Change comes slowly to Portland’s West End.
Travel down almost any narrow street in Portland’s East End and you’ll find construction—from renovation of run- down single-family homes to sleek new buildings with high-end condominiums. On the other side of the peninsula, however, the thwack of nail guns and rumble of construction vehicles are less familiar sounds. With a few exceptions, the leafy residential streets of the West End, edged by distinctive brick sidewalks and lined with stately Queen Anne, Federal, and Italianate single- and multi-family homes, look much the same as they did a century ago.
Change has come slowly in this historic, architecturally distinguished part of the city, defined by the West End Neighborhood Association (WENA) as the section between High and Emery Streets down to Commercial Street, with a narrow swath extending between Brackett and Congress Streets to the hilltop campus of Maine Medical Center. But new development is gradually creeping in. When West End Place was completed in the spring of 2015, the corner of Brackett and Pine Streets was altered dramatically—a contemporary four-story building with 39 luxury apartments and the neighborhood’s first Rosemont Market on the ground floor now stands where there was once a parking lot. A couple of blocks away, the same developer, Jonathan Culley of Redfern Properties, is closing in on finishing a seven-story building, 667 Congress, which will have 139 rental units and be the largest apartment complex built in Portland in 30 years.
“Replacing a surface parking lot is always an improvement,” says Ian Jacob, a WENA board member and the group’s spokesperson. A designer by profession, he is deeply interested in architecture and urban planning. On a snowy morning, I meet Jacob at Omi’s Coffee Shop for a walk around the neighborhood. He points out that the snug corner overlooking the Casco Bay Bridge is one of the “centers” that characterize the West End. While it remains a neighborhood hub, this corner isn’t quite the one it used to be. Polly Peters Antiques once occupied the Omi’s space (the shop’s owners lived upstairs); across the street, Outliers Eatery has replaced a raucous neighborhood bar called Popeye’s Ice House. “The West End has traditionally had these little established centers with corner markets and other businesses,” says Jacob, adding that for residents, the appeal goes beyond convenience. “When you have proprietors who work in their store and know the neighborhood, they become the eyes and ears.”
That sense of community is what Andrew and Briana Volk are hoping to foster at Little Giant, the market they opened in December with partners (and West End residents) Ian and Kate Malin near the corner of Clark and Danforth Streets. This “center,” which includes the popular and venerable Ruski’s bar, has a long commercial history. Vespucci’s Variety served the neighborhood for years, and a busy barbershop occupied the Little Giant space before the single-story building that includes both storefronts was purchased by an investor in 2013. The barbershop became Clark Street
Market and Deli (it closed in 2015), but plans to turn the old Vespucci’s space on the corner into a restaurant never materialized. The Volks, who also own Portland Hunt and Alpine Club on Market Street, will fulfill the plan when their new restaurant, also named Little Giant, opens later this spring.
“The goal with the market in particular is to create a place that the neighborhood needs,” says Andrew Volk. “Vespucci’s was always that for people, and we want to continue to be that.” This means the refrigerated cases on the back wall of the bright, open shop hold milk and eggs in addition to local beer, and boxes of Annie’s macaroni and cheese share shelf space with pasta imported from Italy. While the market and restaurant occupy separate spaces, the vision for the two is connected. “We’ve got a wine selection that’s going to start reflecting what we will be serving in the restaurant, and we’re making sandwiches in the style of what we’re doing next door,” Volk says. The 40-seat restaurant will be somewhere “you can feel comfortable taking a first date, your grandparents, and your kids,” he explains. “Some of our favorite food experiences have happened when we’ve been in an unfamiliar place and we go to the well-known restaurant where we were told to go, but the bartender says, ‘There’s this great neighborhood place.’ That’s what we’re trying to create.”
When Rosemont Market opened at West End Place, neighbors were thrilled that they could shop at the beloved local grocery without having to get in the car. For Marika Kuzma Green, owner of another favorite food business—Aurora Provisions—just a half block away, the move by Rosemont’s owners was somewhat of a surprise. “But we worked it out,” she says. “We didn’t want to be grocers. We had to rely on keeping up the standard, getting good talent, and we had to have faith in what has worked for us,” namely coffee, baked goods, sandwiches, cheeses, chocolates, and other specialty products, catering, and a reputation as a neighborhood meeting place. “We’ve had our best year ever,” she says. “And it seems like we’re seeing new faces, so maybe this area is becoming more known. It might be someone from Falmouth who’s reading about Portland and says, ‘Let’s take a walk through the West End this weekend.’”
While Aurora’s staff prepares for the lunch rush, Kuzma Green chats with me at the round communal table that came with the place when she bought the cafe and market from its original owners 15 years ago. “It always felt to me like the West End had these invisible gates, that it was somewhat insular,” she says. “And now it’s different; the change has been slow but absolutely steady. It’s nice to see young people coming in and starting businesses.”
Next door to Aurora, Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti are putting their stamp on another neighborhood institution. The couple, also owners of Piccolo downtown, bought Caiola’s from longtime owners Lisa Vaccaro and Abby Harmon last July. To ease the transition for
the restaurant’s many regulars, Lopez and Sansonetti kept things much the same for several months. A renovation is planned for March, and when the restaurant reopens, it will have a new menu and a new (yet unrevealed) name. “It will be a Maine brasserie with French and Spanish influences, to draw on our training and experiences,” says Lopez. “We’ll have everything from small to large plates. It will be a place to feel comfortable—no pretention.”
Sansonetti explains that the project includes expanding the kitchen, increasing the number of seats at the bar, adding a communal high- top table near the bar, and installing a long banquette to allow more seating flexibility. “We are a neighborhood restaurant and we want to appeal to the neighbors,” he says. “We want you to be able to pop in.” The couple also hopes the restaurant will draw industry people, many of whom live in the West End. “When we first got here we would sit in the front windows and watch the bartenders and servers walk by going to and from work,” Lopez says.
Walkability is a large part of the West End’s draw, says Jacob, who has lived on and off in other parts of Portland, but chose the West End when he and his partner moved back to Maine four years ago from Berlin, Germany. “It’s different from other neighborhoods,” he says. “It’s always had that nice mix of the grandeur of Portland, plus middle- and working-class families. And services that one needs within walking distance.”
The same qualities drew Georgia and John Bancroft to move from the home on outer Washington Avenue where they had raised their two children to one of the West End’s stately brick duplexes in 2007. Now they both walk to work: Georgia to her job as an administrative assistant for Criterium Engineers in Monument Square, and John to Maine Medical Center, where he is the chief of pediatrics. “I think John and I really had a good feeling about the location,” Georgia says. “We sold one car. We love being able to walk to restaurants—we recently discovered Bramhall Pub—and to our jobs. I feel privileged to be able to live here.” The next significant change to the West End will come when Mercy Hospital closes its Spring Street location and moves its entire operation to the newer Fore River Parkway campus—a plan that has been in the works for some time. WENA does not take positions on issues, but a large part of its mission is to provide the neighborhood with information about this kind of development, says Jacob. “I think people would be very upset if it was sort of a one-developer deal and they were told ‘this is what’s going to get built.’” He sees plenty of possibilities for the property, which, in addition to the hospital building, includes several parking lots. “You could put housing in there, and even more retail and office space—a whole live-work environment,” he tells me, as we shake off the snow from our walk and join the lunch crowd at Aurora. It sounds promising, but will be a major adjustment for the neighborhood. It also sounds like a conversation for another walk, on another day.