Largest and oldest city in Maine, birthplace and home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and current home to artists, hi-tech business, and design operations, Portland packs a very cosmopolitan feel into a city of 64,000 people, being the main focal point of southern Maine. It is built primarily on a peninsula of land bordered to the south by the Fore River, to the north by Back Cove, and abetting land-studded Casco Bay to the east. It is the seat of Cumberland County, which encloses most of the suburbs and satellite cities compromising the "Greater Portland Area", whose population is usually estimated to be between 250,000 and 300,000 people depending on which cities are included in the calculation.
Settled 1633, Portland is one of the oldest settlements in the present-day United States. Originally named Casco Neck, later Machigone (the native American name of the area), Falmouth (the name of a present suburb just north of the city), and finally Portland in 1786. During the 1600s the city was burnt several times by the natives, however settlers rebuilt the city each time. Also of note in this era, the country's oldest lighthouse, Portland Head Light, was built in 1790.
Portland was the target of British aggression in 1775. The First Parish Unitarian Church on Congress St. to this day remains in possession of a cannon ball that fell through its roof during the British bombardment of the city. The line of the Declaration of Independence that reads He (King George III) has burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people refers directly to the British sack of Portland and of Roanoke, Virginia.
Maine was separated from Massachusetts and became a state in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise. Portland briefly served as the state capital from 1820 to 1832, but this was later relocated to Augusta to allay fears from residents of the more rural areas of the state that the state government would be too focused on the more densely populated southern regon of the state. Portland High School, the second-oldest public high school in the country, opened its doors in 1821.
The city was once again burnt in 1866 by a 4th of July fireworks display gone awry, which set fire to a sugar factory and spread throughout the peninsula, demolishing many historic buildings. As always the city rebuilt, and today the nickname "The Phoenix" can be vaguely observed tacked onto the names of some local area businesses. This is also likely the source of the city's Latin motto: Resurgam (which means "resurgence").
The population of Portland grew steadily throughout the 1800s in spite of the great fire, with a population of about 31,000 people in 1870. John Deering, a wealthy landowner, donated several acres of prime real estate for the construction of Deering Oaks Park in 1879, Portland's rough equivalent of New York's Central Park. The town of Deering was annexed in 1899, with the single stipulation that Portland must always maintain a high school named "Deering High School" (founded 1872). The city has made good on its promise to this day.
Portland experienced a boom during the late 1800s and early 1900s, growing to 50,000 people by the turn of the century. During the "happy days" of the 1920s Portland saw the opening of its airport and the founding of the still-operating historic Eastland Hotel. Even throughout the depression the city remained strong, with a population of about 73,000 in 1940.
In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s Portland began to go into decline as its port, formerly the busiest on the east coast, began to be overshadowed by faster-growing Boston and New York. In spite of further infrastructure improvements like the construction of the Maine Turnpike (now I-95) and the founding of the University of Maine at Portland (now University of Southern Maine), the economy of the city went into recession.
Revitalization came in the 1980s as artists, design firms, and the tech sector began to move to Portland due to low cost of real estate and the city's setting in a picturesque coastal region. City administration began to try to change its image into that of a highly aesthetic place. The Baxter Boulevard Greenway, Eastern Promenade Trail, and other walking paths, greenways, and pedestrian areas were constructed in the late 80s. The city cleaned up its historic downtown district, now called the Old Port, and banned national chains from operating stores in this area.
Today Monument Square (the focal point of downtown, home of a statue with the enscription: "PORTLAND: TO HER SONS WHO DIED FOR THE UNION, 1860-1865", as well as a wide plaza) and the Old Port are home to a variety of locally-owned, classy retailers, coffee shops, restaurants, and business. The opening of the Portland Public Market in 1998 brought an outlet for local vendors to sell fresh produce, baked goods, and other quality food items in an indoor, open-air setting connected to a new parking garage by a skywalk. Though a 1988 ordinance prohibits buildings taller than about 15 stories, the city has its distinct skyline, visible from the Baxter Boulevard Greenway across Back Cove. You may have seen postcards with this particular view on them.
Maine was long hailed as "the whitest state in the nation." However, the 1990s were an era of change for Portland in this respect as well. A federal refugee settlement program started around 1990 brought a steady influx of immigration from embattled countries in East Africa and Southeast Asia. As last I knew the Portland Public Schools publish all their materials in 14 different languages due to the myriad of languages spoken by the parents of public school students. The city school department also maintains an ESL (English as a Second Language) program for first-generation immigrant students for essentially all grade levels in the primary and secondary schools. I, personally, attended Deering High during a period of considerable diversifcation (from 1999-2003) and the change in racial makeup of the school was quite noticeable between when I started and when I graduated. At the University of Southern Maine, I recall taking a class on Africa in International Politics in which about half the students had immigrated from Africa a few years ago.
Despite the push towards integration, Portland still retains a lot of the uniqueness of the cultural groups that have immigrated over the years. Most notably the Italian community, centered around India St. along the north side of the peninsula and Veranda St. in East Deering. The Amato family is widely credited with inventing the Italian Sandwich in Portland back in the early 1900s. This tasty treat is a long hero roll with ham, cheese, tomato, onion, green pepper, black olive, salt, pepper, and olive oil.
Portland today is in a period of relative prosperity. Property values are growing at one of the fastest rates in the nation. Though Portland proper is almost completely developed, real estate in neighboring Falmouth, South Portland, and Cape Elizabeth is in high demand. The downtown section includes a mix of mostly locally owned restaurants and shops, as well as a wealth of hi-tech business like web design firms and graphics and publishing (which is what brought my parents to the city in the first place).
A lot of the white collar workers in Portland are, like my parents, transplants from New York who sought a quieter, simpler way of life away from the bustle of the crossroads of the universe. The effect of this, in a very general way, is that Portland has a lot of people who've chosen to live there rather than people who are essentially living there by default (as in New York). Portland also has a large segment of the population that has familiar ties to the city going back a century or more. It is usually in these "old Portland families" that one hears the Portland accent, which is roughly like a Boston accent, only slightly less nasal. For an example of it, try to find an MP3 of comedian Bob Marley (no relation to the raggae singer), who is from Portland.
Places to See
If you're visiting, you may want to check out a few things. The Old Port is the most logical choice. Exchange St. and Commercial St. and the capillaries connecting them are the heart of this area. There is a mall in South Portland but that isn't terribly interesting. Portland Head Light is an obvious choice for the lighthouse enthusiasts. If you're into seeing more of the rugged coast line, check out Two Lights State Park in Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. Freeport, about 20 minutes north on I-95, is home to L.L. Bean's flagship store.