PORTLAND, Maine — In 2007, representatives of Portland’s sister city of Arkhangelsk, Russia, asked local City Councilor Ed Suslovic to bring a city flag to the country to be flown during their America Week celebration.
“I had to ask [at City Hall], ‘Hey, does anybody know if we have a city flag,’” Suslovic recalled. “That was the first time I even realized we had one.”
Radio host and flag enthusiast Roman Mars delivered a TED talk last year about the importance of strong municipal flags, and video of the presentation was passed around in subsequent months by Portland residents.
The city’s blue and gold flag was included in a collage of municipal flags Mars said were badly designed and, in many cases, forgettable. Now, many Portlanders are saying they couldn’t agree more, and that the city should adopt a new one.
“The city of Portland’s flag violates nearly every principle of good flag design,” said Tim Schneider, an attorney and Portland resident who has shared the Mars video with friends.
“Portland has such great history and a really vibrant arts and design community. If any city could have a great flag, Portland would be it. It’s part of creating a shared vision about who you want to be and how you want to be viewed by the outside world.”
In Mars’ talk, he cites several principles of design determined by vexillologists — people who study flags and their symbolism — to be shared by successful flags. Among them are that flags should be simple enough that children can draw them from memory, that they should be distinctive and that they should never include seals or words.
Portland’s flag consists of the city’s nearly two-century-old seal and — in most versions — the words “City of Portland” on a dark blue background. It’s what Mars said vexillologists deride as an “SOB,” or “Seal On a Bedsheet,” a somewhat ubiquitous and unimaginative design used by a number of cities and states, including Maine.
The flag, which flies outside City Hall and is displayed in the City Council chambers, is successful on a few principles Mars listed: It incorporates meaningful symbols and is just two bold colors.
“I, for the life of me, can’t find one person who knows anything about it. Or one person who thinks it’s awesome,” said Stuart “Tuck” O’Brien, who works in the city’s planning department, but has taken an interest in the city’s flag outside of his professional responsibilities.
“I don’t think there’s a constituency out there that really feels passionately about it,” he continued. “It hits almost every point that Roman Mars said a flag shouldn’t do. You couldn’t come up with a better example of a ‘bad flag’ than what we use.”
Local historian and former lawmaker Herb Adams said the symbols represented in the city seal are important, but said effective flags usually involve simpler adaptations of those symbols, rather than just the full municipal seals themselves.
Adams said the seal features two dolphins indicating ties to the sea, a boat likely representing the launch of early 17th century explorer Christopher Levett, an anchor wrapped in rope and a phoenix, a mythological bird that rose from the ashes of fire, as Portland has done several times in its history.
But Adams said objecting to the current city flag “doesn’t mean you necessarily object to the shield symbolism. [In a new flag design], you can still use the symbols of the shield — which I like, such as the maritime heritage and the hopeful message.”
Adams said that unlike the seal, which records show clearly was adopted on April 30, 1832, the history of the city’s flag is something of a mystery. It’s unclear when, or if, the city ever officially adopted the banner now taken for granted as the city’s flag. Or if the city just started using it somewhere along the line and nobody questioned it.
“It may predate this, but I do know that during the city’s 350th anniversary, in 1982, they had some of those flags made. Now, who’s ‘they’ and who made them, I don’t know,” Adams said. “Who designed the city flag? I can’t tell you.”
In his talk, Mars said cities with successful flags — like Chicago and Amsterdam — can see those banners waving throughout the cities and displayed proudly on merchandise. Those with flags that don’t resonate with residents will find that most people don’t even realize the flags exist.
“It’s clearly not memorable. I’ve never met anybody who’s all that excited about it,” said Chris Korzen, who runs the Portland-based Maine Flag Company with his wife. “I think we have a huge opportunity here, not to replace the flag, but actually to have an official flag for a first time.
“I think it’s an opportunity to expand our brand and generate more of a sense of community,” he continued. “When you go to these places [that have effective flags], you actually see those flags waving. People understand them and use them.”
Said Schneider: “If you’re in the city of Portland, what do you rally behind? Is it Crusher [the Maine Red Claws mascot]? Is it Slugger [the Portland Sea Dogs mascot]? What bumper sticker do you put on your car? What do you wave in front of your house?”
The city of Bath is a recent example of a Maine community that chose a new flag, adopting a design by Jeremy Hammond, who now lives in South Portland, in 2013.
The Hammond flag featured a gold sailing ship against a red background across the top half and blue waves, representing the Kennebec River, on a white background across the bottom half.
Hammond said if Portland decides to redesign its flag, the city should beware of including too much clutter, a trap some designers fall into when trying to please too many people by incorporating every idea put forth.
“In heraldry, we call it ‘Lucky Charms’ heraldry, which is having a whole bunch of different symbols representing a whole bunch of different stuff,” he said. “People won’t buy flags or make things in flag motifs if they don’t find some aesthetic or cultural value in it. I think it’s different for everyone, but it’s pageantry, it’s pride.”
O’Brien said he believes a simple vote of the City Council would be all that’s necessary to adopt a new city flag, although he acknowledged the council would likely seek a heavy amount of public input — and perhaps an inclusive design process — if it felt getting a new flag was worthwhile.
“I think if people want to take a look at the city flag and come up with new ideas, that would be fine,” said Suslovic, who noted he’d have to see what new design proposals looked like before he decided whether to endorse any.