Why losing Paul’s grocery hurts us to the core

With our white-hot real estate market, world-class restaurant scene, and worldwide notoriety for all things cultural, one could make the argument that Portland has never been doing better than it is today.

Hot kitchen in Portland, Maine. Image- Chris Shorr.

Hot kitchen in Portland, Maine. Image- Chris Shorr.

Anyone who remembers what Portland looked and felt like just as recently as a couple of decades ago, though, must wonder what our little city by the sea would be today if all those million dollar condos, boutique hotels and retail spaces, and high-end dining spots had never overtaken the downtown peninsula.

They’d also remember that even though the old-school Portland wasn’t always pretty, it was a place that locals took great pride in, and loved dearly.

The closing of Paul’s Food Center on Congress Street, announced this past week, signifies yet another beloved, iconic local landmark to fall prey to the ever-surging tide of gentrification across Maine’s largest city.

Paul's Food Center. Image from Google Street View.

Paul’s Food Center. Image from Google Street View.

It’s that very shift, from a norm of blue to white-collar atmosphere, that has come to represent the loss of places like Paul’s, Joe’s Smoke Shop, Sangillo’s Tavern, and even dating as far back to the demolition of the Village Cafe and the closing of the J.J. Nissen plant- to name just a few.

What once was a gritty, down-to-earth, working class town has become a place that feels increasingly like a pretentious, elitist playground for the wealthy.

Don’t get me wrong, Portland is a lot of fun these days, and it’s remarkable to see how far we’ve been able to come, but with each passing year it feels more and more like an extension of Disney World. A fake, manufactured atmosphere.

For all the reasons that make Mainers great and unique, that sort of atmosphere feels foreign to those of us who can’t help but shake our heads as the throngs of snobby, unapologetic tourists overpower us every summer, or as the skyrocketing rent prices push us out of town, making way for wealthy people from away who lack the sense of history or love for Portland that we do to turn our once affordable rental market into an absurdly overpriced landscape of enormous condos and penthouses.

The Bay House luxury condos, sitting in the neighborhood where the old Village Restaurant sat. Image, BDN.

The Bay House luxury condos, sitting in the neighborhood where the old Village Restaurant sat. Image, BDN.

So even though there appears to be absolutely nothing malicious going on when it comes to the closing of Paul’s, it still stings. It adds to the pain.

And it’s about more than just the sense of a lost culture and way of life, it’s also about seeing the most marginalized among us, many of whom have called Portland home for decades if not lifetimes, cast off and forgotten.

This includes the many elderly and disabled people who live in the neighborhood and have depended on Paul’s for affordable, accessible groceries. After the closing in April, the closest grocery stores for them will be out of walking range, so they’ll need to rely on others just to buy their food.

And that’s a shame, suggested Bob Wirtz, owner of Enterprise Records in Portland, in an interview with the BDN in 2014.

Wirtz, who in 2014 was forced to relocate his vintage records store after 27 years on Congress Street, said his landlord told him they wanted to “upgrade their quality of tenant,” or, in other words, they wanted to charge more for rent and they didn’t care if they had to ruthlessly uproot a piece of the fabric of the community to do it.

Fortunately for Wirtz, he was able to relocate just around the corner on Park Street, but most businesses in Portland who find themselves priced out of their spaces aren’t so lucky, like Paul’s.

For over 150 years, 585 Congress Street has served as a grocery store of some form, and has been Paul’s Food Center since 1975 when Paul Trusiani founded what would become a favorite spot for neighborhood people from all walks of life.

Sadly, Trusiani died in September at the age of 81, which left his son Jim in charge, and led to the sale of the space to Portland Flea-For-All, a Kennebec Street antique store and flea market.

Wirtz said that Portland’s downtown should be “for people who live here, that people in the neighborhood can come to.”

“These [newcomers], whoever they are, have a new idea for the neighborhood,” continued Wirtz. “It’s becoming less of a neighborhood. There is no community anymore.”

The irony of the statement is that, before we know it, the people who live in downtown Portland will be able to afford to eat at the upscale restaurants that now dot the peninsula from Back Cove to the Fore River, and they’ll have no trouble driving their Volvo’s to the Whole Foods for groceries, because just as Paul’s, Joe’s Smoke Shop, the Village Restaurant, and all the other iconic and beloved local landmarks of an age that so many old-school Portlanders pine for disappear, the low-income residents who remain will be shuffled out to make way for glitzier, glossier buildings and people.

But as sad as it has been, currently is, and will continue to be witnessing the gentrification of Portland rolling like a rogue wave, we true Portlanders will always have the memories of what once was, for better or for worse, in our beloved little city before our leaders sold out and we allowed ourselves to be wrapped in plastic.

We’ll be the lucky ones who remember what Portland was like when the Million Dollar Bridge was still around, or when any game between Portland and Deering High was a must-see event, or when the Old Port Festival was just a come-as-you-are gathering of local artists, party animals and eclectics, or even when the only smell around town as powerful as the salty air of Casco Bay was the pungent aroma from the B&M Baked Beans factory.

The old Million Dollar Bridge. Image from portlandlibrary.com.

The old Million Dollar Bridge. Image from portlandlibrary.com.

We’ll always have the same sunrise over the harbor, the same sunset over the mountains, and the same sea-swept wind in our hair that all the generations of Portlanders had before us.

And we’ll always know what it means- and what it takes- to be able to truly call this town home.

Through all the incredible changes that Portland has gone through over the past few decades, let’s make sure that those of us who remember the way it used to be keep the stories, and the culture, alive.

If we do, then no matter how much Portland changes, it will always remain the same.

Portland, Maine. Image- Chris Shorr.

Portland, Maine. Image- Chris Shorr.

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.