A View from the Hill: Sea change in the blink of an eye

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In March of 1998, 25 years ago, my newspaper colleague and friend, Bernie Wideman, and I started a boating magazine called Points East from a 48-square-foot cubicle on Newbury Street in Portland’s Old Port.

A decade later, we sold the magazine to current publisher Joe Burke. For keeping it alive for the last 15 years, Joe deserves all the credit. He asked me to write a column for the magazine’s anniversary issue, on the streets now. 

Andrew MarstersI recalled being interviewed in a Portland TV station’s newsroom. 

Hours later, we were handing out the free magazine to the crowds who passed by our table at the Maine Boatbuilders Show, which Phin and Joanna Sprague hosted at their boatyard, Portland Yacht Services, then in the old Portland Company complex on Fore Street and since moved to Commercial Street.

Then my thinking took a turn.

All that reminiscing got me thinking about the staggering changes that have taken place in that little corner of Portland over the last quarter-century and the many big and small stories that the neighborhood had to tell. We didn’t know what we were witnessing at the time.

Our office was in a cooperative space on the third floor of the former Shaarey Tphloh synagogue, built in 1904. The congregation had moved on, and when we moved in the building was owned by Realtor Ed Gardner.

We shared the space with a wonderful community of graphic artists, writers, and entrepreneurs. The front of the space was occupied by Coast of Maine Organic Products, whose now-ubiquitous bags of organic fertilizer were printed with the island art of the talented and popular Eric Hopkins. The company was launched in 1996, two years before our magazine.

Coast of Maine was later sold by founders Carlos and Jean Quijano and now occupies the entire third floor of the synagogue. The historic building that once dominated the neighborhood is now dwarfed by towering condominium complexes.

We moved in and settled into the business of publishing. And I got to know the neighborhood.

At least three times a day I would head to Coffee by Design at the corner of Newbury and India Streets for coffee and a chat with owners Mary Allen Lindemann and Alan Spear, who had opened their first shop on Congress Street in 1994 in what was known as the Porn District. They are credited with helping to launch the now thriving downtown Arts District.

Today they still operate the India Street and Congress Street stores, as well as a headquarters on Diamond Street and a cafe at L.L. Bean in Freeport.

For lunch I would wander over to Foodworks, another new business at the time, run by Pam and Rob Hastings, and still operating today after a move a few doors up India.

Across from the original Foodworks was the sprawling Jordan’s Meat factory, which occupied an entire block and employed about 300 people. Opened in 1962, the factory closed in 2004 and sat empty until it was destroyed in a spectacular fire in 2010. A hotel later took its place.

For a sit-down lunch with a friend, I might have headed to The Village Cafe on Newbury Street, a dark, friendly, and popular 550-seat Italian restaurant founded as a 20-seat diner in 1936 by Vincenzo and Maria Reali and passed through two generations of Realis.

The Village was sold in 2007 and was later razed to make room for the Bay House condominiums.

Before the smell of roasting coffee beans and brewing beer wafted through the neighborhood, the sweet odor of baking bread at the John J. Nissen Company on Washington Avenue dominated. Started in 1900 at Woodford’s Corner, the bakery moved to Washington Avenue and came to employ 250 workers. Sold in 1995 and again in 1999, the bakery moved to Biddeford.

And that was just the start of it.

Looking back, I don’t know that we were aware of the profound changes coming to the neighborhood, even though they were hardly incremental. Perhaps it’s hard to grasp change from ground level. Perhaps we were distracted by our efforts to get our business off the ground.

But as we know now, the old India Street neighborhood in which we landed in March of 1998 would never be the same.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.