Writing Sample: Feature Article

Uptown: The New Downtown?

by Chris Pierson

At the intersection of Forest and Cumberland Avenue in the heart of Portland, four corners meet but do not shake hands.  On the southeast corner, the monolithic art deco AT&T building glowers across the street at a lonely vacant lot to the northeast.  A new parking garage on the southwest corner seems preoccupied with the developments in the condominium space at its foot.  And on the northwest corner, Thomas Moser Cabinetmakers, in an elegant civil war era residence, casts an interested eye on the less than harmonious proceedings all around.

Inside Moser’s furniture showroom the apparent discord of the street scene melts away.  The rooms are broad and open, their white walls bathed in a lambent mixture of a cool artificial glow and natural light let in through large arched windows.  Each room is decorated in the deceptively sparse manner of a museum to compliment the graceful austerity of Moser’s variations on nineteenth century New England-style furniture.  A rotating exhibit of paintings, not for sale, arranged throughout the showroom enhances the building’s museum like atmosphere.  It is an innovative building, a stunning renovation of an historic structure, and an appropriate home for a creative business which features superbly designed and crafted furniture.

Thomas Moser’s showroom might seem out of place on this corner in this part of town.  It is, after all, a young business with a growing national reputation.  When you think of artful entrepreneurship in Portland, you tend to think of the attractive rows of shops and galleries on Exchange Street in the Old Port, where window after window abounds with superbly crafted goods.  So why is Moser’s wood crafting empire headquartered, not on Middle or Wharf Street, but next to the YMCA and across from a vacant lot on Forest Avenue?

“We had been in the Old Port for two years,” Moser says.  “Although we had tremendous traffic and interest, our sales weren’t commensurate with the enormous amount of people coming through the store.

“The Old Port is a tourist environment.  People who shop there are after a different kind of thing than we offer.  They tend to be a non-focused clientele.  The Old Port is like London’s West End or the Left Bank in Paris; it’s a wonderful place for a romantic late evening walk.  But who wants to buy furniture in Les Halles?

“We see this store as a destination place,” he continues.  “The average sale here is $2,000, so our customers tend to know what they want before they even come in the door.  People don’t come here to browse.  The uptown area is a good location for a destination store.  It’s centrally located.  It’s easy to find.  I’ve got a nine-car garage out back and a 600-car garage across the street.  I send my out of town customers over to the Sonesta Hotel.  When they’re looking for something to do while they’re here, I tell them we’ve got the Performing Arts Center just up the hill, the Symphony Orchestra just down the street.  The best museum in Maine is a five minute walk away.  This is the best business address in the city.”

Moser is as passionate about the problems of Uptown Portland as he is about its potential.  And there are problems.  A large window near the table where Moser sits in the showroom overlooks the forlorn lot, vacant but for a few rusting out cars, an overfilled dumpster and an overturned refrigerator.  Wires dangle like untied shoelaces from utility poles.   A street lamp with a shot-out fixture tilts toward the pull of China.  And up the hill a long line of a few busses squeezes the access-way onto Congress Street.

“It looks like Cairo,” Moser says, with half-amused disgust.  “It needs to be cleaned up.  Forest Avenue, the gateway to the city, should not be a parking lot for tour busses.  It should be a one-way street into town, the way High Street is a one-way out.  There should be fifteen minute parking spaces on the street —for cars, not for busses.

“The back bay section of Portland is largely ignored,” he continues.  “It probably has the deepest population density of anyplace in the city.  If you wanted to find the demographic epicenter of Portland, I estimate it would be on the corner of High and Congress —there are thousands of apartment units within a few blocks of here.  You wonder why so much money has been spent where there are so few people.  But this part of town is populated by people of modest means, for the most part, and as long as they make up the bulk of the population here, they’ll speak with a very soft voice.

“Once enough businesses move into and become involved with the area, we’ll have a larger voice.  Any improvements to this part of town —and there have been some— have been privately initiated.”

Moser’s ultimate faith is widely shared by  a number of people who live and work in his part of town.  His store represents a continuation of a trend which has gone on almost unobserved at the top of the hill on Congress Street, as well a sign of trends to come for the area between Monument and Longfellow Square and Cumberland Avenue and Spring Street:  expandable businesses and cultural enterprises are moving back into Portland’s urban center.

City planners call the area Zone B-3, but it is Uptown, the heart of Portland.  The corner outside Moser’s arched window is Uptown in its embryonic state, a problematic hodgepodge bubbling with potential.  It is the diversity of Uptown —its blend of building styles and mixture of uses, the wide cross-section and density of its population— which has more and more people like Thomas Moser excited and hopeful about its evolution.  And while most insiders and outsiders have their eyes on the waterfront in search of Portland’s future, a growing number of entrepreneurs, artists, planners and other visionaries think the real future of Portland is about to erupt Uptown.

The full-length version of this article appeared in a slightly modified form in the now defunct Greater Portland Magazine, published by the Portland, Maine, Chamber of Commerce, in the summer 1988 issue.To read the rest of this article go here: http://home.earthlink.net/~xofpi1/id7.html

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