The word is out. Every year, national publications rank Portland among the top ten towns to live in, and it’s no wonder. Portland boasts nationally renowned restaurants, an Arts District teeming with diversity and talent, an Old Port alive with small businesses, and miles upon miles of scenic walking paths.
Those who are drawn to carving out a life here are ambitious, creative, innovative, and like-minded in their appreciation of the kind of life Portland proffers: one that is inherently close to nature and rooted in history, yet open to progress and change.
Three champions of Portland—Via Agency CEO and founder John Coleman, Maine Media Collective editor-in-chief Susan Grisanti, and Space Gallery executive director Nat May—share their stories of what makes this a great town.
Several years ago, John Coleman had a very important decision to make. He had grown his marketing and advertising firm, the Via Agency, into a powerhouse—with clients like Klondike and Samsung, awards from Advertising Age for Small Agency of the Year, and outposts in New York, Boston, Zurich, Columbus, and Portland. But the recession required Coleman to close all but one of his locations. For most, the logical response would have been to throw a lifeline to his New York office. For this Augusta native, however, instinct often trumps logic.
“Being in New York would have brought us into the heart of the industry,” says Coleman, “but what good does it do anyone to be in a place where everyone thinks and says the same thing? When you’re outside of the center of things, you tend to have a different perspective. In our industry, standing out is a good thing.”
So he kept his Portland office alive, moving it in 2010 into the historic Baxter Building, once home to the Portland Public Library. There, Coleman collaborated with Scott Simons Architects (recently tapped to create the campus plan for the Portland Museum of Art) to design a workspace that pays homage to the building’s history yet also has a sense of curiosity and playfulness. A resin sculpture of a crumbled piece of paper hangs above a conference room table. An art installation downstairs is made to look like a wall in which books have broken through. The copy room is flanked by a pair of ping-pong tables. There’s even practice space for the Via band.
“When you work in a building as inspiring as this,” Coleman says, “You feel you need to live up to its greatness, and that pushes us to do exceptional work every day.”
That symbiosis between old and new is a distinctly Portland ethos: respecting tradition and history but nurturing fresh ideas. With a population of roughly 66,000, Portland is just small enough that people can forge a sense of community, yet it’s big enough to be a breeding ground for outside-of-the-box thinking.
The city also feeds an intensely collaborative spirit, evident in the various artist studios and design collectives that have popped up in recent years (More and Co., the Artist Studios, and Running with Scissors are a few examples). It is perhaps one of the reasons the Via Agency fits in so well here. Coleman himself has always believed in the efficacy of collaboration and has infused that spirit in his company.
Organizations and businesses such as the Portland Museum of Art, Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, the Council on International Educational Exchange, State Theatre, Port City Music Hall, and Portland’s Downtown District have all been critical in contributing to Portland’s rich and vibrant culture. That innovative streak influences everything from food and art right down to the education system. King Middle School’s expeditionary learning curriculum, for example, transformed it from being one of the lowest-ranked middle schools in New England to one that now exceeds expectations in every category of state averages.
And then there is the food scene. Just a few years ago, Bon Appétit magazine bestowed on Portland the honor of America’s Foodiest Small Town, and recently USA Today ranked Portland among the top six small cities with big food scenes. When Maine magazine launched back in 2009, its feature story, “Eatland,” focused on six recently opened restaurants in Portland. Five years later, the city is a foodscape that boasts James Beard Award–winning chefs and nationally recognized artisans, including Fore Street, Hugo’s,Allagash Brewing Company, and Browne Trading Company.
“The amount of restaurants alone—quality restaurants—is really something special,” says Coleman, who lives in the West End. “I am flipping out over what David Levi has accomplished at Vinland, and I think the food at Emilitsa is throw-down amazing.”
The confluence of all of these attributes feeds into Portland’s unique and rapidly growing appeal outside of Maine. Downtown Portland appears to be bracing for this, with a handful of hotels in development.
“It’s a very different Portland from when I first arrived,” says Susan Grisanti, editor-in-chief of Old Port and its sister publications, Maine magazine and Maine Home+Design. “We at the magazine can really feel the vibrations of this next level of growth happening. It’s a very exciting time.”
It’s an exciting time for Grisanti personally, too. Last June, during a stroll through the East End, there was a particular house on Munjoy Hill that caught Grisanti’s attention. It was decrepit, with broken windows, an exterior patched up with paint and plywood, and various structural issues that made it uninhabitable. It was in such bad shape that when she toured the inside of the house, she could barely breathe. The air was laden with mold and the stench of heating oil from storage tanks.
Despite this, something about the 150-year-old house and the surrounding neighborhood resonated with Grisanti, a Los Angeles native who moved to Maine from Seattle.
“There’s something about the East End that just agrees with me,” she says. “As soon as I’m in that neighborhood, I feel relaxed and at home. There’s a feeling of authenticity that comforts me.”
She was so drawn to the house that she promptly sold the Cape Elizabeth colonial-style home where she and her three children had been living for 13 years and purchased the ramshackle house on Munjoy Hill. Then she launched into a very long and extensive restoration.
“It’s not at all what I expected for myself,” she says. She points to a framed rendering of Whitten Architects’ Johnson Cove Retreat that hangs on the wall of her Market Street office. “That’s what I thought my dream house was. I love modern architecture, and I never thought of myself as someone who would restore. But I really wanted to create something of my own that was attached to a piece of history.”
The city’s pace is also compelling for Grisanti. “The cobblestone streets in the Old Port force you to slow down, and in a way, that’s symbolic of life here,” she says. “Culture exists right alongside nature. You can walk from work to the Nickelodeon to see a movie, and then to a restaurant for dinner. But the ocean is right there, too, and Portland is just a short drive to the mountains.”
That pedestrian quality is key to one’s relationship with the place they call home. “It gives you a richer perspective and experience of Portland when you are able to walk everywhere,” says Coleman. “And there is so much to see and do here.” This is especially true when it comes to the arts. Case in point: Portland’s First Friday Art Walk, which began in the Fall of 2000, now spans more than 60 art venues along the peninsula. Coleman, who has served on the board of Maine College of Art for more than a decade, is as effusive about the art scene as he is about the food in Portland. He and Grisanti both cite Nat May, executive director of Space Gallery, for being influential in making the art scene more dynamic.
Over the past decade, May has committed himself to Space Gallery’s mission of seeking out and providing a venue for contemporary and unconventional visual and performing arts. In the process, he has broadened the context in which art is experienced in Portland and transformed the landscape of the Arts District.
What May, the board of directors, and the staff at Space produce is no small feat. Space hosts 200 events and an average of 20 exhibitions every year. A look at their calendar reveals a treasure trove of renowned and emerging artists: musical acts such as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, The Low Anthem, Bon Iver, and Jonathan Richman; documentary and art-house films; programs like Lighting Talks, Literary Death Match, Slant, and the Found Footage Festival; and readings by authors like Richard Russo.
“For the first four or five years, we really struggled with trying to explain to people why we wanted to have a space that mixed things up,” May says, “why we prized having a film screening in the context of an art exhibit or a community event one night and a music show the next. The value of this kind of programming is that it exposes a naturally curious audience to things they may not have otherwise paid attention to.”
Under his leadership, Space has expanded its Congress Street facility, doubled its budget and staff, and garnered substantial financial support from individual donors, as well as from foundations such as the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Because of Portland’s size, May says, and because of the community’s desire for just this kind of venue, Space is flourishing.
“I wish places like Space and The Telling Room had existed when I was younger,” says May, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth. As involved as May is now in the community (he serves on multiple arts advocacy boards and is on a planning committee for the Portland Food Co-op), he says he didn’t envision coming back to Maine after leaving for college in North Carolina. “I thought I would want a more international experience.”
After college, May satisfied some of his wanderlust in Taiwan, where he worked as a writer and English teacher for three years. He even spent some time traveling abroad. But Maine, with all of its natural beauty, beckoned. “There’s nothing like this landscape. Being near the ocean and being near these rocks that we have here is so important to me. I wanted to get back to that,” he says.
More than the landscape, though, May says it’s the connectivity that keeps him here. “I’m a creature of habit,” he says. “I like that I can go into the Speckled Ax and they know what kind of coffee I want, or I can go to OhNo Cafe and they know exactly what kind of specialty sandwich I always order. I also love the fact that I can walk down Congress Street and run into three different people that I want to collaborate with or who I just thought of for someone’s project. That kind of connectivity feeds me.”
That connectivity is palpable for Grisanti, too, and she says it is fostered by the fact that Portland is just the right size. “You can go into a restaurant and run into a couple of people you know, yet there’s still space to meet new people all the time,” she says. “There’s such a connection to community.”
It is a huge part of what attracts many transplants, and Grisanti is aware of a growing concern over how to keep Portland the way it is. Part of the answer lies in the like-mindedness of the people who are attracted to living here. “The essence of an area like the East End is still funky and imperfect, and that’s what I love about it,” she says. “Personally, I hope to be a steward of that neighborhood. I would never want to knock it down. I want to celebrate it.”
Coleman sees only positive things coming out of this new wave of growth. “We’re a long way from becoming too big,” he says. “Besides, how do you keep out growth altogether? You can’t.”
But you also cannot change the spirit of this city. It’s as much about growth and change as it is about tradition and history.