodate the flood of Irish and Italian immigrants.
Parkside has been a destination for new Americans ever since.
“The ethnicity changes rapidly,” said Adams. “The latest influx of immigrants and refugees is maybe six months behind the world’s hot spots.”
Cubans migrated to Parkside during the Mariel Boatlift exodus of 1980. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought Afghanis to the neighborhood around the same time. “We also had Russians living here,” Adams recalled. “They did not mix.”
Significant numbers of Asians followed, particularly Cambodians and Vietnamese, followed a decade later by Somali and Sudanese families.
Race-based violence, though not unheard of, is not among Parkside’s big problems. “Given the melting pot, believe me, it could boil much hotter,” Adams said. “Parkside has all the challenges that come with transitory and pack-’em-in city living, and that transcends all racial or ethnic boundaries.”
There are plenty of beautiful, historic residences in Parkside (particularly on Deering and State streets), but huge tenement houses and triple-deckers divided into apartments far outnumber single-family homes. This housing conversion — and, some might say, the real trouble — started in the late 1960s, when what Adams refers to as the Wedgewood Empire began buying up homes abandoned by the World War II generation (who were either dying or moving to the suburbs) and chopping them up into cheap apartments for students and other highly transitory tenants.
“I lived in a Weggie. There was not a block of Parkside that did not have a Weggie,” Adams recalled. “It got to be pretty troublesome. A motorcycle gang moved into my building. They parked the cycles in the front hallway and would ride ’em up the stairs. I learned to use a different door.”
The Wedgewood Empire had sold off most of its Parkside holdings by the beginning of the 1990s, but so had many others — involuntarily. “There were speculators who jumped into the market just as it was going sour in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” said Adams, the last remaining original member of the neighborhood association founded during that time. “We had some very bad landlords who were high-placed people: lawyers, doctors, accountants. It became a part of town [that] was looked at as an easy buy and a quick sell — a place to generate profit, not make homes.”
Conditions in the neighborhood bottomed out in tandem with the real estate market. “That was, I would say, the lowest possible place from which you could recover in terms of rampant prostitution, open drug dealing, absentee landlordism, Berlin Walls of trash,” Adams said.
He recalled the scene at the intersection of Grant and Mellen: “There were different hookers on each corner, hollerin’ at each other — foul-mouthed, rough women working with Baltimore pimps, guys with one eye, big scars on their faces. They would be bidding and there were cars three across stopped, all yelling and bidding.”
Former Police Chief Mike Chitwood, the tough-talking cop from Philadelphia hired at the time to tackle these sorts of problems, explained to Adams how Parkside’s street grid fosters such criminal activity.
State Street and High Street, both highly trafficked one-way thoroughfares, “cut the neighborhood in two sure as scissors … and you get pockets of places where trouble concentrates,” Adams said. On the narrow, one-way cross streets, “you have to drive slow and it doesn’t attract attention. You can cruise.” Then, drugs or whore in hand, you can turn back onto State or High or Forest and be in South Portland or on Interstate 295 in a minute’s time.
As part of an anti-prostitution program Chitwood initiated back then, neighbors stood on street corners with clipboards, jotting down the license plate numbers of cars cruising Parkside. The police then sent letters to the vehicles’ registered owners, a lot of whom turned out to be housewives in Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth who were surprised to learn of hubby’s habits.
Back when the dark days were dawning, the city was spending federal grant money to plant trees along Parkside’s streets. Those saplings have now grown to cast their own darkness on the neighborhood, obscuring street lights and creating more opportunities for crime.
“There is clearly a need to somehow enhance the lighting,” said a longtime resident of State Street: Portland City Manager Joe Gray. The city reduced street lighting due to budget constraints this year, but “only on arterials,” Gray said, not in neighborhoods.
“People have been mapping the dark sides,” said Michelle, a 36-year-old office worker who lives near Gray. “There are huge swaths of deep shadow. You can’t really see what’s going on. If something happens, the street light’s so poor it’s hard to get a description of who’s doing the dirty deeds.”
The neighborhood association wants trees trimmed back to shed more light on problem blocks, and property owners have been urged to keep porch lights on all night. But the trouble is hardly confined to the small hours.
“We see a lot of blatant crime occurring in broad daylight on streets in Parkside,” said City Councilor Dave Marshall, whose district includes the neighborhood. “Street lighting plays a role, but people are really eager to do what they’re going to do, even if it’s in broad daylight.”
Random acts of unkindness
What’s causing most of the trouble in Parkside? Adams’ answer was blunt: drugs.
“I would say the rising access to crack cocaine is very disturbing,” he said. Earlier this summer, two of Adams’ friends from Boston were approached to buy crack while walking in the neighborhood.
Michael, a 27-year-old musician and mechanic, lives near a crackhouse on Sherman Street. “It’s pretty obvious,” he said. “Right out in front of my place. A car pulls up and beeps, one of the neighborhood people comes up … It’s terribly obvious and blatant all day.”
“Definitely in the city of Portland we’ve seen an increase in crack cocaine,” said Councilor Marshall. “Most of our crime is associated with the use and sale of those drugs.
“We certainly have seen a lot of arrests occur in Parkside,” he added. “The police have been very proactive in terms of crack and prostitution. We’re making some gains in those areas.”
Though disturbing, drug sales and crimes committed by addicts desperate for drug money at least have motives residents can understand. The seemingly random violence is more unnerving.
In late May, Matt McGee was walking home from his job at The White Heart, a cocktail lounge on Congress Street, around 2 a.m., accompanied by his Grant Street roommate, Paul. Two “thugged out” white guys approached and accosted them on High Street, calling them “pussies.”
“We stopped and asked if we knew them, if they knew us,” said McGee, 24, who is also white. “‘You don’t need to know us,’ one of them said … Then the other guy, out of nowhere, just hit me.”
McGee approached his assailant, who pulled a knife. Paul had been punching the other thug in the face, but his attacker was able to lift a loose brick from the sidewalk and throw it at him before both punks ran away.
Paul needed 10 to 20 stitches to close the gash in his forearm opened by the brick. McGee was hospitalized for several days with a broken jaw, now held together with a titanium plate. He’s got over $10,000 in medical expenses and no health insurance. Their attackers, as far as he knows, have not been caught.
“They were not trying to rob us,” McGee said. “They were not trying to do anything but start a fight with random people. We never even looked at them before they started shouting insults.”
Who are these people?
“There may be just one group of people doing this,” McGee said. “A group of people who have a similar interest in attacking people at random. They just want to hit people. If it looks like you’re gonna hit back, they pull knives.
“Like the attacks last summer,” he continued. “A guy I know got jumped by 10 to 12 guys [on Park Avenue]. He had contusions, a broken cheekbone, a broken jaw, broken nose — broken everything. They didn’t take anything; they just smashed his phone.”
Tom and Jess were smoking on the porch of their Cumberland Avenue apartment building late at night this past Fourth of July when a group of six young white people (four guys and two girls), apparently high on drugs, walked up. One of the guys grabbed Tom and repeatedly slammed his head against the door while the two girls roughed up Jess.
“They weren’t saying anything,” Tom recalled, “just yelling at us, cursing.” They didn’t steal anything, either — just fled back into the night in the direction of Mellen Street.
“I never felt unsafe in Portland, but now…” Jess said, trailing off. The couple have lived in Parkside almost a year. In the wake of this incident, they’re trying to move.
“It’s usually a group of people, pack behavior,” said Michelle, the neighborhood activist on State Street. Two years ago, one of her roommates was attacked by a group of teens in the neighborhood while walking home from a convenience store. One of the teens asked him for a beer, and when he complied they used the bottle (and their fists and feet) to severely beat him. Then they left, taking nothing — not even the rest of the six-pack.
Other residents said there’s no one group of people or type of person committing violent crime — random or otherwise — in Parkside, though the perpetrators tend to be young. “A lot of gangster wannabes,” said a young African man interviewed on Grant Street who declined to give his name. “A lot of kids and a lot of drug users.”
“A lot of it’s young kids causing trouble,” said Erin, a young white woman who lives on Sherman Street. “I’ve spoken to many people from different countries that have come here,” she said. “When they first come here they want to get a job, they want to make a living, and then before you know it I see them and they want to be a rap star and be on MTV. They totally get sucked into what our society has subjected them to, what they think they’re supposed to become.”
Jake, a 30-year-old restaurant worker who recently moved off Grant Street, said that during his six years there he observed “a quite noticeable increase in riffraffery,” but not by immigrants. “It was always just a lot of suburban kids or Section 8 kids who’d been watching too much MTV.”
“The only people I’ve ever seen causing problems are white kids and American blacks,” said Jake’s former roommate, David, 43, a white theater manager who still lives on Grant. “It’s a confluence of Maine redneck culture and people from other cities — Allen’s Coffee Brandy meets crack-style cocaine.”
Light at the end?
The whistling prostitute who enraged the neighborhood last summer may turn out to have been a blessing in disguise.
For weeks, residents were awakened late at night and kept up by the piercing whistles of a hooker walking Parkside’s streets — apparently communicating to her pimp.
“It was a very small network of people trying to work the street selling drugs and sex,” said Michelle, who documented the scourge on her blog, Strange Maine. “We found out there was very little the police could do because these people were very seasoned in the loopholes [of the law]. They were counting on people not complaining about the noise.”
They counted wrong.
Neighbors took matters into their own hands. On at least two occasions, residents confronted the whistler in the street. Her pimp would soon show up, warning them, “I know where you live!” He ripped off his shirt, pounded his bare chest and claimed to be a member of the Latin Kings, the infamous Hispanic street gang, but they stood their ground, and eventually the whistling ceased. It has not started up again this summer.
“The neighbors really came together to push them out,” Michelle said. “That was really encouraging. There were a lot of people really pushed to their limits, having their lives disrupted … Sleep deprivation makes people do crazy things.”
The Parkside Neighborhood Association was reenergized in the whistler’s wake. “We ended up with this huge network of e-mails and contacts from all the activity we had last summer,” said Diane Edwards, an innkeeper and former president of the PNA board who confronted the pimp and prostitute last August.
“In times like this, people tend to bond together quickly,” said Kim. “If everything is good, no one’s really talking to each other.”
Better street lighting, the neighborhood watch program and enhanced community policing all have the potential to make Parkside safer. There’s also been talk of making State and High two-way streets to calm traffic and help unify the neighborhood.
But the key to achieving lasting peace in Parkside, say some residents and city officials, lies in decreasing the neighborhood’s high concentration of low-income units owned by absentee landlords.
Gentrification is already underway.
Despite the neighborhood’s tough reputation and the tough economy, people continue to buy and renovate housing in Parkside. Some are restoring triple-deckers from apartments back to three-family units. “Condos on Sherman Street!” Adams said. “Who’d have thunk it? … Fine ones, too, that have brought fine new neighbors.”
Elliott Teel, 37, a lawyer and gallery owner, just bought a condo on Grant Street with his girlfriend, Michelle Tham, a 29-year-old energy analyst. “We haven’t been burgled yet,” Tham said hopefully. “Yeah, but we’ve been here literally one night,” Teel added.
Teel and Tham live on the western end of Grant, a block that’s considerably less dense (and less dark at night) than those to the east. Prior to this, they lived at the corner of State and Cumberland for a year, and had no problems. They’re optimistic their luck will continue.
Another approach is to increase owner-occupancy. The theory is that landlords who live on site are less likely to put up with bullshit.
“The city could really play a big part by establishing a program like the New Neighbors Program,” said Marshall, who chairs the City Council’s Housing Committee. That program, begun two decades ago and now dormant, provided financial assistance to home buyers on condition they live at the property.
A similar city program, HomePort, was created for the same purpose and is still available, but it has stipulations that limit its potential to improve Parkside. For example, properties purchased with HomePort assistance must be one- or two-family dwellings, which rules out the triple-deckers common in the neighborhood.
And federal funding for the program has not kept pace with rising property values over the past two decades, said T.J. Martzial, director of the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Services division. Properties in Parkside typically sell for between $250,000 and $300,000. HomePort is currently limited to properties valued at less than $256,025.
Assuming they continue, it will take many years for gentrification and increased owner-occupancy to effect real, lasting change in Parkside. Meanwhile, residents buckle down, use their street smarts, and try to make the best of it.
“It’s a terrible war between the feeling of wanting to give up and go away, and the feeling of wanting to fight, and the feeling of fear something will happen to you if you do something,” said Michelle.
“Last summer we were very successful making headway as a neighborhood by speaking up about it,” she continued. “But that takes a lot of energy and it takes a lot out of you. To know you’re going to have to go through that every summer, when you’re already fighting to keep your head above water with your job, is tough.
“I think a lot of people who live in Parkside, who love the neighborhood, have that problem. They love it, but is it worth it to go through that every year?”
“Everybody’s smothered right now,” said a heavily tattooed white man, interviewed on his porch on Grant Street, who declined to give his name. “I’ll tell you what, though: Portland’s the best place I’ve ever lived.
“The people are friendly,” he said. “You think there’s war right now? Every morning I come out, I got my coffee and my cigarette, I sit right here and I talk and say hi to everybody. Everybody. I don’t care what color they are — they could be green walkin’ down my street.”
A nice sentiment. Then he went on…
“I don’t care if they fought somebody. I could see a dude stabbin’ [somebody] right there in the middle of the street, and tomorrow that dude that stabbed ’em could be walkin’ right by me, and I’d be like, ‘How’s ya day goin’?’ You know what I’m sayin’?
“What the fuck do I care why he stabbed him? He ain’t my friend. Obviously, dude pissed him off.”