The back entrance to the Maple Knoll Apartments in Lewiston. The 92 families who live there will be moved to new and renovated buildings so the apartments can be destroyed and turned into 194 market-rate units for workforce housing. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Ashley Medina is aware of Lewiston’s reputation. The Dirty Lew. Shootings. Lead paint. Racial strife.

“There’s such a stigma around the people here,” she said. “But I just really want people to know: Don’t look down on us. Lewiston is great. Everything you hear is not always true. And Lewiston cares about its community and we’re working hard to make it better.” 

As president of Lewiston’s Healthy Neighborhoods Planning Council, Medina is part of a broad coalition that won a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this spring, the smallest city ever to emerge from HUD’s competitive process.

Ashley Medina, president of Lewiston’s Healthy Neighborhoods Planning Council, in the city’s Kennedy Park. “There’s such a stigma around the people here,” she said. “But I just really want people to know: Don’t look down on us. Lewiston is great.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The grant is designed to revitalize the so-called Tree Streets neighborhood, a 30-block area that extends from Kennedy Park behind City Hall to Jefferson Street and the Colisee, by relocating nearly 100 families out of distressed and toxic housing; creating nearly 200 new housing units, and holistically addressing the community’s improvement via increased education opportunities, more community spaces, and incentives for private investment. 

Judging by the comments and accomplishments of those involved, it is one of the most impressive grassroots and municipal community efforts Maine has seen in recent history – a true shot in the arm for the state’s second-largest city, a place that often seems written off by its political and cultural leaders. 

“You can’t downplay the enthusiasm that we see coming from Lewiston,” Luci Ann Blackburn, acting director of the HUD Choice Neighborhoods Program, said. “A grant of this size going to a city of Lewiston’s size doesn’t necessarily happen all the time.” 

HUD received 20 applications similar in scope to Lewiston’s and awarded just five. Depending on the year, success rates are between 5 and 20 percent. The next smallest city ever to have been awarded this type of grant is Newport News, Virginia – with a population of 180,000, roughly five times the size of Lewiston. 

Blackburn praised the quality of Lewiston’s proposal and the strength of the team behind it, comparing it favorably to experienced big-city grant writers from the likes of Detroit. 

And when you look at the Growing our Tree Streets plan, it is certainly an impressive document: nearly 300 pages of goals, strategies, tactics, and testimony from the people it is designed to help.

But it’s relatively easy to create pretty documents and plans. Essential to Lewiston’s success has been how their plans and documents were created, organizers said. 

“The people of Lewiston have been working towards this grant for 20 years,” said Shawn Yardley, chief executive of Community Concepts, which will handle the “people” part of the project, supporting their move out of distressed housing before it is demolished.

“For 15 of those years, they didn’t even know a Choice HUD grant was available,” Yardley said. “There was just a commitment to listen to the people who lived in the neighborhood in a way that’s pretty unique.” 

How it happened

As with any initiative, there were bumps in the road and lessons learned.

Organizers trace the Growing Our Tree Streets plan back to what was known as the Heritage Initiative, launched in 2004 by then-Mayor Lionel Guay. Medina characterizes it as “kind of a disaster.”

Which may be putting it kindly. The plan was to raze the homes of nearly a thousand people, build a four-lane boulevard connecting City Hall and the Colisee, and essentially wipe out the Tree Streets.

Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, outside the organization’s office in Lewiston. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

In announcing the project, Guay infamously said the neighborhood had “lost its self-esteem and its zest for quality of life.”

People took issue with that. Bates College graduate Craig Saddlemire chronicled the neighborhood’s response to the plan in his documentary, “Neighbor by Neighbor: Mobilizing an Invisible Community in Lewiston, Maine.” It was a response in which he had an active role, participating in a volunteer group called Visible Community that helped throw the Heritage plan in the dumpster, and eventually serving on municipal committees.

In short, Visible Community put its collective foot down, as Tree Streets community members spoke up against the Heritage Initiative as one that was designed to destroy their community, not mend it. They wanted something better. Something they had actually participated in. 

And Lewiston listened.

The Maine Association of Planners even gave Saddlemire’s documentary its 2009 Project of the Year Award because any number of municipal planners learned quite a bit from the Heritage affair: That you have to actually listen to the members of a community if you want to learn how to fix it.

As Lewiston essentially started over, the Healthy Neighborhood Planning Council – a collection of community members from all walks of life that reflected the spectrum of community stakeholders, from long-time residents to new immigrants to business owners to landlords – was key. 

“It’s not an easy process to really gain the trust and learn who the people are and to ask for their input in a way that’s genuine,” Yardley said. “And the folks that we’re talking about don’t get asked very often, and if they’re asked they might not feel that they were listened to. There have been a lot of people for a long time who have really been committed to this.”

It’s not like there weren’t legitimate problems that needed addressing. The Tree Streets neighborhood is unique in Maine for its variety of community planning issues:

• The median income in the Tree Streets is currently $20,030, versus $29,800 for the state as a whole. 

• The median age of the Tree Streets is 30.1, compared with 44.7 years for all of Maine. 

• Just 10 percent of residents in the Tree Streets have a bachelor’s degree, versus 32 percent for the state.

• In Androscoggin County as a whole, 58 percent of dwellings are owner-occupied; in the Tree Streets, it’s just 4 percent. 

• With a large recent immigrant population, many residents are not native English speakers. At Longley Elementary School alone, students communicate in 36 different languages. While there has been much coverage of Somali immigrants since they first began arriving in the early 1990s, city planners have identified as many as 6,000 immigrants to Lewiston since 2000, from at least 30 countries. 

• And while many Maine homes, in general, were built prior to 1978 and thus likely contain lead paint, 80 percent of homes in the Tree Streets were built before 1970, and at least a third of them have been deemed “distressed” or “failing” – where lead paint truly becomes dangerous as it flakes and corrodes. Couple that with the very young population, and you have a lot of children exposed to and suffering from the harms of lead poisoning. 

Misty Parker, Lewiston’s economic development manager, on Lisbon Street in the city’s business district. Historically, she said, city government has not done a good job of engaging the public. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

It’s that last fact that was particularly galvanizing: Of the 210 cases of elevated lead in the blood of children under 6 years old in Lewiston between 2013 and 2017, 151 were from the Tree Streets neighborhood.

The literal first goal of the Growing Our Tree Streets plan is a lead-free Tree Streets housing stock and it is an issue that organizers particularly rally around. Every child under 5 will be screened for lead under the plan and every one of the nearly 1,500 dwelling units built before 1950 in the Tree Streets will be certified lead-free by 2043. 

That has enormous potential for improving public health and education levels, and it is this very issue that brought so many organizers to the table. 

“There are other proposals that have had issues with lead-based paint,” Christina Mortensen, the Choice grant manager for the city, said. “But in Lewiston, the challenges around lead paint and poisoning were something that came from the community as the number one thing.”

It’s rare, she said, to have a community so much on the same page. 

But it’s also true that just about every organizer pointed to something else as an accelerator: a pair of 2013 fires in the Tree Streets that left nearly 100 people homeless and radically affected the people of the neighborhood and their housing situations. 

‘Catalyst for change’

Medina was one of the victims of those fires.

She was already in pretty deep poverty, she said, struggling in poor housing, working as a certified nursing assistant for $7.50 an hour, attending school, and caring for two kids.

“There were bug infestations,” she said. “I would tell my landlord about it and felt unheard. It just took a huge effect on my mental health; it made it hard for my kids to sleep at night and stay awake at school the next day. There was mold in the apartment; my brother was born with lead poisoning and was born preemie.”

While the fires may have been awful, “they were a catalyst for change,” Medina said. “When I saw the community come together for all the fire victims and what they did to help us not go crazy, it was really inspiring for me.”

That community energy led to a collaboration between the city of Lewiston, the Lewiston Housing Authority, Community Concepts, the Healthy Neighborhood Planning Council, and a variety of community members in various forums. They worked together over five years to land an initial $1.3 million Choice Neighborhood Planning and Action Grant in 2018, which fueled the rest of the push for the eventual $30 million. 

And that money was pretty important in spending 18 months gathering the community input necessary to create the plan everyone is now rallying around. 

“City Hall is notoriously bad at engaging the public,” said Misty Parker, Lewiston’s economic development manager and the administrative lead on the action grant once they landed it in 2018. “It’s always at City Hall chambers, and they can’t bring their children, and it’s a pain, so we tried to have a broad spectrum of opportunities for people to participate so they could contribute however they wanted to or were available to. I think that was a priority for most of the things we did.”

Apartment buiildings on Blake Street in Lewiston. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Medina said they met people where they were. “We’d go to after-school programs, or the nutrition center, do pop-up events, just people with tables and information and having real conversations,” she said.

The action grant offered them the ability to be paid for their work and to offer food and gift cards to community members in exchange for their time and energy. Community Concepts also used some of the grant money to train people like Medina to travel to community organizing training in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. 

“There were enough little victories to keep things going,” Yardley said, “and that early action grant gave us some dollars to do something that gave people visible changes. They saw momentum. But we still have a lot of work to do.”

What comes next?

Parker knows the excitement that surrounds this project, given the size of the grant and the needs of the neighborhood, but she cautioned that people will need to be patient.

The Promise Early Education Center expansion designed to grow child-care opportunities will result in a new facility hopefully by this coming spring, as one of the first tangible results. But they are at least two years away, she said, from breaking ground on the new housing.

The developers, Avesta Housing and the Lewiston Housing Authority, are still applying for financing beyond the grant money. Two large buildings – the former Sun Journal building and Maple Knoll Apartments – have to be demolished and new homes have to be found for the Maple Knoll residents as part of Community Concepts’ work. 

Essential to moving forward, however, is keeping the team together and soliciting private-sector investment. “We expect that $30 million will mean $90 million of investment,” Yardley said, “and then it creates a ripple effect.”

Community Concepts has already helped 360 families develop their own housing through a co-op self-help program that allows them to build rent-to-own condos with collections of other families. They’ll continue with work like that in parallel with the grant work. 

As new development happens on buildings and vacant lots Community Concepts already has agreements to buy, the 92 families in Maple Knoll will move there and into similarly renovated spaces, allowing their existing units to be destroyed and turned into 194 units via the Avesta and housing authority work. 

And those new units will be market-rate for workforce housing, not traditional low-income housing, allowing a mixed-income group of families to enter the Tree Streets neighborhood. It will both forestall gentrification and avoid concentration of poverty, all while attracting commercial activity, Parker said.

“It’s well-planned to provide a mix of affordable and market-rate units to ensure that current residents are not priced out of their units,” she said. “And we’ll still be able to support those folks as they advance economically, as well as those looking to come and live downtown.” 

These initiatives affect more than simply the Tree Streets, Parker emphasized, helping the entire state to address a worker shortage, for example, by creating opportunities for skilled workers to affordably move to the state without competing with current residents who want to put down roots.

“We want homes, not housing,” Medina emphasized. “We want people to own their homes, to stay, to invest in their community so it’s somewhere they feel safe, somewhere they feel it’s accessible.”

And that may mean housing that’s non-traditional and flexible, designed for the future, Yardley said. Families that are large today may get smaller as children age and move out, so they’re creatively looking at things like six-bedroom units that can be converted into two three-bedroom units down the road.

Those are the kinds of ideas that only come about by “putting lots of people in a room together,” Yardley said. “It usually leads to lots of interesting discussions, but at the end of the day it will be a better plan, and that’s what we believe we’ve done.” 

Parker is pleased with the results so far but cautions their model might not be one that fits another community’s efforts.

“The biggest learned lesson for us,” she said, “is that if you first don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s why we had so many different opportunities for community input. We did have to try a lot of different things to see what would work, and even at the end, we realized that certain people were missed and we kept going back to engage them. 

“If you find it’s not working, don’t be afraid to scrap those plans until you’ve found a successful way to do it.” 

It might even take almost 20 years.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].

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