Welcome to Nowhere
Reconnecting an amputated neighborhood
By Emma Deans
Visitors arriving this summer by bus or train at the new Portland Transportation Center can peruse colorful brochures touting The Forest City’s walkable streets, unique business districts, and livable neighborhoods. Once outside, these travelers must wonder if they got off at the wrong stop.
The station sits on Thompson’s Point, a spit of land in the Fore River estuary that’s been almost entirely paved over. Cars and trucks rush along Interstate 295, which knots itself into a dangerous five-leaf clover of on- and off-ramps in this area. Taxis, buses and trains spew exhaust into the dusty, treeless landscape, while jets roar overhead on the way to and from the airport nearby.
The closest sign of civilization is to the north, Congress Street, but this section of Congress looks like any other commercial strip next to a major highway — gas stations, a hotel, franchise restaurants. On a barren traffic island in the shadow of an overpass, a small metal sign screwed to a wooden post tells you this place has a name: Libbytown.
Once a cohesive community of working-class families, Libbytown was effectively severed from downtown Portland 40 years ago by the construction of I-295. Hundreds of homes and over a dozen businesses were displaced by the project. Two-way streets became one-ways and dead ends, quickening traffic and creating isolated pockets of residential life. Transients encamp in the strips of wilderness still standing along the weedy train tracks.
By now, Libbytown has lost so much of its character that it’s practically disappeared.
Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion said that when he started working in Libbytown 33 years ago — the sheriff’s office and county jail are here — the neighborhood was “much more prominent.” These days, most Portlanders “couldn’t pin Libbytown on a map,” he said.
Libbytown “really doesn’t have an identity. It doesn’t have a sense of place,” said Jaime Parker, trails manager for Portland Trails, a group trying to reconnect the neighborhood to the peninsula.
Portland Trails initially set out to find a way for pedestrians and cyclists to safely travel from the transportation center to Deering Oaks and the Hadlock Field/Portland Expo section of Park Avenue. The station’s location is “really troubling, to be honest,” said Parker. “It just feels forlorn and it’s not a welcoming place.” He would not recommend anyone unfamiliar with the city arriving by train or bus at night. “Their first introduction to the town should not be a dark, scary, unsigned, unclear, confusing route,” Parker said.
As the trails organization studied the area further, it came up with a host of other ways to help make Libbytown a part of Portland again. The ideas, contained in a report presented to city officials last October, include the elimination of unnecessary interstate exit ramps and making Park Avenue and Congress Street two-way thoroughfares in this area.
Car-centric urban renewal effectively amputated Libbytown from downtown decades ago, and efforts to correct that mistake over the coming decade could help. But that’s a relatively small part of the solution. As the revitalization of Munjoy Hill and Parkside attests, to revive a neighborhood you need an active and engaged group of neighbors dedicated to that goal. And it’s an open question whether this fractured community has the will to come together again.
“Eat dessert first”
Many longtime residents blame Libbytown’s decline on the interstate, but some recall the demolition of Union Station as the beginning of the end. The huge passenger rail station, with its stately clock tower and gabled roof, brought life to the neighborhood for most of a century. Its destruction in 1961 spurred the formation of Greater Portland Landmarks and modern day efforts to preserve Portland’s historic places.
A 1974 article in the Portland Evening Express cites Myles Anderson as the unofficial “mayor” of Libbytown. Then age 67, Anderson explained that this part of Portland was originally dominated by Irish Catholics, who designated it Libbytown, rather than Libby’s Corner, its original name. “The name Libbytown had a warmth about it that the Irish never found in Libby’s Corner,” Anderson told the paper. “Besides,” he quipped, “the Irish don’t like to be cornered under any circumstances.”
The Libby family emigrated here from Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century and established three businesses between Park Avenue and Congress Street: a tavern, a blacksmith shop, and a paint store. There were 17 Libby families registered in the area during the 1850s, and about 100 by 1890. The neighborhood begins on the west side of St. John Street and follows along Congress up to the intersection with Stevens Avenue at Westgate Plaza, beyond which the Stroudwater neighborhood begins.
On a warm afternoon last spring, a mother on Whitney Avenue leisurely unearthed weeds and planted tulips on her front lawn. Around the corner from an auto repair shop, a barefoot woman wearing stretch pants and a gray t-shirt smoked a cigarette, watching as a crushed milk jug made its way down Congress Street, repeatedly being hit by cars. On Douglass Street, a tattooed man wearing a red baseball cap backwards told someone on his cell phone about his upcoming court date.
If there’s a center of Libbytown these days, it’s where Bolton Street meets Congress. Besides two gas stations, a couple homegrown businesses with deep roots in the neighborhood still occupy the intersection: Anania’s Market and Tony’s Donuts.
Established in 1965, Tony’s Donuts is the kind of neighborhood gathering spot the Dunkin’ Donuts and Denny’s down the street will never be. A sign in its window could be Libbytown’s motto: “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”
Owner Rick Fournier’s father opened the shop in 1965 and emphasized personal service. “My father used to do it, now I do it, and my daughters do it — it’s about talking to the customers,” Fournier said. “Your customers become your friends and that’s the biggest part: making new friends.”
When Fred Dillon and a handful of neighbors tried to establish a Libbytown neighborhood association many years ago, they met at Tony’s Donuts. “A group of us started to get together to go through the not very glamorous part of developing bylaws and actually getting organization,” he said. “We met with other neighborhood groups to learn what they were doing and got a lot of help from them.”
The nascent group got media coverage and generated some interest among other Libbytown residents, but after a couple years the effort petered out. “It became a question of just a few of us doing the work and people kind of tailing off on meeting attendance,” said Dillon.
Dillon grew up on Gilman Street, just beyond Libbytown’s St. John Street border. He’s lived in Libbytown for the past 17 years. When he moved to Davis Street, Dillon recalled being really excited to have kids show up for Halloween, but “we’d get no one,” he said. “Literally no one would show up, ’cause they won’t cross Congress.” Likewise, Dillon enjoys biking with his twin 11-year-old daughters, but he won’t let them ride around the neighborhood by themselves, “because it’s scary” due to all the traffic.
“There’s a lot of potential, and I keep talking about trying to revive the neighborhood association,” Dillon said between bites of a pastry at Tony’s. But for that to happen, “it either needs to be a really charismatic person — which isn’t necessarily me — and/or a catalyzing event.”
Last exit to Libbytown
One event that could catalyze neighborhood involvement will be the opening of the city skatepark at Dougherty Field. After years of planning and much debate among neighbors and city officials, the paved play area for skaters, bikers and bladers is expected to be completed this summer.
The skatepark is part of a larger redesign planned for Dougherty Field, a former landfill that’s also the site of West School, the city-owned Kiwanis Pool, and baseball diamonds used by local little leagues. City Councilor Dan Skolnik, whose district includes Libbytown, said Dougherty Field “will gain a higher profile among city parks” once the improvements are made.
“More and more people, especially Libbytown residents, will go there for recreation or hanging out,” Skolnik (who recently began contributing texts for comics in The Bollard) wrote in an e-mail. “With the new skatepark, we can expect to see skaters from all over Greater Portland visiting, and I hope this will spur Metro to provide more buses to the area.”
The future of West School is also up in the air, so to speak. The facility, site of adult education classes and a day-treatment program for students with behavioral problems, has become so rundown that it would not be cost-effective to renovate it. School district officials are currently eying other locations for its programs, and its demolition seems likely.
The city has applied for funding to improve the unsightly stretch of Park Avenue that leads into Libbytown. And Portland Trails’ proposal to create a Libbytown Trail connecting the Portland Transportation Center to Deering Oaks — mostly by bridging and improving existing byways, at a cost of about $500,000 — is being actively pursued. “Maybe in the future, downtown office workers will commonly walk to work and back,” Skolnik said. “That would also promote the sense of Libbytown as a neighborhood and not a pass-through area.”
Other recommendations in Portland Trails’ report— like restoring two-way traffic on Congress and Park — are still just ideas. But city officials say state transportation planners agree that two interstate exits made “redundant” when new ramps connecting I-295 to the Fore River Parkway were built five years ago should be removed. “Though the lots are not huge, we could realize … a revitalization of the area by turning this land into sellable lots,” Skolnik wrote. However, Skolnik also noted that the present value of the land inside the loops probably wouldn’t justify the expense of removing them, so “we might leave the project for a more stable time.”
As a major gateway to the heart of the city, Libbytown’s significance extends well beyond its borders. “There’s a huge economic development aspect to this, in that we want to bring people to Portland, we want to provide a good experience when they come,” Parker said. “If that first impression of Portland is a train station stuck in the middle of nowhere with no clear way to get to town, that’s a problem. That’s a big problem.”
“I have to be realistic and say that if in 10 years we haven’t made substantial progress, then I’d be disappointed,” Parker said. “But I don’t expect that it will happen overnight.”
In other words, eat dessert first.
Emma Deans recently graduated from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, where this story began as a project. She lives in Portland.