How Portland peninsula’s renters saved their park

The cover story of the first print issue of The Bollard, published in the summer of 2007, envisioned a day when residents of the Portland peninsula would throw off the yokes of their masters in the Deering neighborhoods and establish an independent city called Portinsula. Written in the wake of highly contentious efforts by Peaks Island residents to secede from Portland, the story was satirical, but, as with most satire, it germinated from a kernel of truth.

This week’s vote on the fate of Congress Square Park indicates that kernel could still pop.

Although the citywide margin of victory for Question 1 was quite slim, on the peninsula the park’s defenders won in a rout. Voters on Munjoy Hill rejected the sale by a two-to-one margin (602 to 300), and the East End as a whole was 65 percent in favor of keeping the entire park for public use. Voters on the West End and in Parkside also soundly rejected the sale of the square, carrying 60 percent of the vote.

Out in suburban North Deering, near the Falmouth line, the percentage was reversed: 60 percent favored the privatization of this downtown parcel of public property. The Yes on 1 campaign lost every district off the peninsula and won every district on the peninsula. (Peaks Island residents, perhaps recalling what they felt was their own neglect by City Hall, also voted to save Congress Square; the tally was 174 to 102.)

illustration & photo/The Fuge and Sean Wilkinson

Illustration & photo/The Fuge and Sean Wilkinson

The popular vote mirrored the positions of the people’s representatives on the City Council. The two councilors solely elected by future residents of Portinsula, Kevin Donoghue and Dave Marshall, opposed the sale. With the exception of at-large Councilor Jon Hinck, who lives on the West End and supports this public-land-grab, every other councilor willing to sell most of our park, as well as Mayor Mike Brennan, lives in areas the Portinsula story dubbed South Falmouth and East Westbrook. It’s no coincidence that “No on 1″ leader Jim Cohen, a former Portland councilor and mayor, represented North Deering during his tenure in city government.

The difference between the on- and off-peninsula tallies is only partly due to what could be termed a form of hyper-provincialism: the idea that those who live within walking distance of the park value it more than those who merely drive by it. It’s more indicative of economic differences, the class divide that separates renters on the peninsula from home owners in the Deering neighborhoods.

It’s not surprising that renters downtown value public open space more than homeowners in Deering who have their own private lawns as large or larger than Congress Square Park. But it’s the principle of the thing that also riles the renting masses. Selling public parkland to a private developer in a no-bid deal — for far less than what even some supporters of the sale believe this prime piece of real estate is worth — conjures the same resentment of pro-corporate government handouts that filled Portland’s Lincoln Park with Occupy Maine protesters three years ago.

The battle for Congress Square Park echoes the Occupy movement, pitting a ragtag group of artists, Greens and street people against a political action committee formed and funded by wealthy lawyers and cultural elites. The mainstream media has only obliquely acknowledged the class issues behind this fight, but what little has been noted speaks volumes about the establishment’s bias.

To take only the most recent example, see the June 11 article about the referendum results published in the Portland Press Herald, which championed the sale on its editorial page and apparently rewrote its style manual to turn Congress Square Park into Congress Square Plaza once the debate began. The “plaza” is “a space often described as ‘neglected’ by the city and a gathering place for the homeless,” wrote reporter Kevin Miller.

Miller fails to note that the same city officials who called the park “neglected” are primarily responsible for that neglect. And the fact that destitute people using the park is presented as an argument in favor of its sale is a bald-faced example of class-bashing in a paper owned by a billionaire.

This week’s triumph of the peninsula’s renters and groundlings over Deering elites won’t lead to the establishment of Portinsula. But Brennan and the three at-large councilors who face voters citywide have effectively been put on notice: You subvert the will and interests of people in Portland’s densely populated heart at considerable political peril.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.