The Faces Behind Portland Downtown

How is Portland special to the people that help make the downtown tick?

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Portland Downtown is a non-profit organization that acts as an integral part of downtown daily life, as the dedicated staff work 365 days of the year to keep the downtown clean, safe, and vibrant. This organization is responsible for a number of praiseworthy events such as the Old Port Festival and Merry Madness, as well as partnering with the City and downtown businesses to keep Downtown Portland at its very best.

For my three week internship as a part of my Senior Transition Project, an internship opportunity at the end of Senior year at Cape Elizabeth High School, I had the pleasure of working closely with all four staff members. Through this time, I observed that the staff had many insights into all aspects of downtown life, and I wanted to learn more. Through both images of the downtown and the words of the staff, these interviews offer a glimpse into the multifaceted nature of the organization as well as their thoughts on the hidden treasures of dining, culture, and beauty in Portland.

Please take this as a chance to learn more about the organization that keeps Downtown Portland looking beautiful, and makes it a wonderful place to live and work through the full interviews below.

Casey Gilbert, Executive Director

Adam MacDonald, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

Amy Geren, Downtown Experience Liaison

Taffy Eaton, Office Manager

Below is also a link to the full portfolio of the Longfellow Garden photographs, courtesy of myself and Sarah Beard Buckley.

Longfellow Garden

 

 

 

Casey

Portland is…BOLD

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Casey Gilbert – Executive Director

“I think that people here are unafraid to be who they are; I think Portland is unafraid to be who it is. People in Portland are so different and unique and vibrant. You just walk down the streets and you can see that people are living true to who they are.”

Personal Insights

How long have you been in Portland and how has it changed since you’ve been here?

I’m a newbie to Portland, so within the two years that I’ve been here, I’d say it hasn’t changed a whole lot. The one thing that I can tell is changing is that more and more businesses — whether it be retail businesses, restaurants, or even large businesses like WEX, which is now a billion dollar business — want to be downtown. This trend comes as no surprise since Portland is such an amazing place to live, work, and play!

What is your favorite Portland trend?

Portland to me is one of the most authentic and friendly places that I’ve been. People want to help and people are genuinely interested in you. I always tell this story about before I moved to Portland: I came up to visit to job hunt and house hunt and I went to a little restaurant in the West End called Hot Suppa. I ordered the grilled cheese and tomato soup, which is probably the best grilled cheese and tomato soup that I’ve ever had, and it comes with a side of pickles. It happened to be bread and butter pickles, which I don’t particularly care for. The server came over and asked me how my meal was, and I said, “I don’t like the pickles,” or “Are these bread and butter?” She could have just left it at that, but she said, “What kind of pickles do you like?” And I said “Dill pickles,” and she said, “Well our chef pickles all types of pickles, so let me go in the back and see if he has any of his dill pickles.” And she brought me out dill pickles. It’s a small, simple gesture, but it really captures the essence of how people are in Portland. People are helpful and friendly, and want to make other people feel happy.

What makes Portland special to you?

There’s something about this balance between having it feel very urban — and having all the benefits of big city life — but also feeling small and manageable enough that it feels like a small town community. I can walk down the street and recognize people, I don’t feel like I’m getting lost in the mix; yet we’ve got James Beard Award winning restaurants, and we’ve got beautiful historic buildings, and modern buildings, and walkability, and a great art museum. So all the things that people love and think about in an urban core, we’ve got it — but it still has that small town essence that I love, the community vibe.

Portland Downtown

How would you describe your job at Portland Downtown?

My job at Portland Downtown is multifaceted. On the one hand, I’m a problem solver. On the second hand, I’m a convener. And I would say maybe on the third hand, I’m the strategic thinker/visionary. I’ve got to keep everybody moving forward, working on our strategic plan. I help bring everybody together: the committees, the board, the staff —  and keep everybody moving towards that vision. And then along the way, that’s not always going to be the most smooth process so problems will arise and challenges will arise and so it’s my duty, and my job, and my pleasure, to take the challenges, solve those problems, and make those challenges seem as insignificant as possible, and whenever possible, turn those challenges into opportunities.

Can you please describe a notable program that Portland Downtown is involved with?

Something that I think is really unique is Pandora’s Winter Lights. So, as you know in New England, in Maine, the winters are very dark and very cold. Pandora’s Winter Lights were seen as a way to brighten up the dark months during daylight savings time. Pandora LaCasse is a local artist and it all started out with just asking her if she could do a couple of light sculptures. It has blossomed into these beautiful light sculptures hanging from the street poles up and down Congress Street as well as Longfellow Park, Congress Square Park, Tommy’s Park, and Boothby Square. I think people actually come to Portland to see the Winter Lights, and it really brings happiness and joy to people. It’s a program that we are happy to fund.

What is something you think most people in the area don’t know about Portland Downtown?

I think there’s a lot that people don’t know about what Portland Downtown does behind the scenes. I think coming on board as Executive Director, I’ve really made it my mission —  and the staff has made it our mission — to let people know what we’re doing 365 days of the year to keep downtown clean, safe, and vibrant. A lot of people first know us through some of our largescale events like Merry Madness or Old Port Festival, and they don’t know that we’re the ones out there operating the street vacuums making sure that downtown is free of cigarette litter. They don’t know that we’re the ones that actually do snow removal in the winter. Maybe they think magical snow removal fairies do it but it’s actually Portland Downtown. So it’s really our jobs to better educate the public and create awareness of what we do behind the scenes. When people do find out about all the wonderful things that we do, they’re very surprised and thankful.

People and Places

What is the most beautiful spot in Portland to you?

We have so many, but inside the district, there’s a couple of really sweet secret gardens. Behind the Longfellow House is the Longfellow Garden, and then right next to the First Parish Church is a beautiful garden that is open to the public during the day as long as the gates are open. Outside of our little downtown (but still on the peninsula) is the absolutely gorgeous Eastern Prom. It has sweeping views of the bay and the islands and so much green space and tons of places to picnic. And there’s even a swing set, so you can be on the swings while you’re looking at the ocean.

What is your favorite dining place in Portland that everyone should know about?

So many. I can’t just name one. Union Restaurant in the Press Hotel has just the most outstanding service, the most outstanding food, the most beautiful design. And a fun fact about Union is that if you sit at their bar on Fourth of July, you can actually see the fireworks that are happening on the Eastern Prom up on Munjoy Hill. My favorite bite in Portland is the pork bun at Pai Men Miyake. It is absolutely delicious; you have to have a food moment. Then I would say one of my favorite places in the summer to sit outside on a deck and have an adult beverage is the Novare Res Bier Cafe, which is another one of those great hidden spots!

Where’s a place one should go for a taste of culture?

So many options. That’s one thing I love about Portland: there are so many opportunities to get engaged in the community and in other cultures and experience art and music. So I would say everything from the Portland Museum of Art to Mayo Street Arts to the Merrill. On any given day, you can find performances that showcase world music and beautiful talent from around the country. And what I would also say is if somebody had time to volunteer, we have amazing nonprofit organizations such as ILAP, The Telling Room, and The Boys and Girls Club. All of these organizations serve some of our more vulnerable populations — including the immigrant community. Volunteering is one way to immediately expose yourself to other cultures in a very different way than just seeing a performance of world music. Get in there, have a conversation, help a kid learn to read, help a family understand banking, help them navigate downtown and the complexities of finding their way on the Metro bus. Whatever it is, that’s one way to get really deeply engaged in culture aside from just watching a performance. But luckily here in Portland, you can do both.

 

 

Adam

Portland is…HOME

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Adam MacDonald – Marketing & Communications Coordinator

“I think people have tremendous pride in where they live and I’m certainly one of those as a resident of Portland. As they say: home sweet home.”

Personal Insights

How long have you been in Portland and how has it changed since you’ve been here?

I’ve been in Portland for about ten years now, and I would say that in that time I’ve seen the city continue to grow and evolve in exciting ways. Today, as many now know, we have such amazing restaurants that have won national accolades and even global attention. We’re seeing more and more visitors each year, as well as people who want to be residents year-round.

What makes Portland special to you?

I love Portland because it blends urban sophistication with a small town feel. You’ve kind of got the best of both worlds because anything that you want or need is really here in town, but you’ve also got a relaxed, beautiful environment that includes stunning waterfront vistas, parks, and lots of beautiful spaces to simply chill.

Thoughts on Portland Downtown

How would you describe your job at Portland Downtown?

I would describe my job as super fun, creative, and very busy. It’s my job to promote all of the cool things that we do as an organization to help make downtown flourish. I get to tell the world about a place that I really love, so it doesn’t get much better than that!

Can you please describe a notable program that Portland Downtown is involved with?

Some people might not know that we’re responsible for the street banners that you see along Congress Street and Free Street. I had the pleasure of designing those for Portland Downtown about a year ago. The banners are bold and colorful and they celebrate the people and places that make Portland an awesome place to be. I hope residents and visitors enjoy them!

What is something you think most people in the area don’t know about Portland Downtown?

I think a lot of people know about Portland Downtown through our major community events, but they’re not yet too familiar with what we do behind the scenes 365 days a year to make downtown a great place to be. We are working hard to get people to understand that we’re responsible for making downtown a clean and safe place, and that we partner with the City of Portland in some exciting ways in order to bring enhanced services to the downtown area. If you check out the “Programs” tab on our website, you can get a nice snapshot of what we do beyond our big events.

Places and People

What is the most beautiful spot in Portland to you?

I love Longfellow Square because I think it’s one of our most idyllic downtown parks. It’s a small park, but always very beautiful no matter what the season. It’s always fun to see the Longfellow statue during the holidays when he’s wearing a festive scarf and holding a gift box with a big red bow. And then — in the spring — the statue is surrounded by beautiful tulips. No matter how many times I walk by it, I want to take pictures!

What is your favorite dining place in Portland that everyone should know about?

Right now I’m really enjoying Scales, which is down on the Waterfront on Commercial Street. Scales is a beautiful space with awesome seating and cool views of some of our bustling wharves. The food is spectacular and delicious. The bar is large and pretty spectacular, too, so it’s a great place to meet friends to enjoy drinks, apps, or dinner.

Where is a place one should go for a taste of culture?

I think a great place to absorb culture is Space Gallery on Congress Street. They show some pretty amazing films from all around the world, and I’ve definitely seen some eye-opening films that really make you think and expose you to a different culture, a different language, and challenging ideas.

 

Amy

Portland is…GROWING

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Amy Geren – Downtown Experience Liaison

“That’s really what we feel. People are loving to be here, people are loving to move here, visit here. It seems smaller, safer, and more friendly than a lot of larger cities.”

Personal Insights

How long have you been in Portland and how has it changed since you’ve been here?

I’ve been around Portland for a long time. I worked in Portland from 2007 to 2014 and then I worked in Augusta just briefly and now I’ve been back in Portland for about a year. It’s changed a lot. I remember being a very young child and seeing things really change in Portland and it to be a little bit more of a shopping destination, so it was a different feel than what it is now. What I love about Portland and what was unique then, and is still unique, is there’s a lot of different things going on, and a lot of different people.

What makes Portland special to you?

The size of it. It’s small, I know so many people, and it’s really easy to do that. I’m not calling a municipality and not knowing who I’m going to talk to on the other end. I can call Public Works and if I’m looking for someone in particular and they’re not there, I can ask their wife for their cell phone number. I spend time with some of these people, a lot of these people outside of work as well. Relationship building is really easy here.

Thoughts on Portland Downtown

How would you describe your job at Portland Downtown?

It involves a lot of reaching out to the community, a lot of introducing myself, and meeting and greeting. A lot of times when I describe what I do to folks that are outside of our organization, I’ll say that I manage and develop programming in support of our clean and safe initiatives.

Can you please describe a notable program that Portland Downtown is involved with?

One of our longtime programs is our Cadet Program. When I started with this organization last year, I found out about some awards through the International Downtown Association and I felt like the Cadet Program was a good fit in the Downtown Management and Leadership category. The Cadet Program is co-managed by Portland Downtown and the Police Department. It’s really become a community policing model that’s helping to groom future police officers on the one hand; but also providing that extra presence of safety downtown. It was featured in the newsletter for the International Downtown Association this month and it’s gotten some good response. Then, new programming that I’m trying to get off the ground now is doing some planning work around what we need for outreach to individuals who are asking for help publicly, or seem like they’re in need downtown. We have a little bit of funding that we give to social service organizations that support either homeless services or substance abuse disorders, but we want to be able to do more.

What is something you think most people in the area don’t know about Portland Downtown?

I think that one thing that they don’t know, and this means that we’re doing our job well, is that we do as much cleaning and providing for security that way. Many people think of us as an events organization. Everyone knows about the Old Port Festival and Downtown Worker Appreciation Day, but people are surprised when you talk about some of the things that we do in terms of cleaning and what we clean up, and the care around sidewalk repairs, things like that. It’s the things that people don’t even think of — emptying trash cans and switching trash cans over to recycling and trash cans.

People and Places

What is the most beautiful spot in Portland to you?

I think the most beautiful spot for me would be Fort Gorges because I like to paddle out there and it’s kind of a way of getting away from it all. You can be out there and there’s not much going on. I’d say the most beautiful spot downtown would be the garden behind the Longfellow House Museum. People just aren’t aware that it’s there and it’s really beautiful and quiet. It’s my meeting place outside of the city and it doesn’t matter who I meet with, it can be someone who has an office two blocks from here, but we walk back there and they’re like, “Wow I didn’t know this was here.” If I take someone back there who’s from another city, you kind of expect they might not know it’s there, but even people who are working right here in the city don’t know it’s there. So it’s a nice little gem.

What is your favorite dining place in Portland that everyone should know about?

I like Local 188 for an evening dinner. They do local food, they do seafood, and they do an amazing job. For lunch, I love Local Sprouts.

Where should one go if they’re looking for a taste of culture?

We have a lot of music venues, but there’s a lot of smaller organizations that I would say would be great to get involved with. Space Gallery does some film festival type activity, and some of these venues are pretty small so they tend to morph around and use different facilities. So I would say get involved with some of the arts organizations that do a lot of different things.

Taffy

Portland is…WELCOMING

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Taffy Eaton – Office Manager

“That’s how I felt when I first came here. I remember driving up and we parked and just walked around for the day and everybody said ‘hi’ to us, and when we moved here everybody said ‘hi’ to us, and people were open. People actually look at you and talk to you and smile. I think that has persevered through the decades that I’ve been here and that’s been nice. I’ve always felt that way.”

Personal Insights

How long have you been in Portland and how has it changed since you’ve been here?

I’ve lived here since 1980, and it’s changed a lot since I lived in the West End and I would walk to work down by where City Center is now. It was a very different, much quieter city then. So many of the ground floor presences have changed. Porteous Mitchell and Brawn used to be the major department store here and of course that’s been gone a long time. Many of the retail and restaurant locations have all changed over the years. I’ve seen a lot of very positive change and I think it’s a very exciting place to be.

What makes Portland special to you?

Its size and its walkability. As I said when I first moved here, I lived in the West End, and I walked to work. To be able to walk out your door and get downtown in 15-20 minutes is wonderful. Our brick sidewalks are in good condition which makes downtown accessible to a lot of people; much more pedestrian friendly.

Thoughts on Portland Downtown

How would you describe your job at Portland Downtown?

I would describe my job as one that is somewhat behind the scenes and support for a lot of what goes on at Portland Downtown. I attend and take minutes for all of our committee meetings, I support events, and I handle our billing and HR work. As our Office Manager, I do a little bit of everything.

Can you please describe a notable program that Portland Downtown is involved with?

I would say the Cadet Program really shines in my mind’s eye as an integral part of keeping downtown wonderful. I think that the Cadet Program has grown since Casey has been here as Executive Director and it’s a very successful program on every count.

What is something you think most people in the area don’t know about Portland Downtown?

That we exist, just all in all. Over the past couple of years, Casey and Adam have done an incredible job of getting the word out, but many people still ask, “What is Portland Downtown?” It’s exciting working with this group to get the word out so that more people understand that we’re a really integral part of the downtown.

Places and People

What is the most beautiful spot in Portland to you?

I think one of my favorites is Fort Allen Park over on the Eastern Prom. I love going over there, even just to drive through, park, and watch the Sail Maine kids for a while.

What is your favorite dining place in Portland that everyone should know about?

I enjoy Shay’s Pub in Monument Square, Rosie’s on Fore Street, and Nosh on Congress. I also I love Walter’s — there are certain things on their menu that just can’t be beat and I know that’s the same for so many restaurants in town.

 

Where should one go if they’re looking for a taste of culture?

The Portland Museum of Art. It’s such a fabulous place to go. I myself who has lived here for so long, it’s kind of the thing that you do when you have company come visit. It’s such a nice place to call ours. Portland has a lot going for it, but to have a fabulous art museum on top of it adds to it.