Changes afoot in a hipper L/A

Email|Print| Text size + By Judith Gaines
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2006

LEWISTON/AUBURN, Maine -- The twin cities of south central Maine, linked by several bridges across the Androscoggin River, might not be everybody's idea of a tourist destination. Not even the locals see them that way.

There is no typical high season, for instance. ``High season is whenever Bates College is having an event that might bring outsiders into town, such as graduation," said Jan Barrett, a Lewiston native who runs the Ware Street Inn. Even in summer, when several special events are held, the communities rarely are listed in any travelers' guide .

The cities still battle a debilitating stereotype as tough, tired, unsophisticated, old mill towns. For more than a century, they produced textiles, shoes, and bricks in large factories powered by a river that became so polluted some locals quipped that it was ``too thick to paddle and too thin to plow."

Lewiston (population 36,000) and Auburn (23,000) are the second - and fifth - largest cities in Maine. But to many people, for many years, they seemed more like a big black hole. A Portland newspaper once called Lewiston ``a cultural desert."

Today there are signs of change and many people are trying to make the communities artsier, hipper, and more attractive to visitors.

Lewiston, on the Androscoggin's eastern bank, is where most of the mills were located and where most mill workers lived. It is larger, more urban and gritty, and less affluent than Auburn, the more conservative residential community west of the river where mill managers had their homes. As competition from Southern and foreign manufacturers caused mills to close or relocate, the divisions between the towns began to disappear, too.

They remain separate cities with their own governing structures. But increasingly they are sharing resources, providing joint services, creating something known as ``L/A," which is different and better than the sum of its parts. L/A is feisty, funky, creative. (The slash in the name evokes the river running through it and also helps to avoid confusing Lewiston/Auburn with Los Angeles.)

L/A has a first-rate art museum, world-class dance, interesting music and theater, good restaurants, and a popular balloon festival. It has Saints Peter and Paul Church , Maine's only basilica, with towering granite spires and a beautiful rose window modeled after the cathedral at Chartres, France. It also is the home of Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary, the largest of its kind north of Boston.

Interestingly, the ascent of L/A has coincided with what initially looked like a hindrance to economic growth: a large wave of Somali immigrants relocating mostly from Atlanta, where they had landed after years of fleeing civil war in their homeland in East Africa.

The last of the big mills closed in 2001, the same year that Somalis moved in by the hundreds. By 2002, nearly 2,000 Somalis had settled in L/A, mainly in Lewiston.

The migration of Muslim Somalis to an area that was heavily Franco-American, predominantly Roman Catholic, and more than 95 percent white initially caused confusion and conflict. Although many residents welcomed the newcomers, others were uneasy. There were various protests and reports of hecklers making racist remarks. In what many now consider a low point, Mayor Laurier Raymond issued a public letter urging Somalians to stop coming, because already they were straining the city's ability to provide necessary services.

It turns out this influx brought something unexpected. ``New migration brings vitality, even if it is conflicted," says Mark Bessire, director of the Museum of Art at Bates College. ``It makes people think about who they are and what they want to be. Diversity can jump-start a town."

Today, locals disagree about how much the Somalis have contributed to the communities' rebirth, but almost everyone agrees that something is afoot -- and that celebrating cultural diversity is part of it.

When Phyllis Graber Jensen, a photographer and writer, moved here from Boston in 1992, it was because her husband got a job teaching history at Bates . He remembers how she cried when they moved in. The community seemed unattractive and depressing, she says, but she has been pleasantly surprised by recent economic and cultural developments.

``This isn't a cookie- cutter kind of tourist town, but it has some real gems," Graber Jensen said. ``You may have to work a bit to uncover them, but if you look around you'll find all the culture you'd want. And it's accessible and reasonably priced."

She and others point to dance performances and art exhibits at Bates , a lively schedule of programs at the renovated Franco-American Heritage Center and The Public Theatre, outdoor concerts at venues including Lake Andrews (affectionately known as ``The Puddle"), new restaurants, and a river walk along the Androscoggin, which is at least cleaner than it used to be.

Of particular interest this summer is an edgy Cryptozoology show at the Bates College Museum of Art , which runs through Oct. 8, exploring the connections between art, myth, and science; and the Bates Dance Festival , July 15 to Aug. 12, featuring Robert Moses' Kin, a nationally known dance troupe that fuses art and politics, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a Haitian artist who mixes hip- hop poetry and dance.

One of the new local restaurants is Harun Sheekhey 's Cleopatra , offering White Nile goat, Somali stew, and other East African and Middle Eastern dishes. Sheekhey arrived in 2002, choosing L/A because it seemed to be a safe, family - oriented place, relatively free of crime and drugs. But the immigration controversy caused him to worry about whether his ethnic restaurant could succeed. ``People said I was crazy to open a restaurant like this in Lewiston," he recalled.

``But it has worked out fine. There's still some suspicion and mistrust on both sides. But it's getting better all the time," he said. Although many of his countrymen frequent Cleopatra, he says most of his clientele is non-African. He believes his restaurant is `` a cultural bridge."

In the former Bates mill complex, Rachel Desgrosseilliers and others are trying to create another bridge, one that could help the community reclaim its past in a positive way. For two years they have been gathering and organizing old mill equipment, records, photos, and samples of items that mill workers produced . She also has been collecting oral histories from the men and women who made these products.

The result is the evolving Museum L/A , showing not only interesting artifacts from the mill era, but also film clips and recordings ``that reveal what life was like for the people who worked here, and what it meant to them," Desgrosseilliers said. Eventually, she hopes to spur creation of a collaborative center with a music museum, a model railroad museum, the Androscoggin Historical Society , a veterans' museum, an art gallery, and a children's workshop all sharing space and resources in one of the old mill buildings.

Desgrosseilliers' s plans may seem dreamy and ambitious, especially since she still is struggling to figure out how to preserve and display the mills' rich history and how to finance that project. But she is undeterred, and slowly her museum is becoming a reality, open Tuesday s and Thursdays or by appointment.

If anyone needs more proof that the area is undergoing a renaissance, says Philip Isaacson, a lawyer and art critic from Lewiston, they should look at the evolution of the new Marsden Hartley Cultural Center. Hartley (1877-1943), one of the foremost American painters of his century, was born in Lewiston. ``But 10 years ago, you couldn't find more than about 25 people in town who even knew who he was," Isaacson said. Now, a cultural center is being developed in his honor, offering a range of programs celebrating Lewiston and Auburn's history, artistic and literary talents, and ethnic variety.

``There's a new cultural awareness, a more cosmopolitan outlook," Isaacson said. ``This is not an insular blue-collar community any more, not just an old company town. It's a happening place where local people are investing in the community, pulling themselves up -- and they're doing a very good job."

Contact Judith Gaines, a freelance writer in Portland, Maine, at

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