Portland’s easternmost neighborhood, Munjoy Hill, has a rich past and a promising future. And it’s a pretty great place to live right now, too.
There’s no escaping the ocean on Munjoy Hill.
Even when it’s out of sight, it slips into consciousness—when you catch the measured flash of Portland Head Light through a window at night, or hear the foghorn wail across the bay in a storm, or wake up to a salty cloud rolling up the hill on a sunny summer morning.
If the Portland peninsula is a boot stepping into the ocean, Munjoy Hill is the toe pointing the way. While its boundaries are often disputed (most narrowly defined, it’s the area between the Eastern Promenade/Fore Street and Mountfort Street/Washington Avenue up to Tukey’s Bridge; most broadly, anything east of Franklin Arterial), there’s no arguing that the Hill is surrounded by water on three sides, that its height gives it both a beautiful vantage point and a steep slope (try hiking up it in a blizzard), and that this geography ultimately shaped its history.
In the 1630s, the first permanent European settlement in Portland was established on Munjoy Hill. In the 1850s, the Grand Trunk Railway line to Montreal came to Portland, at the corner of Commercial and India Streets, making the city Canada’s winter port when the St. Lawrence River was frozen. A fire ignited by an errant firecracker on the Fourth of July in 1866 reduced Portland to ashes, but Munjoy Hill was mostly spared. After starting on the waterfront, the flames spread quickly to a lumberyard, then a sugar refinery, consuming the city’s mercantile core before climbing up the Hill and burning out. At the time, the Hill was sparsely populated pastureland, and in the days that followed it served as a tent city where many who had lost their homes found shelter.
Portland rebuilt, and at the turn of the twentieth century heavy industry had secured a foothold on the Hill. In a brick complex between Fore Street and the water’s edge, the Portland Company foundry was building locomotives for the new railroad. At the Thomas Laughlin Company foundry, workers were making tools and marine hardware. Working-class Irish-, Italian-, Jewish-, and African-Americans worked as longshoremen and stevedores, making their livelihoods on the waterfront. Families lived in single-family homes and triple-deckers, and life on the Hill was punctuated by the sound of machines. The foundries hummed along through World War II, when many Hill residents took buses into South Portland to work in the shipyards that were running around the clock to build Liberty ships for the war.
After World War II, Munjoy Hill was a blue-collar neighborhood on the brink of change. In the 1960s, urban renewal measures cleared out whole swaths of buildings to make way for new homes, effectively wiping out many members of the community who couldn’t afford to stay. Drugs and crime had contributed to the neighborhood’s seedy reputation. As heavy industry was losing momentum, the foundries began to close. In 1970, the Portland Company sold its name; it closed a few years later. The Thomas Laughlin Company closed in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, in 1979, the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization was formed to improve the neighborhood; its early work involved building playgrounds and bettering schools.
Ten years later, Portland City Hall convened a workshop to develop a plan to improve shoreway access. During a stretch break in the hallway, a few attendees dreamed up the idea for the organization that would one day be known as Portland Trails. In the early 1990s, Portland Trails worked on a plan for the Eastern Prom trail over the out-of-service rail corridor, and, in the mid-90s, broke ground on a walking path that would further cement the neighborhood’s transformation from gritty and industrial to accessible and safe.
Over the next several years, as Portland’s restaurant and arts scene began picking up speed, this tiny enclave started attracting attention—and newcomers—in its own right. Labels like “trendy” and “hip” began to stick (along with some eye rolling from long-time Hillers), and property values started to climb. The people who’ve lived on Munjoy Hill their whole lives remember a close-knit community that was a little rough around the edges; the people who move here are drawn to a vibrant neighborhood seated by the sea. For both sets, the Hill is a place that is as laid back as it is full of energy, with a mix of historic homes and new condos, and an eclectic smattering of local shops and eateries. Lifelong Hill resident and history professor Michael Connolly has been watching his beloved neighborhood evolve for decades. “Change is inevitable, especially in urban areas,” he says. “You have to embrace change and also try to shape it.”
Read more about the area’s restaurants, coffee shops, and stores in Munjoy Hill: What to do in a day.