Occupy Portland Tours
An imaginary tour of Portland’s real history
By Chris Busby
Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome aboard the Occupy Portland Tour Bus/Boat!
Today we’ll be embarking on an adventure through the history of class warfare and capitalistic oppression in Maine’s largest city. You’ll see the grand mansions of the 1 percent and have opportunities to boo. We’ll visit the sites of notorious crimes, like the Bank of America branch in Monument Square. And at the end of the tour, we’ll splash into Casco Bay and try to make a wave big enough to spill the martinis of the plutocrats lounging on their pleasure craft.
A few reminders. We don’t have a microphone, but please don’t start doing that repetitious “people’s microphone” thing. We finally came to consensus that it’s really, really annoying, so just listen up.
Also, admission is by donation. The items we currently need are: money, gas, gas money, Ramen, a Maine boating license, and smokes. Speaking of which, smoking is permitted onboard, but please do not throw butts out the window. That’s illegal here in Portland, and we’re recycling the tobacco for the communal roll-your-own fund.
So here we are on the scenic Eastern Waterfront, a moonscape of vacant lots and surface parking. The birthplace of famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is right over there, on the corner of Hancock and Fore streets. Can’t see it? That’s because the house, which was turned into a museum, was torn down in 1955 to accommodate an expanding business that’s long since gone out of business. So much for history. The site is memorialized with a plaque stuck to a big rock on the sidewalk outside that chain hotel.
There’s a statue of another famous Portlander nearby, but that one’s also hard to see. George Cleeve was the first white guy to invade this section of Native American territory and build a homestead on their land. There’s a tall granite phallus at the top of Congress Street honoring the paternalistic imperialism embodied by Cleeve, a land speculator who also sold the fur of murdered animals, but a seven-foot bronze statue of him ended up behind a chain-link fence well off the walking path.
One of Cleeve’s descendents tried to give the statue to the city about a decade ago, but then someone pointed out that one of Cleeve’s workers, a man named Oliver Weeks, may have actually been his slave. The records that survive are inconclusive on this point, but we’re sure that whatever his status, Weeks wasn’t paid a living wage. Assuming he had student loans, he probably struggled to pay them off. So we don’t mind that this piece of public art has been banished by the government.
OK, off we go! As we head west along Thames Street toward Commercial Street, you may notice that Portland’s waterfront is not a gently sloping shore. That’s because we’re driving on a landfill. Back in the mid-1800s, the wealthy white dudes who ran this town dumped tons of dirt and rocks and junk into the two beautiful coves along this part of the peninsula. They buried Broad Cove and Clay Cove so train tracks and terminals could be built for the robber barons who owned the railroads. Acres of pristine marine habitat were destroyed in the interest of the elites. Enjoy the view!
Here we are on Commercial Street. What’s that terrible smell? Dead fish? That’s close. It’s actually the working waterfront that’s dying, and that smell is the rotten stench of failed government policy. Where are all the fishermen? Most are either bankrupt or in Massachusetts, which is almost as bad. As you can see, these days the docks are crowded with restaurants, condos and law offices. Pretty soon the only fish you’ll find down here will be fried and served with tartar sauce.
What happened? Well, it’s a complicated story, but I think we can all agree former Maine Governor John Baldacci deserves a lot of blame. Most of the fishermen left on his watch, lured south by cheaper diesel and the ability to sell lobsters incidentally caught in their fishing nets. We might catch a glimpse of the former governor on this tour. He works on the waterfront now too, for his cronies at Pierce Atwood, the high-powered law and lobbying firm that moved into a huge warehouse next to the Fish Pier last year. Keep your eyes peeled for something small and shiny, like a herring wearing an expensive suit.
We’re gonna skip the rest of the Old Port. There’s not a lot to see here. It’s mostly bars, tourist traps, gelato joints and pricy boutiques that won’t let you use the bathroom unless you buy something. If you do need to go, let me know and we’ll swing by Starbucks.
We’re heading up Danforth Street now, to Victoria Mansion. This monument to economic inequality was completed in 1860. It was the summer home of a one-percenter named Ruggles Sylvester Morse, a slave owner and Confederate sympathizer who got filthy rich running luxury hotels in New Orleans. Republicans love to wander around this mansion, admiring its gilded interiors and reminiscing about the good old days, before the social safety net and child labor laws, when more than half the population couldn’t vote or earn a wage because they had the wrong genitalia or skin color. If the Occupy movement existed in Morse’s day, chances are we’d be camped on that prick’s front lawn.
Moving on, you’ll notice the low-income housing developments and apartment buildings give way to brick mansions as we approach the Western Promenade. In a delicious bit of irony, the gorgeous views once enjoyed by the tycoons who lived here have long since been ruined by giant metal tanks holding the precious pollutant that made their fortunes possible: oil.
The mansion over there with the “for sale” sign in front has an interesting history. The Catholic Church bought it in 1938 with the noble intention of turning it into a home for impoverished old ladies, but the neighbors complained about that, so the church made it the official residence of the bishop. The idea of a leader of a church dedicated to helping the poor living alone in a 16-room mansion was apparently less appalling to the aristocrats in the neighborhood. The church put the property up for sale last year and moved the bishop to a $600,000, three-bedroom house in the suburbs. The pope recently appointed Maine’s bishop to oversee the diocese in Buffalo, but he plans to hang around long enough to help deny gay people the right to marry.
Moving along, we’re now on Congress Street, Portland’s main drag. To your right is the home of Neal Dow, an early advocate of alcohol prohibition nicknamed the Napoleon of Temperance. Occupy Maine has no official position on prohibition, but given our experience with certain occupiers during the Lincoln Park encampment, some of us now favor its reinstitution. Dow’s conduct during the Portland Rum Riot of 1855, during which he called in the militia and ordered them to fire on protesters, killing one and injuring seven, is an early example of heavy-handed police tactics stifling the freedoms of speech and assembly. Boooo!
As we head downtown, look to your right and left and you’ll see the casualties of numerous injustices walking down the sidewalks. The mass deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, cuts to drug treatment programs and the failure of our public schools are all on living, breathing display!
To your left is Congress Square, where many of these afflicted citizens gather to drink, smoke and street-preach. The fat cats who own the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel recently kicked out and paid off a bunch of 99 percenters who’d been living there, and now they want to turn this public square into a private ballroom for the glitterati. You guessed it: we’re against that. Please sign the petition being passed around now.
OK, now on your left you’ll see Portland City Hall. Millionaire developers go here to get big tax breaks and the rest of us go here to pay off parking tickets so they’ll take the boot off our car. That’s about all I’ve got on this one.
As we ascend Munjoy Hill, note the Portland Observatory on the right. Captain Lemuel Moody had this 65-foot observation tower built in 1807. He paid grown men $2 a day for their labor and boys 50 cents. Even accounting for inflation, that sucks.
Get ready, folks — we’re about to splash into Casco Bay! There’s no quacking on the Occupy Portland Tour, but you’re welcome to shout the name of an incompetent health care provider who botched your diagnosis because you’re uninsured.
Straight ahead is Fort Gorges. A shining example of profligate and pointless military spending, the fort was completed in 1865, just as the Civil War was ending and advances in the manufacture of explosives had made the fort obsolete. The more things change, eh?
Beyond the fort are the islands of Casco Bay, the havens and playgrounds of the one percent. The little one over there is House Island. In the first third of the last century, immigrants were “quarantined” on this island before being allowed to mingle with the general populace. It’s owned by rich people now, but it’s up for sale. Anybody got an extra $4.85 million?
No, well — uh-oh … hang on folks. It looks like the bus/boat is taking on water. Please don’t untie the life jackets, pontoons and buoys strapped to the bottom of the bus. That’s what’s keeping us afloat.
Looks like we’ll have to land on House Island and occupy it for awhile until we find the leak. In the meantime, you’ll find cardboard and markers beneath your seats. Start thinking of some catchy slogans and brace yourself for impact.