When Shanna Cox moved from Mechanic Falls to Lewiston in the spring of 2009, she looked at 26 apartments before she found a rental where she felt comfortable living with her 4-year-old twins. At unit after unit, she said, something appalled her: trash in the staircases, evidence of vermin, a person passed out in the hallway, the odor of urine wafting through the building.
A few times, Cox pulled up to an address and drove off before going inside. By the time she found a place on the corner of Walnut and Bartlett streets, she was fed up. And motivated.
Tenants such as Cox, frustrated with absentee landlords and the city’s apparent reluctance to enforce its housing safety rules, have played a key role in bringing about the policies and practices that are now reshaping Lewiston’s downtown.
In recent years, city officials have been more aggressive in cracking down on landlords who operate apartment buildings that violate the city’s code of ordinances, including by taking an unprecedented number to court. The Lewiston City Council, meanwhile, has passed new rules aimed at curbing the flow of tax dollars to substandard housing and creating more transparency about who owns rental property.
Some of that change may have happened in due course, officials said. But it also stemmed from the grassroots organizing of downtown residents, who began pressing for improvements more than 15 years ago.
The Heritage Initiative
In the summer of 2004, Nancy Gallant, now 80, learned that her apartment on Knox Street was slated for demolition. City officials had proposed a plan, called the Heritage Initiative, that would have bulldozed portions of the downtown to make way for a four-lane boulevard. It would have displaced 850 residents like her in the name of urban renewal.
Gallant, like many other residents, had not been consulted before she learned of the project and was outraged. The project suggested that city officials had little regard for her neighborhood, she thought at the time. In what’s known as the Tree Streets, the symptoms of poverty are often on display, but it has long been where she and thousands others call home. Gallant worked for years in the local mills and shoe factories that have since vanished.
That summer, Gallant became one of the many residents who organized opposition to the Heritage Project under the banner of a nonprofit called Visible Community. The city abandoned the proposed boulevard amid the outcry.
“That’s where your power is — people,” Gallant said.
Visible Community, however, did not disband. People like Gallant, as well as a core contingent of recent graduates from nearby Bates College, continued to knock on doors to make sure their voices were heard when pressing issues came before the city council. So while the Heritage Project inspired an immediate, reactive response from the community, its major effect was galvanizing residents to more proactively shape policies concerning the city’s downtown.
Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.
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