A talk with Annie Wadleigh
By Brittany Dion
Earlier this month, the University of Southern Maine scrapped plans to pave a parking lot over the small green space next to the building it owns at the corner of High and Danforth streets, in Portland’s West End. The city’s planning and historic preservation boards had both frowned on the project, but the activism of local artist Annie Wadleigh – an administrative assistant at Maine College of Art who attended meetings and collected over 100 signatures from neighbors opposed to the plan – was also a big factor in the university’s decision.
The Bollard: When I first heard this story, the thing that struck me the most is that you worked so hard to maintain such a small green space.
Wadleigh: I think that although it’s small, it’s still very vital to the neighborhood. Even people I’ve talked to that have never used the space talk about just loving to see it and its visual effects. It’s just a beautiful little space [that’s] big enough that it matters.
Imagine a parking lot there…
Yeah, I mean that kind of space just becomes dead when it’s a parking lot. You know, they talked about buffering and landscaping, which is nice, but it doesn’t give the right kind of change for the character of that corner and, really, the entire neighborhood.
A lot of people signed a petition and were in total agreement that they didn’t want that space to leave. Deering Oaks is great, the Western Prom is great, and all the other parks that we have, but right in this area, that’s kind of the only green space we have… It’s like a little oasis.
So, this is a public area?
Well, it’s owned by USM, so it’s probably through the kindness of USM that they allow people to go there. However, it’s a public university…
I do sympathize with USM’s parking dilemma, because it is very hard. Where I live, we don’t have parking either, and it’s a struggle. I can relate. It’s the same for when I go to work. It’s very hard. It’s hard for everyone. Everybody hates that challenge. But I think that you have to balance the value of 14 spaces that would kind of ruin that area for as long as it was there [against] the green space that has been there 45 years and has a strong history in that area.
Only 14 spaces – really?
Yeah, that’s all that could really be fit in that area. The other argument [against the plan] is that they needed so much parking that [USM] would still need to find other alternatives, so it seemed like a short-term solution.
Should Portland include these types of green spaces in the city parks system?
Well, it’s owned by USM, so they are in charge of the maintenance, but I think it’d be great if they sold it to the city. That’s a whole separate issue, but overall, I’m just really grateful they’re going to keep it the way it is…
I know that it seems like a small issue, but I think also part of what made me want to do something about it is that there are so many huge issues you can’t do much about, but this was in our own neighborhood – it seemed possible to save it. People could voice their concerns and work with the city…
I mean, in the beginning, I sort of felt apathetic. I had the attitude, like, Why even bother to do anything?, because I thought it was pretty much a done deal – parking is such a huge issue. But through the process, I learned that it really is people who voice their concerns that have the power for change. It’s a good learning process, even if things don’t go your way.
Also, the city can seem like this big sort of entity, but when you go to these community meetings, you see that they are individual people. They might have different opinions than you – in this case, I was fortunate that they shared the same opinion as myself – but you realize on a personal level that [city officials] do have the concerns of the everyday citizen.
I think the tendency is to be apathetic and feel as if you can’t do anything, or that it’s not worth the effort. But then you think, It’s really important to me, and it inspires to you do something. I really felt good about the process. Anyone can do this.