The Portland Phoenix

‘Neighboring is a verb’: Less of a drive-by, more of a community in Portland’s Woodfords Corner

Woodfords Corner mural

A mural at 684 Forest Ave. in Portland's Woodfords Corner neighborhood, where the emphasis is on building community. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

When many people think about Woodfords Corner, they probably think about traffic, followed by a groan or glance towards the clock tower that looms over the intersection.

But what passers-by might be missing is that this car-clogged village center has more than meets the eye, according to the Friends of Woodfords Corner.

Woodfords Corner is the second-busiest intersection in the state, consistently clogged with cars and trucks to serve its state-mandated purpose: Moving people and goods in and out of Portland.

University of Southern Maine graduate student Meghan Kirschbaum, left, and Teresa Valliere, president of the Friends of Woodfords Corner, with a map of the neighborhood at the nonprofit’s new headquarters in the historic Odd Fellows building. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

It belonged to what was once the town of Deering before it was annexed into Portland in 1899. The corner’s development included many small businesses that faded away over time as shopping centers sprang up in nearby towns.

But these days, residents and businesses are urging those stuck in traffic to take a closer look. There are unique restaurants, historic buildings, and a variety of ethnic markets in a budding neighborhood with lots of potential.

Teresa Valliere, president of the Friends of Woodfords Corner, said the group started in 2015 when some neighbors got together to clean up and develop the area. It became a nonprofit in 2017, and then the only Main Street America affiliate in Maine in 2019.

“It was kind of grim here, let’s be honest,” Valliere said. “It always had these historic buildings, but there was nothing really happening.”

Being an affiliate of Main Street America, a national network of more than 1,200 neighborhoods, helps Friends of Woodfords Corner promote the area as a village hub, working on factors like care for public space, economic vitality, and public engagement.

Engaging with City Hall for the revitalization of the area was the first step. But part of the challenge was to not only deal with the busy intersection but also to highlight it as a commercial hub, Valliere said.

William Dowd grew up in the Woodfords Corner neighborhood and worked in California before returning to open Bird & Co. “I wanted to be here in Woodfords Corner, where I grew up,” he said. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

The neighborhood made front-page news this spring for a deadly shooting and assault in the 100 block of Woodford Street, which Valliere called an anomaly in her 20 years living nearby. Four men have been arrested in connection with the alleged murder.

Valliere said there are houses that have had trouble with drug-related activity, but the city has been working behind the scenes with neighbors and property owners to address those issues.

The Friends of Woodfords Corner office is on the second floor of the Odd Fellows building, one of the area’s five historic properties, at 651 Forest Ave. The Odd Fellows block was built in 1891 and for a brief time the citizens of Deering hoped it would serve as their town hall. In the early 1900s, the building was used as a multi-purpose space for several businesses.

Now, as perhaps the most recognizable building on the corner, it also has new ground-floor businesses and is the cornerstone of a neighborhood – designated by a half-mile radius around the intersection – that is home to 24 restaurants and 13 markets where as many as 12 or 13 languages are spoken. 

Setting the Friends apart from a typical neighborhood organization is its support for the corner’s businesses, which are mostly mom-and-pop shops. One of the newer ones illustrates just how deep the corner’s roots go.

Bird & Co, a taco spot at 539 Deering Ave., opened in 2019. Its owner, William Dowd, grew up in the neighborhood.

Diners at Bird & Co. in Portland’s Woodfords Corner neighborhood. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Dowd said his dad opened Bottoms Up, a bar that preceded The Great Lost Bear, which has been on Forest Avenue since 1979. His mother worked at the old Valle’s Steakhouse, which eventually became Woodford Food & Beverage.

He spent some time after college running Mexican restaurants in California, but when it came time to open his own, there was only one place Dowd wanted to be. He looked elsewhere in Portland but he kept circling back: “I wanted to be here in Woodfords Corner, where I grew up,” he said.

Dowd said he doesn’t think the neighborhood has changed much over time.

“People are saying it’s been revitalized,” he said, “but it’s always been cool. They’re just noticing it now.”

What is different, he said, is the change into a real neighborhood rather than just a drive-by – which has led to a demographic of young people and families who frequent Bird & Co. 

The variety isn’t limited to sit-down restaurants either.

The Elhag family, originally from Saudi Arabia, runs Foodie Friends Grocery & Restaurant, a Halal market, at 630 Forest Ave. Khaled Elhag said his dad was looking to open a store when they came across the availability in Woodfords Corner two years ago. He said it’s been a very friendly environment for the business.

Khaled Elhag at Foodie Friends Grocery & Restaurant, a Halal market his family owns at 630 Forest Ave. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

Meghan Kirschbaum, a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine, has been working with the Friends of Woodfords Corner as an extension of the Muskie Policy Planning and Management Program.

Kirschbaum said society tends to ebb and flow when it comes to how privatized peoples’ lives are. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, she said, there was a peak in privatization. But the swing back towards neighborliness and community is in progress, and Woodfords Corner is an example.

“It’s interesting to watch that come back,” Kirschbaum said. “It just gives you a little bit of hope.”

One of the corner’s newest businesses hopes to contribute to the growth of community.

In mid-October, Back Cove Books will open on the ground floor of the Odd Fellows building. Owner Becca Morton has been living in the neighborhood for 10 years and said she’s looking forward to building upon what Woodfords Corner already has to offer.

“These neighborhoods are filling up with people who want to be connected to each other. It feels like a budding community,” Morton said, and that will be reflected in her plans for making the bookstore a “third place” – somewhere other than the home or the workplace where people can gather.

“We don’t have outside space, but we’re going to have plenty of seating inside, cozy areas for people to sit and talk,” she said.

The facade of Woodford Food & Beverage reflects activity at Woodfords Corner in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Like Bird & Co and other neighborhood businesses, the bookstore will cater to a variety of residents, with art by local artists, as well as story time for families with young children. Another benefit of a bookstore, Morton added, is that it’s a business that can be truly reactive to what its customers want: she has been encouraging folks to let her know what they hope to find in the store.

Valliere said Friends of Woodfords Corner sees the neighborhood as providing a “happy medium” that allows residents to not be cramped on top of each other, while still getting to know their neighbors and local business owners. It will be emphasized at CornerFEST on Sept. 23, when local businesses, artists, and restaurants will have pop-ups on the street, along with music and entertainment.

She said the festival will be an opportunity for residents to meet their neighbors or for people who haven’t recently experienced the neighborhood to see what Woodfords Corner has to offer.

Stopping at the corner instead of driving by is all it takes.

“Neighboring is a verb,” Valliere said, and it’s happening at Woodfords Corner.

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