Monday, January 26, 2009

Another journalistic hatchet job on Lewiston, Maine

Most of us, regardless of where we come from, derive a sense of pride, and identity, from that place of origin. That same sense of pride can also exist for many who’ve adopted a new place to hang their hat, also.

I grew up in Lisbon Falls. For better, or worse, it’s the formative place that’s shaped who I am. Some of us run from our place of beginnings. Others, me included, have come to that place where we’ve made peace with whatever shortcomings we once associated with our birthplace, and have embraced that place where our roots go down the deepest. Folks in the big cities chide us local bumpkins for that sense of place; they call it provincial, or parochial, as in narrow.

I haven’t spent my entire life in Maine. There was a time when a calling and a need to get out beyond our borders drew me away. It’s been happening to Mainers forever. When I left in 1982, to go to the Midwest, I still gazed back fondly on the Pine Tree State. Over time, I missed the ocean, the special warm fall days that are unique to Maine, lobster, and most of all, I missed the people that make Maine special, in my opinion. There are good people everywhere, but the qualities that make one a Mainer (some of the same qualities that you’ll also find in other predominantly rural places) were missing in the greater-Chicago area where I had been transplanted. Population density will do that to you. I was happy to return to my home state in 1987, where I’ve been ever since.

One of the things that has never set well with me are people, writers in particular that come to Maine, use their associations with Maine to curry favor with the locals, and then savage them in an article, or produce an NPR profile that pisses on them. What also strikes me as disingenuous, particular a writer with some chops, is writing an article that knowingly misrepresents an area, or a community, only to score ideological points, or garner kudos from urban editors, who never bat an eye about perpetuating the same old stereotypes about rural America.

I don’t know Jesse Ellison (or Jesse Andrews Ellison), the Newsweek writer (represented as a “Brunswick freelance writer” by our local newspaper) that wrote the article, “The Refugees Who Saved Lewiston.” From what I can gather at this point, she once lived in Maine, and if she happened to grow up, or live in Brunswick for a time, it’s not surprising that she knows as little about Lewiston as her bylined article reveals.

Ellison’s article isn’t sitting well with some community leaders in Lewiston, like Chamber of Commerce president, Chip Morrison, and Paul Badeau, marketing director for the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, at least according to the local Sun-Journal, Lewiston’s daily newspaper. As of this posting, the comments have been removed, as I can only imagine the kind of vitriolic, and inflammatory stuff being posted, I’m sure most of it done anonymously.

Lewiston is one of those communities that can appear insular from the outside. The former mill town has indeed had its struggles over the past 30 years, with the departure of manufacturing jobs, mainly shoes and textiles, disappearing. That’s just part of the story, however.

In a rural state like Maine, Portland is the closest thing we have to an urban community. Portland and Lewiston couldn’t be any more different than if they were located in separate states. Folks in Portland (and most from away) tend to look down their noses at Lewiston, and rarely venture out beyond their own provincial 10-15 mile radius for their entertainment, shopping, or culture. If they have contact with the community, it’s usually driving through, on their way to Sugarloaf, or via the turnpike.

For those that don’t live in Lewiston (or Auburn, across the river), the area tends to draw outside visitors in from smaller communities to its west, as well as traffic venturing down from the north, in Augusta. If Portland is urban, and sophisticated, Lewiston is gritty, and working class. Ten years ago, if Lewiston was a beer, it would be a Pabst Blue Ribbon, versus Portland, which would be one of the numerous fashionable (and pricey) microbrews that you’d find on tap at one of its many over-hyped dining establishments.

The beer comparison doesn’t work quite as well now, as Lewiston has young (and older) professionals that like microbrews—heck, Auburn even has a Gritty’s—and some of them even know the difference between a Cabernet, and Pinot Noir. Yes, the dual communities of Lewiston and Auburn, intertwined now more than ever before, have gone through their own metamorphoses the past five, or six years. None more so than Lewiston, as Auburn always was higher end on the income scale, where the bosses of industry once lived up Goff Hill, and could see the factories of Lewiston below, with its workers living beneath the shadow of the smokestacks.

Before the economy hit the skids, the communities of L/A had been “happening,” as the LAEGC’s marketing moniker testifies. The community was experiencing the kind of positive economic growth that tends to be lacking in Maine, outside of Portland, and a few other southern Maine communities.

If you’ve taken the time to visit Lewiston, the southern gateway has been developed, eliminating many of the previous eyesores. The Bates Mill complex, at one time a “white elephant” property, has seen revitalization with TD Banknorth, Museum L-A, and other businesses reclaiming the former manufacturing space. Speaking of manufacturing, local firms that are involved in the manufacturing process are thriving. Companies like WahlcoMetroflex, Inc. are growing, and adding to its well-paid workforce. Other small, niche businesses have been able to add as much skilled labor as they could find. The city now has several high-end eateries, including Fuel, Fishbones, and DaVinci’s. Museums, the Community Theater, and Bates College, all offer regular events and reasons for Lewiston to be considered an entertainment destination. Andover College and Oxford Networks have helped revitalize the section of town that the freelancer referred to as the former “combat zone.”

If you read Ms. Ellison’s article, however, you would know none of that. The arrival of Somalis in Lewiston began before the 2001 date the writer arbitrarily assigned. The influx of refugees into the community began several years before that, and it was more than one family that started the migration. Per capita income has gone up, but to use the term “soared” reveals her ignorance about the state’s ongoing economic struggles. While a few in Maine have soaring incomes, most of us struggle to stay afloat in the middle class.

There are so many other things wrong with Ellison’s article that I could easily spend several thousand words countering her inadequate 903. That an editor, at a national magazine would allot the same amount space allocated to local parking issues, and city code violations, for a complex, and multi-faceted issue like immigration, given the community’s prior history, speaks volumes about the kind of “yellow” journalism that Newsweek’s now practicing.

What was her motive in interviewing both Morrison and Badeau, and then discounting the context that I’m sure they offered? While I don’t doubt that there are benefits to Maine’s growing diversity in the long-term, the challenges of integrating large populations of refugees into a 21st century economy, lacking in an abundance of jobs that most newly arrived Somalis and other non-English speaking jobseekers could fill has presented problems. A more honest journalist might have spoken to Phil Nadeau at City Hall, to get a better handle on why 50 percent of this population is unemployed. With all due respect to Richard Florida and others that think all it takes to grow your economy is to import non-English speaking refugees, and presto! You’ve got a diverse economy. There’s much more to it than that.

What Ms. Ellison has accomplished, beyond showing her lack of skills in digging below the surface as a journalist, is to again kick a hornet’s nest and run, leaving those of us who are committed to the community’s future, dealing with the potential aftermath of her piece. If Ms. Ellison had done any homework, she’d know some of the history of the community, and recognize that strong feelings still run deep in this area, as evidenced by the comments in the local newspaper, and other online forums. Her article has done nothing more, in my opinion, than to fan the flames of anti-Somali, and anti-immigrant sentiment, and give certain elements in our area (and beyond) cover to run with it.

Given the difficult economic climate facing Mainers, and the mounting job losses, having some sense of history should tell her that rather than benefiting the Somalis that she writes about, articles like hers have the potential to set back some of the positive gains that the community has been part of in integrating a new population into the community. There are still many miles to go, but misrepresenting our community, and running back to New York, or wherever Ms. Ellison calls home, shows that if she was in fact a Mainer at one time, she cares little about the state she’s left behind.

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