'The Hill' has many newcomers, but sense of community endures.
Once a low-income domain viewed as a place to avoid, Munjoy Hill has turned into an in-demand – and costly – place to live.

Munjoy Hill is like the lobster of Portland neighborhoods, explains Anne Rand, a 69-year-old lifelong resident of Portland’s easternmost neighborhood.

Like the crustaceans crawling around the floor of nearby Casco Bay, “the Hill” was once consigned to the poor who couldn’t afford anything better, and is now considered precious. Yet, in Rand’s view, little has changed besides the perception.

“I was always very proud to be from the Hill,” said Rand, who once represented the community in the state Legislature.

That change in perception over the past decade or two is now driving other shifts in one of Portland’s most historic and storied neighborhoods, where million-dollar condos are rising among the aging two- and three-story houses squeezed together along narrow side streets.

Bound to the west by Washington Avenue and Mountfort Street and on all other sides by Casco Bay, the coastal hill overlooking downtown Portland had built up as an enclave for immigrant workers and their families but in recent years has become the city’s most sought-after place to live. The increase in popularity has brought a fast and dramatic rise in rental costs and property values, leaving little breathing room in the packed-in neighborhood for the average Portland resident.

The gentrification of Munjoy Hill is evident in high-end produce markets and trendy restaurants that have replaced the corner stores of Rand’s childhood. It’s also evident in U.S. Census data showing some of Portland’s biggest increases in rental and sales prices, as well as demographic shifts. The Hill now has the city’s highest percentage of college graduates, with about two-thirds of the residents holding bachelor’s degrees compared with less than half of Portland’s population as a whole. In 1980, 13 percent to 17 percent of its residents held a bachelor’s degree compared with 19 percent citywide.

And once the home of the highest concentration of black residents in the city, it is now the least diverse neighborhood on the peninsula.

Munjoy Hill
A woman crosses Congress Street at the top of Munjoy Hill Friday, December 11, 2015. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Transitions Over the Decades

When Rand was a kid there, everyone on the Hill was either poor or lower middle-class, mostly from Italian, Irish or Jewish families, although they made no distinction between them.

There were so many kids that no one needed to go far beyond their block to find friends to go ride bikes, walk on fences, jump in the ocean and play hide-and-seek until the 9 p.m. whistle blew from behind the fire barn. Later, she met her future husband in front of the store on the corner of her street.

But her children didn’t have the same experience.

At some point, owning a house with a lawn became the American Dream, and Rand watched as her neighbors moved off the peninsula. Large apartments where whole families once lived were broken up into smaller units, drawing a different demographic. Schools closed and the constant sound of children playing in the streets subsided.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Hill had a reputation among outsiders as a place to avoid. Rand remembers buying the house she lives in now and telling someone at work, who cringed when she heard where it was. People were shocked that she walked there by herself at night. She didn’t understand.

“I thought I lived in heaven, and I did, and I never wanted to leave it, and I haven’t,”

“I thought I lived in heaven, and I did, and I never wanted to leave it, and I haven’t,” she said.

The past decade has been different. Now, when people hear where she lives, they gush about how much her house must be worth. She’s also noticed the kids have started to come back.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” she said. “They’re out playing. They’re giggling and laughing.”

The turnaround in perception clearly caught the attention of developers and speculators. Recent construction includes knocked-down houses replaced with fancy new ones, luxury town homes with roof decks overlooking the city, and condominiums going for $750,000 and up.

Gentrification Can Be a Good Thing

Duncan Elder watched one high-priced condo project rising outside his bedroom window where there had been an empty parking lot when he moved in last year.

The 29-year-old chef was living in the finished attic of an apartment he shared with two roommates in a three-unit house. He said he feels lucky to have seen a post shared by a friend on Facebook seeking someone to move into the place. He paid $700 a month for his attic space – the limit of what he can afford, but pretty much the minimum price for a bedroom on the Hill for renters who don’t have incomes low enough to qualify for one of the neighborhood’s subsidized apartments.

Munjoy Hill
Duncan Elder, 29, looks out the skylight in his Munjoy Hill apartment at 123 Congress St. last May. “I think anybody who’s living on the Hill right now is just happy to be here,” he said then. A few months later Elder learned that his housing costs were going up, so he moved off Munjoy Hill to an affordable apartment in the Parkside neighborhood. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Even $700 for one-third of an apartment is a lot compared with rents of the past. Elder lived in another apartment on Munjoy Hill about five years earlier and paid half as much. He also has noticed other changes.

“There were more Mainers. Now there’s more strangers,” said Elder, who grew up in Brunswick. Except for the fact that living there is harder to afford, the changes didn’t bother him.

“I think that it’s cool that the East End has become a desired place to live,” he said, noting that such a shift often translates into a cleaner, safer neighborhood. “Who wouldn’t want that?”

Although he patronized some of the new businesses in the area, such as Union Bagel Co. and the Portland Food Co-op, that have popped up since he last lived here, he was mostly drawn back to the neighborhood by the same things that had attracted him in the first place: the ocean breeze, the Eastern Promenade and the congenial community.


And, although different types of people populate Munjoy Hill now – immigrants from Africa and affluent newcomers from out of state now mix with native Portlanders – Rand believes there’s more about the neighborhood that’s stayed the same than changed.

“There’s a sense of community here, there still is,” she said. “We shovel each other’s driveways.”

Elder may have an explanation for why everyone’s so friendly.

“I think anybody who’s living on the Hill right now,” he said, “is just happy to be here.”

But Elder can no longer count himself among them. After learning that his housing costs were going up in September, he spent a couple months crashing on couches before finding an apartment he could afford — in Parkside.

Click and drag the slider to compare photos; Congress Street buildings originally slated for demolition under urban renewal programs – but ultimately spared. Sept. 1, 2015, photo by Derek Davis/Staff photographer; 1961 Press Herald photograph by Gardner Roberts/Staff Photographer, courtesy of Portland Portland Library Special Collections & Archives


Staff photos by Whitney Hayward

Jessica Woodbury, 28, is a Portland native who works at Maine Medical Center delivering food trays to patients. She lives alone and pays $800 a month to live on Munjoy Hill.

“I hope to stay where I am, because this is where I’m from, but my rent increasing does worry me. I don’t know my neighbors anymore, and I hate to say this, but I do see a lot of big SUVs in the neighborhood, vehicles like that, with New York plates, who aren’t very courteous to pedestrians, so I’d say things have changed since I grew up here.”

Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

Brandon Seavey, 18, is a Portland native and works as a food prep manager at the Blue Rooster restaurant. He lives with two roommates and pays $300 a month in rent.

“People who have lived in Portland their whole life, people who grew up here, are moving because of money. No one from here can afford the $3,000-a-month places that are being made here. My dad moved to Lewiston because it’s too expensive in Portland. I’ve never considered leaving, though, because Portland is my home, Portland is my world.”

Bruce Calderwood, 56, lives on disability insurance payments. He was born and raised in the home where he lives on Merrill Street. His father purchased the home for $5,000 in the early 1950s. Merrill is considering selling the house because the property taxes are getting too expensive, and the house needs repairs.

“The neighborhoods now are not as close-knit. I used to be able to name everyone in any direction, and now it’s just people moving in and out every six months or so. I started noticing that happening about 10 years ago.” If he sells the house, he won’t stay in Portland because it’s too expensive. He is considering moving to Gorham or some other more-affordable southern Maine town. The house two doors down from him was sold recently and he heard it’s being converted into condos.

Daniel Crocker, 53, used to work at Wal-Mart but stopped working there because of difficulties in public transportation schedules between Portland and Falmouth. Crocker, who is originally from Ohio, has also worked at a carnival and is seeking employment.

“You can’t live here anymore unless you’re making $100,000 a year, and that’s why people are leaving. Especially can’t live here if you’re living by yourself. You’ve got to have two roommates or something like that. They’re trying to make this whole hill condos.”

Timothy Trott, 47, is a maintenance worker who has lived in Portland his whole life. His father purchased their home in the early 1960s for $15,000. They put the home up for sale recently, and it was sold overnight to a man from Brooklyn, New York, for just over $300,000.

“The place has been through 10 kids (Trott has 9 siblings) and so it’s a little run-down, and needs a lot of work. “Out-of-staters are sucking this place dry. Everybody used to know everybody, and now it’s all yuppies or granola types. I make decent money, so I wouldn’t knock someone for being well-off, but I’ve seen so much change. I knew this neighborhood, where every family had 15 or 20 kids, and this is coming from a person who grew up in a family with 10 kids.” He said he’d like to stay in Portland and own another house.

Danny Liwanga, 49, was looking for a job when this photo was taken in July. He had worked as a technician at a TV station in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and then worked as an engineer at a cellphone company. He came from Kinshasa, the capital city, as an asylum seeker 10 months ago. He lived on Cumberland Avenue for eight months, and was living at the Family Center Shelter on Chestnut Street previously. He does not know what his monthly rent is, because he said the federal government pays for it. He likes living in the neighborhood, and said he felt lucky to have someplace to live, but he desperately wanted a job.

Christine Kiley, 48, a dog trainer, is originally from Massachusetts. She purchased a home 12 years ago for just under $200,000, and intends to stay here for the foreseeable future.

“We love this neighborhood, the old houses, the culture, and how close it is to downtown. And it’s great for my business. Where else am I going to see a dog every 30 seconds?”

Chip Newell, 69, and Susan Morris, 56, stand on their roof deck at 118 Congress St. Newell has worked in the development and real estate industry for most of his career. Morris’ background is in hospitality and hotels. Morris and Newell left Washington, D.C., for Maine, fulfilling Newell’s desire to return to the state after attending Bowdoin College. “Chip could never get Maine out of his system after Bowdoin,” Morris said. The couple first purchased a cottage in Boothbay, but missed the social aspects of living in a larger city. With Boothbay more than an hour’s drive from Portland, the couple decided to look into purchasing a condo in the city.

“We wanted something that was full of light and energy-efficient, and something that was up to modern-day building standards, and two and a half years ago when we were looking into this, there wasn’t much choice in the realm of how we would like to live. We teasingly said to each other if we found the right spot, we’d fall off the wagon and build again,” Morris said. They weighed benefits of multiple neighborhoods in Portland, including the Old Port district and the West End, but ultimately settled on Munjoy Hill after finding a building lot with good development potential and the possibility for nice views. “We are people who like diversity and an eclectic environment. Our hearts were definitely here,” Morris said.


We asked Portlanders to describe their neighborhoods, and these are the words they used.

My neighborhood is a friendly place that's probably best known for its views. The people who live here are nice. Our favorite neighborhood business is Hilltop Coffee and when we have spare time we like to visit the ocean for fun. Our neighborhood's best-kept secret is probably the path by the water. Miles
My neighborhood is a historically marginalized place that's probably best known for its recent gentrification. The people who live here are imported hipsters. Our favorite neighborhood business is Hilltop Superette and when we have spare time we like to visit the Eastern Prom for fun. Our neighborhood's best-kept secret is probably the Goat Path. Scott
My neighborhood is a magical place that's probably best known for its beauty and charm. The people who live here are friendly. Our favorite neighborhood business is Lolita and when we have spare time we like to visit the Eastern Prom for fun. Our neighborhood's best-kept secret is probably Hilltop Superette. Katie


A video camera mounted on an FAA approved, remote-controlled drone provides an unusual view of Portland’s rental neighborhoods.

View Drone Footage of Munjoy Hill