Pedestians walk along the east side of Forest Avenue, just south of Woodford Street, Jan. 17, in Portland's revitalized Woodfords Corner neighborhood. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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It’s Thursday night, the bar is packed, the dining room full, and customers are sipping local craft beers as regulars and people stopping in for the first time mix to enjoy a night out in Portland. 

Packed bars and restaurants have long been the norm on Portland’s peninsula. But this is Woodfords Corner.

Off-peninsula neighborhoods like Woodfords and Deering Center have lacked the delights of the Old Port and Arts District. But soaring prices, a shift back to smaller local businesses, and the rise of ride services that can have you there in minutes are giving people a reason to venture off the peninsula.

Woodford Food & Beverage at 660 Forest Ave. is a cornerstone of Portland’s off-peninsula rebound. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Those who do are finding that new businesses and vision from area residents have breathed life into once-sleepy neighborhoods and that some off-peninsula neighborhoods really have it going on.

Perhaps nowhere has this shift been more evident than around Woodfords Corner, which had been best known for traffic jams at the busy five-way intersection. 

In 2015, with three major capital projects for the area looming, residents took action: They formed Friends of Woodfords Corner to work with state and city officials to improve pedestrian access, aesthetics, and the sense of community in the neighborhood. 

Since then, new businesses have opened, including Woodfords Food & Beverage, Portland Community Squash, Little Woodfords coffee shop, and Maiz, a Colombian street-food restaurant. The neighborhood is also home to Portland Ballet and the Snowlion Repertory Company.

Leah Koch has lived in the nearby Deering Highlands neighborhood – one of the neighborhoods represented by the Friends – for nine years and is co-chairwoman of its neighborhood association. She said while the Highlands is mostly residential, the “dynamic” changes at nearby Woodfords Corner over the past few years have made a big impact on the entire area. 

Koch said the neighborhood group has done a “wonderful job connecting residents in the area with the local businesses.”

Leah Koch is co-chairwoman of the Deering Highlands Neighborhood Association: “There are so many benefits of living in this area,” she said. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The Friends have an events calendar that includes Spanish and Latin Dance classes at Maiz, a weekly early morning mindfulness group at the Woodfords Club, free public squash clinics, and neighborhood get-togethers. 

“When I first moved here, I missed living in an area that was more walkable to businesses and resources. But over the years, that has improved with the businesses popping up around the neighborhood,” Koch said. “There are so many benefits of living in this area and I am so happy we discovered our neighborhood on the hill.”

Nearby Deering Center has also seen an influx of businesses in recent years. Longtime neighborhood businesses – including the Quality Shop, Roy’s Shoe Shop, and Pat’s Meat Market – have been joined by Rwanda Bean coffee, Elsmere BBQ & Wood Grill, Abura skincare, Honor Movement Studio, and the Darby Jones gift shop. 

Abura, Honor Movement and Darby Jones are part of a new mixed-use development at 502 Stevens Ave. that includes a pocket park, parking, and six residential apartments. Called 502 Deering Center, it received a GrowSmart Maine Outstanding Project Award in 2018.

John Thibodeau, head of the Deering Center Neighborhood Association, said the new businesses, the addition of the winter Portland Farmers’ Market, and the creation of affordable senior housing at the Motherhouse on Stevens Avenue are all changes for the better. He also noted the neighborhood’s schools – pre-K to graduate within a mile – and open space at Baxter Woods and Evergreen Cemetery are draws for home buyers. 

502 Deering Center on Stevens Avenue in Portland is an award-winning building that contains businesses and residential apartments. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

But along with the changes have come challenges.

“As Portland becomes more a place of destination, Deering Center, like the rest of the city, has seen property values and hence property taxes go up significantly. Which is good on one hand, but also creates challenges – making it increasingly difficult for people to be able to afford to move to and live here,” Thibodeau said. “We’d love to see more affordable housing in Deering Center, especially for families. Also, we’re hopeful our neighborhood can become more diverse in the coming years.”

Adam Powers, co-owner with Jeremy Rush of Elsmere BBQ, said that after 16 years working in the Old Port, a huge part of their business model was to not be on the peninsula. They opened first in South Portland in 2013, then in Deering Center in 2018.

“The Old Port is awesome, don’t get me wrong,” Powers said. “But it’s hectic. We wanted a much more relaxed atmosphere, something more tucked out of the way.” 

They also wanted to be family friendly, something they felt was missing in Portland. “Our long-term vision is we want to be a cornerstone for both of the neighborhoods we’re in,” Powers said.

Elsmere hosts local nonprofit fundraising nights twice a week at both locations, and a community tree lighting ceremony in Deering Center in December.

Elsmere BBQ and Wood Grill at 476 Stevens Ave. opened in 2018. The owners were seeking a more relaxed, family-friendly vibe than downtown Portland could provide. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Besides people from within the neighborhood, Powers said they see a lot of customers from Westbrook and Gorham who are “dipping their toe” in Portland, but don’t want to deal with the peninsula and its battle for parking.

Not all neighborhoods have experienced the same renaissance as Woodfords and Deering Center. In recent years East Deering has welcomed Float Harder, the Other Side Deli and Diner, and most recently Monte’s Fine Foods market and pizza restaurant. 

But Ed Anania, who has run a market and sandwich shop on Washington Avenue for the past 20 years, said the neighborhood hasn’t changed much. Businesses have changed hands, but largely stayed the same. Longtime businesses include Botto’s Bakery, which celebrated its 70th year last year, Chip’s Service Center, and Portland Motor Sales, which have both been in business for more than 20 years, and Howie’s Pub, which has been open for more than 15 years. 

Anania said the biggest change in East Deering has been in demographics. When he first opened Anania’s, a large percentage of the neighborhood was Italian immigrants, he said. Now the neighborhood is more diverse, with residents coming from around the globe. And more young people are moving in.

“When I first started there were more families. Now there’s a mix of single people and young couples. I’d say it’s about 50/50 now,” Anania said.

Kim Myers, a Realtor with the Bean Group, said she’s had clients looking to buy in East Deering because it’s an easy bike ride to downtown along Baxter Boulevard or over Tukey’s Bridge. But she noted that the reason clients are looking off-peninsula is because they can’t afford the peninsula.

“All of the people I’ve sold to on the peninsula have been from Boston and New York,” Myers said. 

Branden Rush outside his North Deering home. He settled in the neighborhood after living in Baltimore and New York City. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

At the end of the year, she said, there were four single-family homes under $600,000 on peninsula and none under $400,000. “A lot is price driven,” Myers said. “More and more people are moving to the area. Younger buyers are priced out of the peninsula.”

Myers said top off-peninsula neighborhoods are Woodfords, Deering Center, and Rosemont – places where there is “stuff happening and you can still walk to a restaurant.”

“I do think that a lot of buyers are looking for these little communities because they’re more intimate,” she said.

Branden Rush is a new Portlander who opted to live off-peninsula in North Deering. He had lived for a long time in Baltimore, but came directly from New York City.

Rush said in Baltimore there is a city center, but the residential neighborhoods all surround that. He came to Portland with that mindset and didn’t really consider living on the peninsula. He was also looking for an easy commute to his job at Bates College in Lewiston. 

Although he moved last August, Rush said he has been too busy settling in to explore his new neighborhood much, but hopes to explore the trails and bike paths in the spring.

“I liked it a lot because it’s still in the city,” he said, “but not city prices.”

Freelance writer Lori Eschholz lives in South Portland.