Emma Holder doesn’t want to read another article trashing her beloved Parkside.
Sure, the neighborhood has its problems, she said, such as lingering issues with drugs and prostitution. But it’s also one of the most affordable, dynamic and culturally diverse sections of Portland.
Parkside is a neighborhood in transition. While it has a relatively high crime rate and is home to one of the city’s most transient populations, residents say the neighborhood has gotten quieter, cleaner and safer in recent years.
Holder, president of the Parkside Neighborhood Association, said her biggest worry is that the rising cost of renting in the apartment-dominated community will force out the people who give Parkside its unique character, such as recent immigrants.
“I think it will be a lot less diverse,” she said, standing in historic Deering Oaks park, the jewel of the neighborhood. “The cost of living is going to get so high.”
From 2000 to 2013, the median monthly rent for an apartment in Parkside increased by 58 percent, from $788 to $1,242, according to U.S. Census data. Tenants in the neighborhood say their landlords have consistently raised rents since then. Housing is generally more expensive than in East and West Bayside but cheaper than in most other areas of Portland.
Parkside has struggled to shed its ghetto image even as a growing number of its run-down apartment buildings, remnants of the notorious Wedgewood Empire, have given way to renovated condominiums populated with highly paid urban professionals.
Longtime residents say today’s Parkside is as clean and safe as it has been at any time in the community’s 150-year history. Still, it remains a prime meeting spot for some of the city’s most troubled residents – drunks, drug addicts, panhandlers, prostitutes and pimps. Assaults, residential burglaries and automobile break-ins are more frequent than in most other Portland neighborhoods.
Parkside extends north from Bracket, Congress and Spring streets to Deering Oaks, and is bounded by High Street to the east and Deering Avenue to the west. It was created in the aftermath of the 1866 Great Fire of Portland, which swept across the peninsula from Commercial Street to Munjoy Hill. In the early days, it was home to many Irish and Italian immigrant families.
Since then, Parkside has experienced many ups and downs. Its most recent nadir occurred in the early 1990s, when a real estate bubble driven by speculators finally burst, leaving the area feeling less like a community and more like a failed get-rich-quick scheme. Living conditions deteriorated, and crime flourished. Parkside became an open market for drugs and sex.
But things have improved considerably since then. The streets are cleaner and better lit. Portland police maintain a strong presence after dark, and residents say they feel safer walking outside at night. Many of the three-story apartment buildings that dominate the neighborhood have been repaired.
“I don't know that I ever felt unsafe, but it just seems different.”
Newcomers Taylor Thibault and Jeff Zak say they’ve had a few incidents – for example, Thibault’s car was broken into recently – but overall the couple said they like living in Parkside because it is centrally located and affordable, at least by peninsula standards.
“I do think that the pros outweigh the cons, for sure,” Zak said.
The neighborhood also has improved its community outreach through organizations such as the Parkside Neighborhood Center on Grant Street, which provides a number of services for immigrants in the area, many of whom are refugees with varying levels of English proficiency.
One of the center’s primary goals is to help recent transplants to Parkside obtain jobs, said Claudette Ndayininahaze, a neighborhood access specialist who moved to Maine from the African nation of Burundi in 2011. It holds classes on topics such as the English language and how to put together a resume, she said.
Ndayininahaze said people in the neighborhood have been welcoming, but the tremendous cultural diversity – even among the immigrant community itself – poses challenges.
“The integration process is difficult,” she said, adding that the solution is for more people to simply talk to and get to know their neighbors.
Parkside homeowners Vincent and Susan Veligor said the neighborhood has come a long way since 2008, when Susan made the newspapers for shouting down a whistling prostitute and her angry pimp. Their street is now quieter and cleaner, and it feels safer, they said.
“I don’t know that I ever really felt unsafe, but it just seems different,” Susan Veligor said.
Although the area is still sprinkled with for-profit halfway houses and apartment buildings run by absentee landlords, the Veligors said a growing number of buildings are owner-occupied, which has helped increase the sense of community.
“I’ve gotten to know all my neighbors,” Vincent Veligor said.
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We asked Portlanders to describe their neighborhoods, and these are the words they used.
My neighborhood is a sketchy place that's probably best known for drugs. The people who live here are smelly. Our favorite neighborhood business is Bintliff's and when we have spare time we like to visit The Op for fun. Our neighborhood's best-kept secret is probably Me.
My neighborhood is an extremely urban place that's probably best known for gritty and diverse. The people who live here are community-oriented. Our favorite neighborhood business is Joe's Super Variety and when we have spare time we like to visit the Deering Oaks Park for fun. Our neighborhood's best-kept secret is probably the Deering Oaks Ravine.
My neighborhood is an accessible place that's probably best known for the Deering Oaks Park. The people who live here are young. Our favorite neighborhood business is the Holy Donut and when we have spare time we like to visit the Farmer's Market in Deering Oaks Park for fun. Our neighborhood's best-kept secret is probably parking spots.
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A video camera mounted on an FAA approved, remote-controlled drone provides an unusual view of Portland’s rental neighborhoods.
View Drone Footage of Parkside
© 2015 MaineToday Media | Originally published Dec. 29, 2015