Portland, Straight Up

by Cliff Gallant
by Cliff Gallant


I walked by the Congress Street office of Portland Downtown one recent evening and was aghast at what I saw. The organization had changed its name (it used to be Portland’s Downtown District), and its new logo, freshly affixed to the glass on the front door, had a glaring mistake: Est. 1633. Everyone knows Portland was founded in 1632, not 1633. The correct date is right there on the George Cleeves monument atop Munjoy Hill and in the local history books.

Oh, happy day. I couldn’t wait for the next morning to arrive. A mistake, a mistake, and I’d be the one to set them straight. I even found myself kind of rehearsing how I’d go about telling them. With modesty and good humor, certainly, yes, but make it brief, I decided. They will, of course, be very embarrassed, so I’ll leave right away and smile kindly at them as I go out the door.

None of this came to be, though. I found out later that evening, on social media, that I was far from the first to spot the error. Over the past few days, a virtual chorus of voices had arisen on the subject, from everyday concerned citizens to an elite corps of local historians — including the venerable Earle Shettleworth, the recently retired Maine State Historian.

Get this, though: Portland Downtown is defending their use of the 1633 date and refusing to change their logo.

While conceding that Portland was indeed founded in 1632 — the year Cleeves and his associate, Richard Tucker, landed and began living on the peninsula — the organization says the settlement did not blossom into a place of commerce until 1633: the year when, they contend, trade began. In other words, the City of Portland was established in 1632, but downtown Portland wasn’t established until 1633.

If someone presented you with that argument during a face-to-face conversation, you’d want to reach out and tweak their nose.

Here’s some background. Portland Downtown, a nonprofit that’s technically separate from city government, paid a local ad agency, Pulp+Wire, the generous sum of $8,000 to create and roll out their new logo. Since the backlash began, the agency has tried to defend its mistake by spoon-feeding their client, and the public, that revisionist history crap about commerce and a “downtown” that was supposedly “established” before there was even a town.

To say the logo reeks would be going easy on it, by the way, even apart from the highly questionable date. My sharp-eyed editor noticed that it’s a blatant rip-off of the iconic Tom’s of Maine logo.


So, why did Pulp+Wire include the dubious date in the first place? Don’t they know Portland Downtown’s mission is to promote the city’s central business district, not rewrite its history? Maybe the answer is that everyone at Pulp+Wire is 17 years old and goes to oxygen bars a lot. I don’t know, but there’s a section on Pulp+Wire’s website that attempts to provide some insight into the question: “The new logo was the [sic] developed over three months [sic] time while working closely with the exceptionally talented and visionary downtown district board … An upward arch mirrors the sloping hills of downtown [?] that rise towards Munjoy hill [sic].”

Anyway, Pulp+Wire was ready for the raucous reaction the logo inspired. They’d prepared a handsome graphic with a timeline, spanning the years 1623 to 1786, that claims Cleeves and Tucker actually settled the peninsula (then known as “the Neck”) in 1633, the year they “build the first house” and “cut down the first tree.” Too bad Pulp+Wire didn’t devote their creative energies to making a decent logo in the first place, rather than preparing an elaborate defense of it, but there you go.

A personal note: In 1982 the city had a huge celebration to mark what everyone considered to be the 350th anniversary of its founding. As an ad rep for the Press Herald back then, I was heavily involved in the promotional aspects of the event, so this founding-date issue feels kind of personal to me. For what it’s worth, I can tell you it was the downtown merchants who proposed the celebration and made it possible. It never occurred to them — or anyone else, for that matter — that the city and its downtown could have been established in different years.

This whole affair got me thinking about a few other mistakes that have been made around town lately.

Like the Nova Star ferry to Nova Scotia. Big mistake. I got my first hint that things might not work out while I stood in line for an hour, with about 2,000 other locals, to tour the ship when it first arrived, and the company didn’t even collect our contact information. There were a couple other ships that made the same run in decades past, and their companies always made an effort to contact interested locals with price specials and other promotions, so they wouldn’t have to depend exclusively on the tourist trade. No interest in that on the part of Nova Star Cruises, though. So, for this and a multitude of other mistakes, the ship sat in Portland Harbor this fall, arrested, with blue police lights on the bow and stern. What a sight.

The recent redesign of Spring Street was a mistake made in an attempt to correct what may have been the biggest mistake in the history of the city: the tearing up of Spring and Franklin streets, and the neighborhoods around them, half a century ago, and their replacement with four-lane arterials crisscrossing the peninsula. The congestion and confusion caused by the reconfiguration of the intersection at Spring and High resulted in a flurry of accidents that prompted the proprietors of an adjacent restaurant to wonder whether they’d be putting customers’ lives at risk if they offered sidewalk seating again next summer. At least city officials had the flexibility to correct their mistake once it was made obvious — unlike, well, some others.

The street-level time-and-temp sign on Congress needs to be included here, too. I don’t know if this can really be described as a mistake — maybe it’s more accurate to call it an aggravating oversight — but Daylight Savings Time ended Nov. 1 and, nearly two months later, they still haven’t set the clock back an hour. This oversight occurs with some regularity, actually — like, every time DST begins and ends. I don’t know how we survive it. What an outrage.

So, there you have it — an abundance of other people’s mistakes and shortcomings everywhere we look. Oh, how delightful.