PORTLAND, Maine — Every Valentine’s Day, for more than 30 years, something mysterious happens in downtown Portland.
Magically, the city is plastered in red paper hearts overnight. From tiny shops to major landmarks to cozy corners here and there, the so-called Valentine Phantom, often referred to as the Valentine Bandit, strikes without notice, sending the city a giant love letter.
Now in its 30th year, the phantom is as elusive today as he — she? they? — was the first year. Like all urban legends, Cupid’s identity has never been revealed.
“We haven’t put a lot of time and resources into trying to capture the person,” Mayor Michael Brennan said. “It’s one of the traditions of Valentine’s Day in Portland. People expect to see it.”
Walking through the Old Port, down Congress Street and sometimes driving over the Casco Bay Bridge, a sea of hearts appear every Feb. 14. From giant banners on the Portland Museum of Art to smaller versions on cafes and even affixed to the floating DiMillo’s on the Water, the red hearts seemingly are everywhere.
“Like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, the phantom Valentine’s Day bandit is one more thing that makes Portland a cool place,” said Andy Verzosa, a Portland native and former gallery owner who recalls years of being buoyed by the concept. “I’d be absolutely thrilled to see the hearts taped to the doors and windows. It kind of gave you a lift.”
According to Portland’s Downtown District, the love phantom first struck in 1985. “I was just thinking the other day that this will be the 30th anniversary,” PPD executive director Steve Hewins said.
Those with institutional knowledge agree this is a big anniversary. But according to the Valentine Phantom’s Wikipedia page, the fun started in 1976.
At the Portland Museum of Art, public relations director Kristen Levesque admits the museum gives the bandit a boost every year to help display the symbol of love in Congress Square.
“The museum coordinates with the bandit for the heart banner, and this year people should look for the banner in a different location on the museum’s campus,” she said. “We don’t know where he will strike.”
With snow in the forecast, could this be the year the bandit calls it quits? “I don’t think so. This bandit is pretty hardy,” Levesque said.
No matter who is responsible for the deed, whether a few people or a silent army, one thing is clear: No one wants to unshroud the mystery.
“I have some suspicions,” said Hewins, who has worked downtown for 30 years. “I don’t know if the people that are the bandits would come out and say they did it. It would take more than one person to do what they do. I am not clear who and how many, but that’s part of the charm and unknown secret that’s been kept for three decades.”
And in this snowy, cold winter, the phantom is a needed talisman for winter-fatigued urbanites — sort of an anti-Punxsutawney Phil.
“It is a reminder that we are all in it together,” said Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of Creative Portland, who has lived in Portland for 20 years. She looks forward to the “simple gesture done in a grand way” every February.
“The act of printing out red hearts and pasting them on doors seems to do a miracle job of hitting at the heart of what the Portland community is all about,” she said.
Blanketing the art’s district in a sea of warm and fuzzies sends positive vibes, but are the hearts actually art? “Not technically,” Hutchins said. “I would consider it a collective community gesture that evokes a sense of humor and emotional warmth in the depths of winter.”
At Mainely Frames and Gallery on Congress Street framer Amy Betz looked up from her project to contemplate the phenomenon. “It’s cute. It’s something to look forward to every year. I thought about it earlier this week.”
She suspects Maine College of Art, across the street, is the culprit. An inquiry to their marketing department this week went unanswered.
There have been copycat Valentine Phantoms that have hit parts of New Hampshire, but Portland’s bandit is a true original. In fact, Hutchins credits the mysterious sprite as a forerunner in the spur-of-the-moment, feel-good happenings — from yarn bombs to symphonies breaking out in subways — sweeping the globe.
“Portland, Maine, was a trendsetter in introducing these popular communal experiences that bring us all together,” she said. “We are an early pioneer of a demonstration of this type of activity. The tech-focused evolution of our society has only exacerbated the need for that.”
Despite the message it sends, not everyone is pleased by this unsolicited, kind caper.
“My brother takes them down,” said Johnny DiMillo, who runs DiMillo’s on the Water with his siblings. “He’s a bit of a Scrooge.”
This year, though, the hearts will remain on the floating Old Port institution. “I am working a double shift on Saturday. I’ll make sure they are not taken down,” he said.
If the bandit did not strike this year, “Valentine’s Day would be more depressing,” Hutchins said. “It’s a light-hearted nod to a small city trying to get through the winter.”