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Old 02-26-2007, 02:04 PM   #1
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Are Portsmouth and Portland Siblings?

Now, I like Portsmouth a lot, but is it fair to call it Portland's older brother? It was settled 9 years earlier--an insignificant time period some might argue--and is three times smaller. Also, except for market street and surrounding environs, which are like a smaller old port, I fail to see any resemblence between the two cities. dont get me wrong, I like Portsmouth, very much in fact, but my question is do you think it is similar enough to portland to be called its brother? i think the differences are as great as those between portland and boston.

Pondering Portland Maine


Maine?s biggest city is a hub for business, boutique shopping, fine dining, fine arts, waterfront activity and more. Real estate is affordable. Housing is plentiful. The future looks bright, but what about Portland?s past? At first glance ? and second and third, etc. ? the city?s history is difficult to uncover.

Portsmouth's Younger Brother is
Big, Tough, Creative & Shy About His Past

We love downtown Portland, Maine and my wife and I have long discussed moving there if Portsmouth gets too cute for words. Portland is bigger and, despite its own gentrification, less manicured and rougher around the edges. There still are a few vacant lots, cheaper condos, unflipped apartments and affordable office spaces.

Compared to our delicate colonial architecture, Portland buildings are monumental with thick elephant-foot foundations, gigantic doors and windows and multiple stories. Many are topped with square observation rooms that offer 360-degree views. Portland itself seems hacked from a ragged hillside like a fortress. With a metro population of 230,000 -- ten times that of Portsmouth ? there is more of everything. Portland has more space, more parking, more homeless and poor, more crusty fishermen, more artisans, more opportunity and fewer millionaires.

We make day trips, but every year we spend a weekend in the city, settling into some hotel and wandering the shops and galleries. Decades ago my brother Brian sorted fish on the Portland wharf. Today he is a college professor, and in the intervening years Portland, like Portsmouth, has refined its gritty commercial harbor into a sophisticated mix of boutiques and superb restaurants ? without loosing its hardknuckle personality as Portsmouth?s rugged big brother. The two cities even share a lot of the same shop names ? JL Coombs, Bliss, Paper Patch, Kennedy Studios, Breaking New Grounds.

Portland, the state?s biggest city, seems to see itself as the Boston of Maine. Augusta, the capital, thinks otherwise. The northerners I know think of Portland, the way Portland thinks of Kittery, which is the way Portsmouth thinks of Seabrook ? too close to a foreign border. Portlanders seem to think little of Portsmouth at all.

"You talk a good game in Portsmouth," a Portland businessman once told me. "You demand a lot of attention, but there isn?t much going on there. I see Portsmouth as a good place to stop for a pee on the way to Boston."

Somewhere along the way Portland branded itself as a center for the Arts with the Portland Museum of Art and the Maine College of Arts at the hub. It worked. Last weekend we caught the PMA exhibit on surrealism while a local jazz band played live. There are so many artists and wannabees in Portland that their impact is palpable. Painting and sculpture and music are ubiquitous. This plays nicely against the old Downeast view that culture isn?t much good if you can?t use it to pound a nail. Sure, Portsmouth is artsy too, but not with the same desperate urban Darwinism and commercial fervor.


But because of its population and support at the state level, Maine kicks New Hampshire?s butt in the Arts. The state has lately adopted the rising field of "fiber arts" which is not, as I first thought, about getting more roughage in your diet. Fiber arts are those connected with organic art materials like reeds for baskets, wood for papermaking and wool for textiles. It is all very crafty and back-to-basics and blends nicely with Maine?s large Native American population, farming, tourism, literary traditions and folk art.

Downtown Portland still has bookstores, lots of them, old and new, while Portsmouth is down to one. I?d forgotten what it was like to comb through aisles of dusky antique volumes on shelves 10 feet high. Then we took in the exhibit on broadsides at the Maine Historical Society, an incredibly professional display co-curated by Portsmouth resident John Mayer. The exhibit alone is worth the quick one-hour drive north. I?ve been known to hop a bus to Portland for the day just to wander about, and now there is a train there from Exeter. We forget that Portsmouth is as close as Manchester and Concord and Boston and, increasingly for my money, worth more frequent visits.

Portsmouth still has advantages. We?re statistically a couple of degrees warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. When it comes to dining out, for our size, this city can lick Portland any day. Ours is a more walkable destination and we?ll always be closer to Boston.

But the litmus test for me is still history. After years of trips to Portland, I still cannot get a handle on its past. I know it used to be called Falmouth, even after the Revolution. I know Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1830. That?s when it really started to grow big and healthy, just as Portsmouth was fading from view as an international seaport. But none of this is easily discovered. There is no central interpretation I could find, no history overview for the public other than summer tours.

While little Portsmouth has as many as 40 historic houses and destination points open to the public, Portland ? from all I can tell ? has scarcely half a dozen. There is the historical society, a high-Victorian mansion, the birthplace of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a restored federal mansion on the campus of the art museum. Portland has a fascinating African American history, like Portsmouth, but it is still largely invisible. Last weekend I wanted to see the city?s most historic cemetery that dates from 1668. Eastman Cemetery in the Monjoy Hill neighborhood was surrounded by a high wire fence, padlocked at every gate, thick with litter and hammered by vandals. I found an opening in the fence and snuck in. It was in sad shape, as it seems to me, is the city?s grip on its past.

So, for now, I?ll just visit. But I?m determined to learn more. I bought a couple of books about the history of Portland while we were there. If I figure it out, I?ll let you know.
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Old 03-06-2007, 03:24 PM   #2
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was in portsmouth the other day, the mall there is a lot smaller but has richer stores.
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